December 2000


The sixth United Nations conference on global climate change (COP6) has failed to reach an agreement on how to reduce emissions of ‘greenhouse gases’, and environmentalists say the United States is largely responsible for that failure.

The Hague: The United States is largely to blame for the failure of the sixth United Nations conference on global climate change (COP6) to reach an agreement on how to reduce emissions of ‘greenhouse gases’, say environmentalists here.

The conference will likely resume in May or June 2001.

Most scientists agree that greenhouse gases, which are produced by the combustion of oil, petrol, coal and other - mostly carbon-based - chemicals, have been gradually warming the Earth’s atmosphere and altering its climate.

The formal goal of COP6 was to agree to a legally binding technical pact stipulating in specific terms how the countries would reduce these emissions.

The World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), an international conservation organisation, on 25 November roundly condemned governments for failing to reach an agreement and called on them to renew efforts that would lead to ratification of the Kyoto Protocol of December 1997, under which industrialised countries agreed to accept quantitative and binding targets to reduce the emissions.

But overnight negotiations involving government ministers failed to result in a political agreement on key details governing the Kyoto Protocol and strengthening COP6.

On the afternoon of 25 November, conference President Jan Pronk officially ‘suspended’ COP6. ‘I am very disappointed,’ he said, ‘we have not lived up to the expections of the outside world.’

The major sticking points centred on how much flexibility a country should have with regard to how it measures emissions reductions, what enforcement mechanisms should be in place and what sanctions, if any, could be applied. The United States had pushed for a much more liberal interpretation of these mechanisms than the European Union (EU) and the Group of 77 developing countries were prepared to accept.

The EU has proposed a ‘concrete ceiling’ on the use of ‘carbon sinks’ such as forests and farmland that absorb carbon dioxide, which could be used by industrialised countries to offset their emissions at home under the ‘emissions trading’ regimes of the Kyoto Protocol.

‘These talks were supposed to have been about building a workable, global climate system for the long term,’ said Eileen Claussen, president of the Pew Centre on Global Climate Change, part of one of the United States’ largest philanthropies. ‘However, they appear to have stalemated over a relatively small number of tonnes of carbon to be absorbed by sinks. This strikes me as extremely short-sighted,’ she said, noting that the suspension of COP6 was a ‘setback’ but not a permanent breakdown in the process.

United Kingdom Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott, who had tried and failed to reconcile divisions between the EU and the US-led bloc, the so-called Umbrella Group, earlier in the day stormed out of the conference. ‘I’m gutted we didn’t make it. There is no deal. The world needs Kyoto, it needs a deal, and people have to go on trying to get one,’ he told journalists.

Chief US negotiator Frank Loy said in a statement before the final informal COP6 plenary on 25 November that ‘no country offered more forthright, creative proposals to break the logjam’ than the United States and that ‘too many of our negotiating partners held fast to positions shaped more by political purity than by practicality; more by dogmatism than pragmatism’.

Nonetheless, he said that an agreement on the key issues ‘was close at hand’.

In a news conference following that plenary session, the French environment minister Dominique Voynet, whose country now holds the rotating EU presidency, said that ‘perhaps another half a day’ of negotiations would have broken the deadlock.

‘Kyoto is not dead,’ said Voynet, who rejected the notion that the talks had been a ‘failure’. Voynet admitted, however, that they had not ‘been crowned with the success that we would have wished’.

But exasperation at the failure of the parties to reach an agreement led a number of observers from environmental pressure groups to walk out of the conference in protest, shredding their COP6 accreditation tags as they left.

‘We are doing this to express the level of disillusionment we have with the process. The US and big corporations have destroyed any hope that the Protocol had of combating climate change,’ said a spokesman for the Dutch organisation Rising Tide.

The WWF charged that ‘persistent efforts to weaken the Protocol, in particular on the part of the United States, Japan, Canada and Australia [the base of the Umbrella Group] brought the talks to the current impasse’.

It praised the EU, which the organisation said ‘acted as a more progressive bloc in the negotiations, [but] was unable to overcome the resistance of the major polluters and conclude a deal’.

Poor nations have argued that the US position on sinks violated the ‘polluter pays’ principle, and note that 25% of carbon-dioxide emissions generate from the United States, which makes up only 4% of the global population.

G77 spokesman Sani Daura of Nigeria told the plenary session on 25 November that the failure condemned developing countries to even greater environmental turmoil. ‘We will continue to be the victims of the adverse impacts of climate change.’

Friends of the Earth International (FoEI) cast the ‘blame for this fiasco’ on the United States and the Umbrella Group, ‘which fought tooth and nail to exploit every loophole in the Kyoto Protocol. The Group demanded a giant “free gift” of existing forests and farmlands to count towards their Kyoto targets.’

FoEI, a federation of autonomous environmental organisations, also blamed some of the world’s largest companies, including Exxon, ‘which still denies that climate change is even happening’, for ‘trying to exploit the talks to create huge new markets in carbon trading, while using the power of their political money to block effective action against climate change in the US Congress’.

Major US and international environmental groups, including the WWF, Environmental Defence, Greenpeace International and the Union of Concerned Scientists, said in a joint statement on 25 November: ‘We wish to emphasise that this was a missed opportunity to address the urgent threat global warming poses to our environment and to the people who live in it.’ - Third World Network Features/IPS


About the writer: Brian Kenety is a correspondent for Inter Press Service, with whose permission the above article has been reprinted.