Polluter nations torpedo UN climate change treaty

Attempts at a UN conference on climate change at The Hague last November to reach an agreement on enforcing the minimum measures needed to reduce emissions of the ‘greenhouse gases’ which cause global warming collapsed as a result of the intransigence of some of the world’s richest nations. Heading the pack of polluters which torpedoed the agreement in the interests of big business was the US. Chee Yoke Ling reports.

EVEN as devastating floods hit Mozambique, Sri Lanka, Italy and south-east Australia last November, the world’s biggest polluters blocked urgent actions needed to tackle disruptive climate change.

The world’s governments were locked in arms over how to give life to a United Nations agreement that would set in motion actions to reduce the amount of industrial gases that cause warming of the earth’s atmosphere.

Attempts to reach agreement on enforcing the Kyoto Protocol, as it is called, failed miserably after two frustrating weeks at a UN conference in The Hague, held from 13 to 25 November 2000. This was the sixth meeting of the Conference of the Parties (COP6) to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), a historic agreement signed in 1992.

Dire consequences

It cannot be denied that human activities, especially since the industrial revolution, have spewed vast amounts of warming gases that create a ‘greenhouse’ effect. The global trend of rising temperatures is reaching levels never experienced before by human beings.

As our climate becomes more and more unstable, there will be extreme and unseasonal weather. Sea levels will also rise, while evidence is emerging of the melting of the ice caps. These unusual weather patterns, with often destructive impacts on agriculture, homes, health and lives, are evident almost everywhere. The most recent is Mongolia, where severe blizzards and snowstorms followed a summer of prolonged drought.

The consequences of climate change are dire.

But standing in the way of globally agreed first steps to reduce the emission of greenhouse gases at their source are powerful industries, with the United States government as their most vocal defender.  The US alone is responsible for one quarter of the world’s total emissions.

Yet its politicians blatantly defend business as usual. The US negotiators pushed for ‘market-based’ implementing approaches and broad definitions of ‘carbon sinks’ that will allow them to evade real domestic emission reduction, at the same time turning carbon dioxide into a new global commodity for trading.

The US, leading Australia, Canada, Norway and Japan in forming the ‘Umbrella Group’, was the primary obstacle in the three years of negotiations since 1997 culminating in The Hague.

Finally, the talks collapsed when the US could not get its way with its version of carbon-sink accounting and total freedom to buy carbon credits at low prices from abroad rather than effecting actual domestic reductions.

Developing countries insisted that domestic action was the route for the North to meet its reduction target.

The European Union wanted 50% domestic action, with the rest being accounted for through mechanisms allowed by the Protocol. But the EU was prepared to be flexible on the figure of 50%.

Throughout the meeting in The Hague, the Clinton Administration was closely watched by Congressmen dedicated to defending US industry interests. In the final session where the meeting was suspended, having collapsed, the US delegation was the only one that thanked the world business community.

South left in the cold

When environment ministers took over from their officials in the second week, there was some hope that a political deal could still be struck. The European Union even brought French President Jacques Chirac over to put some political pressure on the US (France was chairing the presidency of the EU at the time).

Dutch environment minister Jan Pronk, who chaired the stormy negotiations, determined to get results at any cost, put out his own paper, which contained a compromise package. He told the governments and observers that nobody would be completely happy, but there would be something for everyone.

No one was happy. Indeed, many were furious. According to Equity Watch, a daily bulletin of the New Delhi-based Centre for Science and Environment, either Pronk’s draft showed ‘a definite partiality’ towards the US position, ‘or the US demanded so much in the first place that even in giving them a little Pronk has given away too much’.

Many of the concerns of the G77 (Group of 77 developing countries) and China on carbon sinks, financing and technology transfer to be made under the climate change agreements were not addressed. A developing-country delegate said that it was shameful to go so far to accommodate a country that is not likely to even ratify the Kyoto Protocol.

As time ran out, telephone calls flew around some capitals of the developed countries. Clinton had openly declared that he wanted an agreement to mark his presidential legacy. Developing countries and most of the European governments were against caving in to the US, whose demands made a mockery of the Kyoto Protocol.

As in many critical moments of international negotiations, developing countries became sideline watchers while the EU and the US (and their close allies) went behind closed doors. When the talks collapsed, developing countries denounced the US and its allies, with the G77’s Nigerian chair calling them ‘intransigent’.

