Europe: Will ratify Kyoto Protocol despite US withdrawal

by Jim Lobe

Washington, 3 Apr 2001 (IPS) -- A high-level delegation from the European Union (EU) said Tuesday that its members intend to ratify the Kyoto Protocol by next year, regardless of what the United States may do.

“We are very much prepared to go (ahead) without the United States,” said Kjell Larsson, the environment minister of Sweden, the EU’s current president. “We can’t allow one country to kill a process to confront a major global problem like this.”

Persson and EU environmental affairs commissioner Margot Wallstroem spoke after a day of meetings with senior officials in the new US administration about Washington’s decision, announced by President George W. Bush last week, to abandon the 1997 Kyoto Protocol.

The EU delegation, which will travel to Russia, China, Japan, and Iran (the current president of the Group of 77 developing nations) in the coming days, was urgently dispatched here in hopes that the administration might reconsider its decision.

But it came away only with a commitment to continue discussing the problem of global warming in various international forums, including at the UN’s Commission on Sustainable Development meeting in New York later this month and the next formal Kyoto negotiations in Bonn in June.

By that time, the administration is supposed to have concluded a formal review of global warming, although Wallstroem noted Tuesday that the delegation’s interlocutors - Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Christine Todd Whitman, and Deputy National Security Advisor Gary Edson - offered no details about the review or even who was involved in it.

“We very much look forward to the results of the review,” said Persson, who added that, despite hints that Washington may put forward a “fresh” approach to the problem of global warming, he very much doubted that it was possible to come up with ideas that had not been discussed during the past ten years of negotiations.

Bush’s statement, which came just before a meeting with German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, created an international uproar, particularly in Europe and Japan - Washington’s closest allies and the major parties to the 1997 Protocol.

Coming on the heels of other moves by the ten-week-old administration that have alarmed foreign leaders - notably, a snub of South Korean President Kim Dae Jung’s appeals to engage North Korea and the summary expulsion of 50 Russian diplomats - Bush’s announcement appears to have increased doubts about his commitment to an internationalist foreign policy and strengthening traditional US alliances.

“If one wants to be a world leader, one must know how to look after the entire earth and not only American industry,” noted Romano Prodi, the EU’s president, who was reacting to Bush’s assertion that his administration will “not do anything that harms our economy”.

The decision and its abruptness also took observers here by surprise, particularly because of a crescendo of criticism that had greeted a series of other environmental decisions taken by the new administration before Bush made his announcement.

Moreover, three members of his cabinet - Whitman, Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill, and Secretary of State Colin Powell - had all spoken out publicly about the threat posed by global warming, and Bush’s remarks appeared to undermine them.

In a poll taken by Time Magazine and Cable News Network (CNN) over the following weekend, some 75% of respondents said that they regarded global warming as a serious problem. Two-thirds said Bush should develop a plan to deal with it.

Ironically, the United States took its first step to deal with global warming under Bush’s father, who signed the UN’s framework convention on climate change at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. That accord, which called on industrialised countries to reduce their emission of greenhouse gases by 10% below 1990 levels, paved the way for the Kyoto agreement five years later.

The Kyoto Protocol, largely at Washington’s behest, was somewhat less strict in its targets. It requires the 38 signatory states to reduce their emissions by an average of about 5.5% below 1990 levels by 2008-2012. Under its specific provisions, Washington would be required to reduce its emissions by about 7%, although an emissions trading scheme favoured by Washington would have made the adjustment far less difficult.

Greenhouse gases - including carbon dioxide, which is emitted by the combustion of fossil fuels like wood, coal and oil - are believed by most scientists to be responsible for the accelerated warming of the Earth’s atmosphere over the last century. The United States emits about one-quarter of the world’s total greenhouse gas emissions.

In its latest report, the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) estimated that average temperatures on the Earth’s surface could rise by as much as 5.8 degrees Celsius by the year 2100, with potentially catastrophic consequences, if present emission trends are not reversed.

President Bill Clinton, who signed the Protocol, did not send it to the Senate for ratification because of strong opposition there, particularly from Republicans and senators from coal- and oil-producing states.

They argued that compliance with the accord could harm the US economy and that its failure to impose curbs on emissions by developing countries, particularly major industrialising nations like China, India, Mexico, and Brazil, was unfair.

These same objections were reiterated by Bush, who also noted in a recent letter to four anti-Kyoto senators that more research should be done to determine the relationships between greenhouse gases and warming.

In their remarks to reporters, the EU delegation Tuesday discounted all of these problems. While there were certainly “some costs” associated with reducing emissions to all industrialised economies, “there are also huge opportunities”, said Persson, who noted that Washington seemed to be discounting the costs associated with climate change itself.

Indeed, some large US multinational firms, which have already implemented plans to reduce their own emissions, have argued that failure to comply with the Protocol could hurt US competitiveness and innovation in environmental and energy-saving technology.

As for developing countries, Persson pointed out that developed countries today emitted some 85% of the greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Industrialised countries, he said, need to establish their own commitment to reductions before expecting poor nations - where per capita emissions are a tiny fraction of those by the United States and the EU - to do the same.

“Frankly, I don’t think the United States has made it any easier (to get commitments from developing countries),” said Wallstroem. “By saying (the United States) cannot afford to (make reductions), what would be the reaction of the poorest countries?”

As for the scientific basis for associating emissions with global warming, the delegation said, none of its interlocutors disagreed with existing consensus.  “We heard no real arguments against that,” said Persson.

“So our conclusion was that we looked at it pretty much the same way. I think we can agree that we have global warming, that we will have increased global warming in the future, and this is enough scientific basis for acting,” he said.

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