2001 has not been an auspicious year for international agreement on climate change. First, governments failed to emerge from the Hague climate conference with even a compromise. Next, the new US President, George W. Bush, reneged on his campaign commitment to curb CO2 emissions. This was followed by news that, as far as the new administration is concerned, the Kyoto Accord – designed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions – is dead.
In the second of our films on climate change, Earth Report takes a look at how difficult it is to align what science indicates must be done with what the international community is prepared to do.
Hot decade, hot issue
In 1988, when US scientist James Hanson sat before the US Senate Energy Committee and presented evidence that global warming was a direct result of greenhouse gases, politicians had to sit up and take notice.
Within months the United Nations had set up a new global body – the Inter Governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) – to tackle global warming.
The first IPCC report showed an overwhelming consensus of opinion by the world’s most respected scientists that greenhouse gas emissions posed a serious threat. What was more, the report had been reviewed across the scientific community which made its conclusions scientifically compelling which politicians couldn’t ignore.
Big business bites back
Two years earlier 160 nations met in Montreal to curb the use of ozone destroying chemicals. It was a success and in the years that followed the Montreal Protocol was revised five times, getting tougher at each stage. Now big business was worried. The oil producing states of the middle east and the Global Climate Coalition – a lobby group funded by American big business – viewed with alarm the concerted effort to reduce demand for fossil fuel.
It was time for a counter-action.
Produced by US lobby Western Fuels Association, a series of videos entitled “The Greening of Planet Earth” and “The Greening Continues”, put forward the view that a carbon-saturated atmosphere wouldn’t kill the planet but help it to grow. Distributed widely, these videos became influential in forming US policy on global warming.
Rio’s hollow promises
In 1992, 180 world leaders met at the first Earth Summit in Rio. What surfaced here was a growing split between rich northern polluting countries and poorer southern nations who had contributed little to greenhouse gas emissions. Southern nations argued that the cost for cutting emissions should be met by the north, something that then-(US)-President George Bush, mindful of those with a vested interest in fossil fuel based businesses, was reluctant to accept.
After much argument a raft of promises were made and 160 nations signed Rio’s Framework Convention on Climate Change – where governments agreed to take measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. None of these commitments were legally binding and, for the most part, business continued as usual.
Politcal changing climate
In 1995 the IPCC published its second report at the Madrid conference – this time confirming the findings of two years earlier and pointing to an increasing human influence on the climate. But the political climate had changed and the findings were met with outward aggression from the US and the Global Climate Coalition.
In the months that followed the Global Climate Coalition went to war against the IPCC, launching their own TV ads that played on the public concern about a carbon tax and sought to remind US politicians that supporting a cut in carbon emissions was tantamount to political suicide.
Kyoto’s hot air trading
By the time world leaders met in Kyoto cutting carbon emissions was a hot topic. Although scientists warned a 60% cut in emissions was needed to stop global warming trends, delegates could only agree on a 5% cut on 1990 emissions by the year 2010.
In order to make this target attainable, a series of ‘flexibility mechanisms’ – where the right to pollute could be traded on the open market as pollution ‘carbon credits’ – would enable richer countries to pollute above their agreed pollution targets.
Carbon credits could be traded in three ways: by buying another country’s pollution entitlement; by donating pollution-free technology; or by soaking up CO2 with forests known as ‘carbon sinks’.
But while industry specialists claimed carbon trading was the only way to achieve real cuts, environmentalists argued that these ‘loopholes’ simply allowed polluting nations to buy their way out of trouble without taking responsibility for their pollution.
As a result, the 38 major polluting countries came away from Kyoto with a compromise agreement. Now all that was needed was another conference to agree on how to implement these cuts. But what was started in Rio almost ten years before, foundered in The Hague.
At the heart of the dispute were carbon sinks. Delegates from the US argued that this clause entitled countries to claim carbon credits for their existing forests. This meant the US could reduce carbon emissions by doing nothing more than protecting existing forests.
The second major sticking point involved carbon trading. The European Union had argued that countries should meet their targets primarily by activities taking place within their own borders. The US wanted to be allowed to follow the cheapest options, investing in clean-up technology in Eastern Europe, wind power in India, or solar power in Africa. The EU wanted a ceiling of 50% on these foreign activities, the US refused any limit.
The talks ended abruptly without a legally binding agreement.
US – the ultimate losers?
Although the climate negotiations are not dead and will resume again in Bonn, Germany, in July 2001, the final Protocol may have to go ahead without the US – which contributes 25% of the world’s carbon pollution.
But, ironically, it is American businesses that may be the big losers if the US does not sign – missing out on billions of dollars of benefits open to energy efficient companies.
In our next film on ‘Changing Climates’, Earth report leaves the world of politics and travels from Alaska to the highlands to Ethiopia to document the impact climate change is already having.