The carbon-sink loophole

THE road from Rio to The Hague has turned from emission reduction, renewable non-fossil energies and clean technologies to carbon sinks and emissions trading.  If the US gets its way with a broad definition of ‘forest’ and a wide range of land use and land activities that they claim will reduce emissions, they can then argue that they have met a large part of their domestic reductions through such ‘sinks’.

One land use change that is cited is the use of genetically engineered seeds which do not require the tilling of land, an activity that releases CO2. Many dubious claims, unfounded in science, have been the basis for the US position.

As an additional loophole, they are also pushing for unlimited rights to collect credits from abroad through emissions trading and cheap investments in carbon sinks, mostly in developing countries.

If the negotiation text as it stands is accepted, large-scale fast-growing tree plantations will be encouraged. This could well mean natural forest clearance, loss of biodiversity, massive use of chemicals and social disruption as local communities and indigenous peoples often live in the forests and other lands targeted for plantations.

In many ministerial statements during COP6, strong calls were made for developed countries to reduce emissions at home, and not evade their responsibilities through loopholes in the Protocol that threaten to destroy the spirit and fundamental commitment of the agreement.

The UK’s John Prescott said: ‘Let’s not rewrite the Kyoto Protocol, but reaffirm it. The Hague agreement  must prepare for ratification.’ He reiterated what is openly acknowledged - scientifically and now politically - that the Protocol’s CO2 cut is ‘a small step’ and that it cannot be reversed by ‘generous interpretation of carbon sinks’.  


Though the interests of the G77 and China are diverse, given their large number and  different levels of development and circumstance, the developing-country group remains united on the key issues. Officials who have been involved since the adoption of the Kyoto Protocol steadfastly held on to their positions.

However, it was also clear that when the negotiations shifted to the ministerial level in the second week, the South was at a disadvantage. Many countries had not sent their ministers. In most cases, the officials were more informed of the technical and political issues and nuances.  Thus, when Pronk first mooted the idea of inviting 35 ‘top environment ministers’ to try to break the impasse, there were strong objections from the G77 and China.

From Rio to The Hague

For many negotiators and observers, The Hague negotiations threatened to be a ‘make or break’ for the success of the Kyoto Protocol.

This Protocol is the first major global step to implementing the UNFCCC, signed in 1992 at the Rio Earth Summit.

The ultimate objective of the UNFCCC is to stabilise atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases at safe levels, to ensure security of food production and sustainable development.

The UNFCCC affirms that the major source of greenhouse gases and resulting climate change lies with the industrialised countries’ production and consumption patterns which use massive amounts of fossil fuels (oil, gas and coal) that pollute the air with millions of tonnes of carbon dioxide (CO2). In line with the principle of common but differentiated responsibility, those countries are to reduce their emissions at home.

At the same time, developing countries would work towards sustainable development with additional financial and technological support provided by industrialised countries.  In this way, the logic goes, the South would not have to go the same path as the North where the use of fossil fuels, polluting technologies and unsustainable lifestyles led to the climate crisis.

Precautionary principle

The other important underlying principle of the UNFCCC is the precautionary principle.

When the agreement was fought out, those in favour of the status quo questioned the science of climate change. There was no conclusive evidence, they argued, that global warming and the resulting climate change were caused by human activities.

However, those who were very concerned with the evidence already revealed, and with the irreversible nature of climate change, won the day. Thus the UNFCCC states clearly that where there are threats of serious irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty should not be used as a reason for postponing precautionary measures to anticipate, prevent or minimise the causes of climate change and mitigate its adverse effects.

The Protocol, which was adopted in Kyoto in December 1997 after more than two years of gruelling wrangling, legally requires developed industrialised countries to cut their combined greenhouse gases by at least 5.2% below the levels of 1990 (taken as the baseline year).

The 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,  notably  in  increased  levels of CO2. In addition to CO2, five other greenhouse  gases to be controlled  were  identified:  methane,  nitrous oxide, hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), perfluorocarbons and sulphur hexafluoride. For purposes of calculation, the emissions of these gases are  converted  to  CO2  equivalent units.

The emissions reduction is to be achieved in the period 2008-2012, with specific targets distributed amongst the developed countries and economies in transition, i.e., Russia and some Central and Eastern European  countries.

In the agreed formula, the European Union has to cut down by 8% from 1990 levels.

