The Marrakesh deal

Print edition : December 08, 2001

Despite giving large concessions to the major inudstrialised countries, COP-7 succeeds in establishing an international architecture for combating the complex problem of global warming.

NEGOTIATORS from more than 170 countries gathered in Marrakesh, Morocco, between October 29 and November 9 at the Seventh Conference of Parties (COP-7) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC) to give shape to the historic Kyoto Protocol, the international treaty which addresses the issues of global warming and climate change. While optimists drew satisfaction from the fact that some agreement is better than none, environmental activists have said that the "watered down" agreement is an almost insignificant step towards countering a monumental problem.

Outside the venue of the Conference of Parties-7 in Marrakesh. By harping on the ratification card, the major industrial countries ensured a weaker compliance regime.-JEAN BLONDIN/REUTERS

The Marrakesh agreement gives legal effect to the political agreement that was reached in COP-6 in Bonn earlier this year (Frontline, August 17, 2001). The United States, the biggest polluter, had by then pulled out of the treaty. Observers of the COP process have said that the diluted agreement is largely a result of the U.S. stepping back from taking charge of its share of the responsibility of cleaning up. Recent figures released by the U.S. Energy Department show that carbon dioxide emissions increased by 3.1 per cent in 2000, the biggest increase since the mid-1990s. Emissions in 2000 were nearly 14 per cent higher than in 1990.

The Marrakesh meeting was essentially a technical one, aimed at giving legal shape to the decisions worked out at Bonn by building compliance mechanisms. With the U.S. out of the game, the wrangle over target-fixing was mainly among the major industrial countries - gathered in two separate conclaves, the Umbrella Group which included Japan, Canada, Australia and Russia, and the European Union - continued at Marrakesh. Behind the intense bargaining among the main polluting nations was a thinly veiled attempt to reinterpret the Kyoto Protocol. Observers also noted that the divergent positions on many of the "technical" issues had political undertones. There were fears that these may undermine an agreement in Marrakesh. The Umbrella Group succeeded in extracting concessions in return for keeping the Kyoto Treaty alive.

The Umbrella Group used the leverage it had to its advantage, secure in the knowledge that the absence of the U.S meant that its participation was absolutely necessary to keep the treaty afloat. These countries, together and singly, used this to extract a price for their ratification of the treaty. By playing the ratification card several times throughout the conference, they ensured a watered-down agreement on emission reduction targets which does not match the enormity of the problem of global warming. A weaker compliance regime is also a result of this bargaining. Lower eligibility requirements for the Kyoto Protocol's controversial "flexibility mechanisms", including the trading of "emission quotas", also pose a threat to the compliance of the Parties.

THERE are also fears that the agreement undermines opportunities for public participation and transparency in monitoring the compliance of countries' commitments. For instance, at Marrakesh, the Umbrella Group fought for allowing greater room for carbon sinks - the use of carbon-absorbing activities, afforestation for example, - in meeting its Kyoto commitments. The development of carbon sinks is difficult to monitor, and this fact increases the risk of non-compliance by countries. However, the Umbrella Group had its way since it held the key of ratification of the Protocol.

Environmental groups which have for long monitored the COP process said that COP-7 was marked by "belligerent bargaining", particularly by Russia. Russia renegotiated its quota of carbon sinks fixed in Bonn, doubling it at Marrakesh. At the end of COP-7 the developing countries were forced to accept the deal, "tempered in particular by a healthy dose of realism as to what is politically and economically feasible". Although the Marrakesh Conference devoted much attention to highly technical questions regarding the measurement of emissions and their reduction, observers have said that the whole elaborate architecture of the treaty hinges on "the integrity of the numbers that have been the basis of the agreement".

The Marrakesh agreement means that after four years of tortuous negotiations since Kyoto in 1997, what the world now has is, in the words of one observer, a "tri-polar climate change regime" which pretends to be a global agreement. The three poles in the uneasy and inadequate international arrangement are the Annex I Countries of the Kyoto Protocol - mainly industrialised countries with assigned quotas for emission reduction, the developing countries and the U.S., which is mainly watching from the outside now.

The Marrakesh agreement, based on universally agreed texts of more than 200 pages, provides a semblance of finality to the Kyoto Protocol. Although critics may find it to be inadequate, the result is that there is now a "ratifiable" treaty for countries to bind themselves to. Non-compliance with the terms of the agreement will invite legally binding consequences. It is another matter that these consequences may themselves be nowhere as severe as the potential threat to the global environment due to a weak agreement.

Friends of the Earth (FoE), an environmental group, while extending a "cautious welcome" to the Marrakesh agreement, observed that it ensures that countries have no excuses not to ratify the Kyoto Protocol. The environmental group also said that "the deal fudges rules on the use of sinks".

Kate Hampton, Climate Coordi- nator, FoE, said: "The science is stark - drastic future cuts in emissions are vital to prevent dangerous climate change and this agreement is only the beginning. We will hold countries to their commitments and fight the use of treaty loopholes country by country. Nine years after the Rio Summit, Ministers have let the world down by failing to address the real issue."

The reaction from Greenpeace was more harsh. It termed the Marrakesh agreement a "hard-won battle for a token outcome". Bill Hare, Greenpeace Climate Policy Director, observed: "The Kyoto Protocol is the key to preventing dangerous climate change. The door has only just been unlocked. Now we have to fling it wide open."

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