An agreement in Bonn, sans U.S.

Print edition : August 04, 2001

After hard bargaining in Bonn, all signatories to the Kyoto Protocol, barring the U.S., the biggest polluting nation, agree on emission reduction targets to combat global warming.

REPRESENTATIVES of nearly 180 countries arrived at an agreement on July 24 at the Sixth Conference of Parties (COP-6) in Bonn, which was a continuation of the adjourned conference in The Hague last year. However, the United States kept away from the multilateral agreement, which gives teeth to the Kyoto Protocol of 1997. This has raised doubts about the ability of the steps taken at Bonn to stop, if not reverse, global warming.

Although pessimists argue that the hard bargaining at Bonn watered down the agreement, there are people who regard Bonn as a starting point in the long road to tackling the immense problem of climate change. The Bonn meeting was the sixth edition of the talks under the auspices of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), which was born at the Earth Summit of 1992.

Jan Pronk, the Dutch Environment Minister who chaired COP-6, seized the first opportunity out of a stalemate on July 23. He closed further discussion on the agreed draft, saying: "To allow one amendment now would unleash an avalanche. I am accepting no amendments in the hours ahead."

Four contentious issues dominated the proceedings at Bonn, just as they had at The Hague. The first related to the role of "carbon sinks". Countries with Kyoto-prescribed targets wanted to be allowed to claim "credits" for afforestation and other atmospheric carbon-absorbing measures. But environmental groups and developing countries argued that this would provide loopholes that defeat the very purpose of the Kyoto Protocol. The second issue related to the demand from developing countries for funds to make technology transfers that would enable them to cope with problems caused by global warming. The third issue - and probably the most contentious - related to the rules of an international regime in "carbon trading". The regime would allow countries with prescribed pollution targets (mainly developed countries) to take credit for pollution-abatement projects in the developing world. Moreover, they would also participate in "hot air" trading among themselves; countries with below-target emissions would be able to sell to those which overshoot their quotas. There has been apprehension that weak rules would leave the system open to abuse by the major polluting nations. The fourth problem was of ensuring that countries complied with the Protocol.

The European Union played the role of the key broker at Bonn. The absence of the U.S., which accounts for 36 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions, from the negotiating process meant that it had to be "neutralised" at Bonn. The treaty can come into force only when 55 per cent of the signatory nations, and, generating at least 55 per cent of the global emissions, ratify it. The absence of active U.S. participation meant that the other major polluting nations, in particular those of the E.U. and eastern Europe, Russia, Canada and Japan (the second biggest polluter), had to agree to specific and binding schedules for meeting their Kyoto commitments.

Although the Protocol fixed targets only for developed countries, the Bush administration refused in March to accept the treaty because it did not include large developing countries such as China and India. Bush also cited the prospect of job losses in the U.S. in the context of the looming recession, if his country agreed to abide by what it had signed at Kyoto. In the absence of the U.S., Japan, Russia, Canada, the E.U. and other major polluters had to be roped in if the Protocol was to be saved at Bonn. Japan came to Bonn enthusiastic about "carbon sinks", whereas the E.U. regarded sinks as a means of resorting to loopholes in order to avoid targets.

Long-term observers of the COP process pointed out that Japan, Russia and Canada got whatever they wanted at Bonn, unlike at The Hague. The Bonn agreement allows the three to earn credits by planting trees and managing forests to soak up carbon, although scientific opinion on the "measurability" of carbon sinks is divided. The agreement allows Russia to offset 3 per cent of its emissions against forest and land management; Japan and Canada are allowed even more. This in effect gives these countries a 25 per cent discount on their emission targets, which can also be "sold" to countries which surpass their quotas. Symbolic of the hard bargaining at Bonn, these three countries gave up their demand to be allowed to claim credits for the export of nuclear power plants to developing countries.

Japan, Russia, Canada and Australia blocked efforts to impose penalties on countries that fail to meet their targets by 2010. The Pronk draft suggested that every one per cent shortfall be penalised by an addition of 1.3 per cent to the target in the next time-period, probably 2020. The draft also said that shortfalls carried over could not be met by carbon trading arrangements, but only by domestic pollution abatement measures within the pollution-generating nation. The opposition to this clause was strident at Bonn.

The bottom line of the talks at Bonn, in environmental terms, is that the Protocol's target for the developed world has been considerably reduced. At Kyoto, these countries had promised to reduce collectively by 2010 greenhouse gas emissions by 5.2 per cent from their 1990 levels. The concessions allowed at Bonn means that the actual reduction will be by only 1.8 per cent or even less, according to some estimates.

Despite being outraged by the hard bargaining, environmental activists are not deterred by what they perceive as a bad agreement. They point to the fact that current pollution levels are far above the 1990 levels in most countries; even a one per cent reduction from the 1990 levels will imply a big reduction on what emissions would be in 2010 in the absence of such an agreement.

The Bonn deal is not expected to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to any great extent. Its significance lies in the fact that it has saved the most important environmental treaty from outright collapse.

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