US-EU divide at UN Climate Change Talks

by Ramesh Jaura

Bonn, May 31 -- Serious differences persist between the United States and the European Union (EU) on the implementation of appropriate measures aimed at reducing the emissions of greenhouse gases, considered responsible for global warming.

This emerged from a fresh round of climate change talks, launched here on Monday, under the umbrella of the United Nations. Sources close to the delegates from some 150 countries, said the US and the 15 member states of the EU were poised for heated discussions, scheduled to continue till June 11.

This had been indicated even in the run-up to the current talks. "Pre-negotiation signals travelled back and forth across the Atlantic this month after EU governments finalised agreement on a common position on the Kyoto mechanisms," said a conference source, explaining the US-EU differences.

The Kyoto Protocol, adopted at the third conference of the parties (COP-3) in December 1997 in the Japanese city, commits developed countries to reduce their collective emissions of greenhouse gases by at least 5% compared to 1990 levels by the period 2008-2012.

The main greenhouse gases are water vapour, carbon dioxide, ozone, methane, nitrous oxide and the chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs).

Apart from CFCs all of these gases occur naturally. Together, they make up less than one percent of the atmosphere. This is enough to produce a "natural greenhouse effect" that keeps the planet some 30 degrees celsius warmer than it would otherwise be - essential for life.

The Kyoto Protocol to reduce greenhouse gas emissions has been signed by 83 countries plus the European Commission during a one- year signature period that ended March 15 this year. It will become legally binding when at least 55 countries, including developed countries such as the U.S., accounting for at least 55 percent of developed country emissions, have ratified.

The Clinton administration signed the Kyoto Protocol in November 1998, but staunch opposition in the Senate has kept the White House from submitting the treaty for ratification.

While the U.S. dithers, the EU governments agreed in May upon a complex formula guaranteeing that at least half of the EU's greenhouse gas emissions reductions commitment - 8 percent from 1990 levels - will come from domestic measures.

The U.S. under-secretary for global affairs at the State Department, Frank Loy, has however questioned the EU's motives for the decision, in view of the fact that EU member states will have unlimited trading among themselves within their so-called "bubble" arrangements.

"The US continues to seize on the EU's internal burden sharing arrangements as a means of undermining the credibility of the EU's calls for strict capping arrangements under the Kyoto Protocol," explained a conference source.

The talks in Germany have been convened by the Bonn-based secretariat of the United Nations Framework Convention of Climate Change (UNFCCC) to prepare for the Fifth Session of the Conference of the Parties (COP-5) to the U.N. Convention. COP-5 and related meetings will take place in Bonn during the period of October 25 to November 5, the high-level segment for ministers is expected to be held on November 1-2.

Summing up the issues at the heart of the controversial talks, the Executive Secretary of the UNFCCC, Michael Zammit Cutajar, said: "When governments adopted the Kyoto Protocol in 1997 they agreed on what the international community must do over the next dozen years or so to minimise climate change."

"By the end of the year 2000 they must decide the equally important issue of how to achieve the Kyoto target for reducing greenhouse gas emissions," he told IPS. "The political commitment that was made in Kyoto will become truly convincing when these complicated technical details are resolved," Zammit Cutajar added.

In particular, the delegates will consider the Kyoto Protocol's three "mechanisms", which are designed to help developed countries reduce the costs of meeting their emissions targets.

One of these is the clean development mechanism (CDM), which will grant developed countries credits for financing developing- country projects that avoid emissions and promote sustainable development.

The second mechanism is the joint implementation (JI) programme which will offer credits for contributing to projects in other developed countries, including the countries of Central and Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union.

The third mechanism is an international emissions trading regime which will allow developed countries to buy and sell emissions credits amongst themselves.

However, the governments have still to elaborate the nature and scope of these "flexibility" mechanisms, the criteria for project eligibility, the roles of various institutions, and an accounting system for allocating credits.

To ensure the credibility of the mechanisms and the Kyoto commitments, delegates are also expected to start to organise work on a compliance regime for the Protocol.

The Buenos Aires Plan of Action, adopted at COP-4 last November, sets an ambitious deadline of late 2000 for finalising all these issues so that the mechanisms can be fully functional when the Protocol eventually enters into force.

The Bonn round of discussions - tenth in the series since the Climate Change Convention was adopted in 1992 - are taking place in two concurrent meetings.

One of these is the meeting of the Subsidiary Body on Scientific and Technical Advice (SBSTA). It will concentrate on ensuring that technical inputs from government experts, the Convention secretariat, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), and other sources contribute to the COP's decision-making process. "In addition to addressing the Kyoto mechanisms, the SBSTA will start a consultative process to decide how to better promote technology transfer," says a UNFCCC document.

Many developing country governments believe that not enough progress has been made in recent years on helping them obtain energy-saving and other climate-friendly technologies, and they hold great expectations for this new process.

A number of technical workshops held in the margins of the meeting, outside the main negotiating forum, will take a more informal look at technology transfer and at the Protocol's three mechanisms. Workshops held when the subsidiary bodies and the Conference of the Parties are not in session are expected to play an increasingly important role in advancing the intergovernmental process.

Another key item on the SBSTA agenda is improving the guidelines for preparing national communications and emissions inventories. (IPS)

The above article by the Inter Press Service appeared in the South-North Development Monitor (SUNS).