US considered conference wreckers by EU and environmentalists

The United States has been cast as public enemy number one at The Hague’s 185 nation talks on climate change, attracting condemnation over its failure to curb greenhouse gas emissions and certain proposals aimed at breaking the international deadlock.

The US has been cast in the role of villain because of its position as the world’s number one producer of greenhouse gases, with 25% of the globe’s total and only 4% of its population, although other countries, especially Canada, are toeing the US line on emissions control at the two-week Sixth Session of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change Convention Conference of the Parties (COP6).

Among the hostilities were a thinly-veiled attack on US policy by French President Jacques Chirac, and the American’s top diplomat at the conference being hit in the face by a pie. “Each American emits three times more greenhouse gases than a Frenchman,” Chirac announced at the opening of the crucial ministerial talks. “It is in the Americans, in the first place, that we place our hopes of effectively limiting greenhouse gas emissions on a global scale,” he continued. “No country can elude its share of the collective effort.”

Two days later, an environmental protester threw a custard pie in the face of Frank Loy, the US Under Secretary for Global Affairs at the State Department, who said that talks were at a serious stage and Washington wanted a deal that recognised “reality”. “On the eve of Thanksgiving, pumpkin pie would have been a more traditional choice, but what I really want is a strong agreement to fight global warming,” Loy said, attempting to make light of the affair.

The main sticking points of the conference have been the US push for international emissions trading, without having to make substantial cuts in home emissions, and for the inclusion of carbon ‘sinks’ in Kyoto’s target levels of emissions. The EU has opposed both propositions (see story in ‘Europe’ section of this week’s bulletin). Since the US agreed under the Kyoto Protocol to fix greenhouse gas emissions 7% below 1990 levels by 2008-12, they have already jumped to 21.8%, one of the world’s highest increases. Canada’s emissions, agreed at a 6% drop have likewise increased by 17.1% above target thus far (see related story).

Loy announced that the US negotiating team had modified its position on carbon ‘sinks’ to appease EU protests saying that it was offering to cut the use of sinks from 300 million tonnes a year, the maximum scientifically possible, to 125 million tonnes.” The new plan takes in a smaller part (of carbon) than is actually being sequestered in our forests,” Loy said. “It’s one of the most important issues of this protocol and I hope that it’s closer to resolution than before.” This would mean that the US would be about 20% nearer to meeting its Kyoto targets, the US delegation said.

However, it was not only the EU and developing nations which continued to have serious reservations about the plan. Senator John Kerry, a Massachusetts Democrat who helped negotiate the Kyoto Protocol terms, said that the ‘sinks’ proposal would allow the US to increase greenhouse gases by 1% above 1990 levels. “Some sinks clearly must be counted, but they should be in line with the spirit of the Kyoto agreement,” he said. “Any retrenchment diminishes our credibility on other proposals” and raises “understandable suspicion that they are mere loopholes.”

French Environment Minister Dominique Voynet commented that the United States was looking increasingly isolated in its push for countries to claim their own forests’ natural absorption of carbon dioxide as credits against emissions targets. The developing country bloc G77, as well as Russia and Eastern European countries, all said they opposed the US’ sinks proposal in a ministerial meeting.

The US’s push, along with Canada and Australia, for a big role for international emissions trading with countries not using up their quota of greenhouse gases was also frowned upon, especially by the EU which wants those nations required to make emissions cuts to make at least half of them at home. The US’s proposed emissions credits system would allow it to avoid unpopular steps at home, such as higher energy taxes on industry and consumers.

Another proposal for an increased role for nuclear power in developing countries made by the United States and Japan likewise met a swift denunciation from the United Nations. “I’m utterly convinced that it (nuclear power) should not be included in any type of (agreement),” UN negotiator Klaus Toepfer told reporters.

At the time of publishing edie,the final outcome of the COP6 talks was still unclear, with even the conference president Jan Pronk saying that the chances of a successful outcome were no higher than 50-50. Please see next week’s bulletin for an update.

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