Target cuts for other industrialised countries are slightly lower: United States (7%); Canada, Japan, Hungary and Poland (6%). Russia, New Zealand and the Ukraine are to stabilise their emissions, and Norway, Australia and Iceland may actually increase them by 1%, 8% and 10% respectively.

At least 55 Parties to the UNFCCC, including developed countries accounting for at least 55% of the total 1990 CO2 emissions, must ratify the Kyoto Protocol to bring it to life. No developed country has ratified it yet. A growing number of European and developing countries are calling for 2002 to be the target, when world leaders are expected to gather in Johannesburg, South Africa, for a major UN conference to take stock of the state of the world 10 years after the 1992 Rio Earth Summit.

Too little, too late

The 5% reduction target itself was the result of a hard-fought political compromise driven by the economic interests of the world’s largest polluters. The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which provides scientific assessment and advice to governments, has pointed out that an immediate 60% reduction of carbon dioxide would be needed to stabilise the concentration of CO2 (global warming occurs after a number of years of accumulation and concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere).

Scientific consensus has been growing since the 1970s that human activities, primarily the use of fossil fuels, have spewed up so much carbon dioxide that the earth’s temperatures are now rising at a rate that triggers changes in the climate.

The adverse impacts of these changes are already being felt, including more frequent and violent storms, hurricanes and drought; the bleaching of corals, which destroys fisheries; as well as rising sea levels which threaten the very survival of small island states. The 1990s was the warmest decade of the 20th century, and the 1900s was the warmest century of the last millennium.

In its third report, which was released officially in Shanghai, in January (see ‘Global warming worse than feared’, pp. 16-17), the IPCC warned that global warming is now taking place at a higher rate than the experts had first predicted. Scientists from more than 100 countries approved the report, which states that the main cause of global warming in the last 50 years is the burning of oil, gas and coal.

The scientists announced that average global temperature is expected to rise between 1.4 and 5.8 degrees centigrade between 1990 and 2100. In contrast, the rise in temperature since the last ice age was only 3-5 degrees.

Dr. Robert Watson, chair of the IPCC, had told the November COP6 meeting that ‘the overwhelming majority of scientific experts, whilst recognising that scientific uncertainties exist, nonetheless believe that human-induced climate change is already occurring and that future change is inevitable’.

This is a big leap, say observers, for the largely conservative grouping of scientists, who in their second assessment report in 1995 would only go so far as to say that ‘the balance of evidence suggests that there is a discernible human influence on global climate’.

Watson said: ‘It is not a question of whether the Earth's climate will change, but rather by how much, how fast and where.’

‘It is undisputed that the last two decades have been the warmest [in the last century], indeed the warmest for the last 1,000 years, sea level is rising, precipitation patterns are changing, Arctic sea ice is thinning and the frequency and intensity of El Nino events appear to be increasing,’ he added.

Watson warned: ‘These adverse impacts will severely undermine the goal of sustainable development in many parts of the world, with developing countries, and the poor in developing countries, being most vulnerable.’

Inaction by the North

Under the UNFCCC, developing countries that are already adversely affected by climate change are supposed to be assisted in taking steps to adapt to such change. They should also have access to additional funds and clean technologies in order to take on sustainable development.

In the case of some small island states, building seawalls to protect themselves against rising sea levels is an urgent necessity for basic survival. 

The Dutch themselves have calculated that an additional 7 billion guilders will be needed over the next 15 years for them to deal with the impact of climate change on their rivers. The estimate for the entire Rhine water system is 30 billion guilders.

In World Bank estimates for two Pacific states, adaptation to climate change will cost up to  6-8% of their gross domestic product (GDP), a figure considered by some experts as conservative.

Yet little or no funds are forthcoming. The Global Environment Facility (GEF), the financial mechanism of the UNFCCC, will fund studies but not actual adaptation projects.

Utterly frustrated, a delegate from a small island state said: ‘We have been studied to death. We need to start actual projects, but nothing is happening.’

In a passionate address on behalf of more than 40 members of the Alliance of Small Island States, Samoa’s environment minister, Tuala Sale Tagaloa, said, ‘We know the causes of climate change, we know which countries bear responsibility for the historical and continuing emissions of greenhouse gases ... there are clear targets for the developed countries to confront with responsibility and directness.’

