UN says no breakthrough achieved at conference on greenhouse gas reductions

Two weeks of talks of ministerial level talks to develop rules for the 1997 Kyoto Protocol on climate change ended with little compromise on the key political issues where countries continue to remain entrenched.

The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) talks in Lyon attended by representatives from 160 governments and 168 organisations ended on 15 September without achieving any major breakthrough on global strategies for controlling emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases.

The conference, officially opened by French Prime Minister Lionel Jospin, was to be an intergovernmental preparatory meeting to set the stage for decisions at the next ministerial conference on climate change to be held in The Hague, the Netherlands, from 13 to 24 November. The UN itself is now unsure whether the later talks will succeed in overcoming objections to certain proposals from both developed and developing nations and no “coherent political package” for the forthcoming talks was decided on. “This final round promises to be politically difficult, highly technical, and extraordinarily complex,” a UN statement said.

“While negotiators made progress here on some technical issues, the urgency of global warming is not being reflected in the pace of the talks,” said Michael Zammit Cutajar, Executive Secretary of the United Nations Climate Change Convention. “Key countries must start demonstrating real political leadership if we are to ensure that strong and effective action is launched to control greenhouse gas emissions.”

Progress made included practical details on how to promote capacity building in developing countries and on how the so-called Clean Development Mechanism for transferring technology to developing countries should operate. However, there was disagreement even on this latter point, as countries remained divided over whether nuclear power should be excluded.

Throughout the conference, disagreements between countries and organisations ran fast and thick. On the issue of failure to comply with Kyoto protocol rules, where developed countries will be legally committed to cutting their 1990 emissions level of greenhouse gases by five percent,, or more by 2008-1012, Russia, Japan and Australia raised strong objections. They oppose so-called ‘binding consequences’ for non-compliance.

There was also no agreement on the following major points:

  • how to define carbon “sinks”, necessary to help determine the degree to which developed countries can use sink improvements to meet their Kyoto emissions targets;
  • a proposed ‘positive list’ of sustainable joint implementation projects between industrialised countries. It was also revealed that Russia, the probable location for many joint implementation projects failed to supply required annual reports since 1997 and environmentalists said that official figures hugely overestimate the potential carbon emissions cuts from projects underway;
  • on emissions trading, where countries failed to decide how much credit developed countries can earn from investments in other countries through the Protocol’s three ‘flexible mechanisms’;
  • what specific actions will be taken to address the special concerns of developing countries that are particularly vulnerable to climate change or to the economic consequences of emissions reductions by developed countries, and how much financial and technological support will be channelled to developing countries.

It is widely understood that the benchmark for success at The Hague is that the result must convince governments to ratify the Kyoto Protocol. It must also establish the degree of financial and technological co-operation that developing countries can expect from developed countries. The Protocol will enter into force and become legally binding after it has been ratified by at least 55 Parties to the Convention, including industrialised countries representing at least 55% of the total 1990 carbon dioxide emissions from this group.

At present, 29 developing nations, but no developed ones, have ratified the Protocol, although 84 parties have signed it. The biggest greenhouse gas contributor thus far to ratify is Mexico – ranked 14th in CO2 emissions from fuel combustion in 1997. The UN says that the United States accounts for 36.1% of carbon dioxide emissions, the European Union, 24.2%, and Russia, 17.4%.

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