Referring to the heavily bracketed negotiation documents, he said that ‘we have constructed a regime of impenetrable complexity’. It is time ‘to cut through the complexity and face simple truths with direct and credible actions’ emphasising that developed countries must take immediate domestic actions to cut emissions.

‘No single country, no matter how powerful, no vested interest, however deeply rooted, has the right to draw the bottom line,’ he said of those threatening to block the negotiations.

In the face of overwhelming scientific consensus and the reality of unprecedented hurricanes, floods and  drought, the Kyoto target is thus minuscule. There are already adverse effects wreaking environmental, economic and social havoc. Worse, since 1990, the US emission has actually shot up by more than 10%. 

Yet, almost three years after Kyoto, and numerous inter-governmental negotiation meetings later, the political will to act had plunged further in the US, Japan, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

The stakes

ONE set of issues of priority to developing countries includes capacity building, technology transfer/development and financial mechanisms to support developing countries to adapt to climate change and to move towards sustainable development (eradicating poverty and integrating climate-friendly technologies and energy use into national development).

However, the core of the Protocol is the obligation of developed countries to reduce their emissions. The battle at The Hague was over the ways and means for developed-country Parties to achieve their assigned reductions.  As a compromise to the US and other developed countries opposed to domestic actions in the fossil fuel, and related industrial and transport sectors, the Kyoto Protocol allows for the development of three systems called ‘flexibility mechanisms’.

Two of these can only be carried out among developed countries and transition economies: the buying of carbon credits through emissions trading to offset domestic emissions; and the earning of credits through investment in overseas projects that are environmentally friendly (known as Joint Implementation). Though they are meant to supplement domestic reduction actions (which are envisaged as the primary course of action for developed countries), the US has spent the last three years pushing for unlimited use of these two mechanisms. The US is supported by Japan, Canada and New Zealand. The EU has proposed a cap of 50%.

The third flexibility mechanism is the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM). The objective is to assist developing countries to achieve sustainable development, i.e. eradicating poverty without causing climate change. It was designed to be in addition to the general commitment of developed countries to transfer environmentally sound technologies. The incentive for additional investment in projects that would not otherwise be carried out (but bring about additional reductions in emissions) would be that the developed countries that finance or directly provide the technologies can earn credits towards meeting their Kyoto reduction target.

Developing countries are keen to establish the CDM, but there are disagreements on many core aspects. The US and its allies want to include forestry projects on the basis that they are carbon sinks. Many developed countries also want to be able to trade the credits earned from CDM projects.

Developing countries have been arguing that these CDM credits should not be sold or traded by the developed countries concerned.

According to Chow Kok Kee of Malaysia, who chaired the negotiating group on these three so-called ‘Kyoto Mechanisms’, there is real danger that instead of real reduction of greenhouse gases, ‘we will see the juggling of figures and paper accounting’.

Chow also fears that all development assistance and technology transfer commitments on climate change will be reduced to the CDM channel. Germany reportedly has already indicated that adoption of the CDM will be a condition for bilateral aid in climate change-related projects.

In the aftermath of The Hague, Japan appears to be moving in that direction already: no aid without a CDM that can earn carbon credits for the donor/investor.

‘Meanwhile, there is a lot of sales talk by companies and CDM consultants, but no guarantee that developing countries will get the needed projects,’ he said.

Some business literature distributed at the COP6 meeting is advising that Joint Implementation (a similar arrangement as the CDM but which applies to projects among private and public entities in developed countries and transition economies) would be more ‘straightforward’ than the CDM. The guidelines that developing countries want to set out so that the CDM meets the sustainable development objective are considered to be too burdensome.

Meanwhile, the wealth of climate-friendly technologies that exists is being offered at market prices, which needy countries cannot afford, rather than under a package of assisted technology transfer and support of technological developments within developing countries.

This technology transfer and development commitment was made under the UNFCCC, and the meeting of COP6 was supposed to work out ‘a framework for meaningful and effective actions’. But the document on this topic is filled with brackets. Indeed, the entire document itself is enclosed by a bracket, indicating no agreement.


‘To add insult to injury,’ an angry delegate from a developing country said, ‘the US is leading the assault to invent rules and systems that will combine accounting fixes with buying of pollution credits from poor countries at cheap prices so that they can continue with business as usual.’

When talks broke off after the first week of negotiations, thousands of square brackets still remained in hundreds of pages of negotiating documents. These brackets, in UN practice, indicate that there is no agreement to the text set out.

Politics of technicalities

There are two bodies set up under the UNFCCC. The first is on implementation, and the other on scientific and technical advice. They had met during the first week to negotiate the text on key issues in preparation for the entry into force of the Kyoto Protocol. This was a continuation of an earlier meeting in Lyon, France in September 2000.

On the surface, the documents and discussions were highly technical. In essence, they were constructs by major polluting countries to design rules, standards and systems with one aim: to avoid the responsibility of reducing CO2 emissions by taking domestic action, all in the name of ‘flexibility’ and ‘pragmatism’ (the US mantra) in implementing the Protocol.

In a visibly urgent effort to reach meaningful agreement, the COP6 President Pronk had planned to invite 35 ‘top environment ministers’ to begin political negotiations to break the impasse in the first week’s talks. An initial  meeting saw protests from the G77 and China on this exclusionary approach.

The next morning, Pronk circulated an informal Chairman’s note on what he called the ‘crunch issues’, the questions on which ‘clear political choices are needed for negotiations to advance’. The paper outlined the main sticking points, and where advances have been made and where issues were still outstanding.

The ministerial negotiations broke up into smaller groups, to negotiate various clusters of outstanding issues. This was initially opposed by the G 77 and China, who were concerned about lack of transparency and full participation of all the Parties, but they later agreed on condition that only two groups met at any one time.

Developing-country delegations were already highly disadvantaged from the start. Several countries could send only one representative. With so many simultaneous meetings, these one-person delegations could not keep up with the negotiations.

On the other hand, the US delegation alone consisted of more than 100 persons, including industry representatives and Congressmen opposed to the Kyoto Protocol.

Oil giant Shell had 43 representatives as part of the 140 delegates under the umbrella of the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD).

The nuclear industry was another strong industry presence,  with some countries arguing that nuclear energy should be included as a ‘clean’ energy option.

In trying to overcome the diverse and often conflicting positions, Pronk issued his 'Note by the President of COP6' on 23 November. He made it clear that the proposals were the result of his 'own political judgement' and that he had sought a 'balanced package' drawing from the ideas of the various small negotiation groups. However, the paper was controversial, to put it mildly.

At the last session of the meeting on the afternoon of 25 November, Pronk expressed disappointment and pointed out that delegates had to bear in mind the disappointed expectations of parties outside the negotiations, including the youth groups in attendance, activists and the general public.

Numerous countries declared their support for suspending the negotiations and resuming within the next six months.

New hope?

What was left from The Hague?

The controversial Pronk compromise package survives for comments, but  most countries prefer to return to the various documents that had emerged from more than two years of  hard negotiation. Though they are long, technical and filled with options reflecting all the disagreements, they are still the products of an open negotiation process.

COP6 will resume in June/July. The decision was announced by Pronk at the UN headquarters in New York on 12 February.

‘Our immediate challenge is to maintain political engagement and to safeguard the many substantive advances achieved in The Hague,’ said Pronk. ‘I hope that the shock of our inability to reach agreement last November will spur all governments to further efforts to find the middle ground of compromise and consensus.’

The release of the IPCC report in Shanghai has been an impetus to the political process. According to Michael Zammit Cutajar, the UNFCCC secretariat chief, ‘As the scientific understanding of the risks we are creating for the coming decades becomes increasingly solid, the urgency of controlling greenhouse gas emissions becomes ever more real’.

Some countries have started initial work to see how the international community can succeed in implementing the Kyoto Protocol.

The EU now has Sweden as its president. The US has a new president, seen by many as the vanguard for the oil industry.

Malaysia’s Chow Kok Kee told the Third World Network in an interview that he was ‘still optimistic that we can reach a conclusion’. He said that most countries want to ratify the Protocol by the time they convene in South Africa in 2002 for the 10-year review of  the Earth Summit. Heads of state are expected to be at that conference.

Chow stressed the importance for developing countries to strengthen their unity and assert their interests. Rather than be left out when two stronger sides are fighting (referring to the US and EU), only to be later given a deal struck by them on a take-it-or-leave-it basis, ‘we should see ourselves as a third party that can have bargaining power’.                                   

Chee Yoke Ling, a former university law lecturer, is an Environment Representative of the Third World Network.