Climate change talks almost hijacked

After the collapse of The Hague climate change conference, the European Union made a desperate, last-ditch attempt to clinch a deal with the Clinton administration before George Bush formally assumed the US presidency. Fortunately for the countries of the developing world, this attempt to strike a deal behind their backs failed.

by Chee Yoke Ling

AN attempt by the European Union to clinch a climate change deal with the US before the Bush Administration took over in January ended in abject failure.

Two emergency meetings were attempted, first in Ottawa and then in Oslo, in the week before Christmas. The Ottawa meeting broke down, and the Oslo one was cancelled when the US and its allies refused to negotiate.

Though talks are to resume in June/July this year, there are fears that the Bush Administration will sound a death knell to any climate-friendly deal. Few of George Bush’s advisors even believe that global warming has taken place.

EU environment ministers had met on 18 December to raise the political profile of the proposed Oslo talks, scheduled for 20 December. However, the US, Japan, Australia and New Zealand flatly rejected the offer of fresh talks from the EU. They argued that a successful outcome was highly unlikely.

In a report in The Guardian, the UK’s Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott, said part of the problem was that the Americans had fallen back on their old entrenched negotiating positions in the course of two transatlantic teleconferences on 18 December, making an agreement all but impossible.

Many observers worried that the Bush Administration, being an ‘Oil Administration’, would oppose the Kyoto Protocol in any event. A compromise, even though weak, would be better than nothing. The alternative would be a dead Protocol.

However, there was also widespread dissatisfaction among developing countries that the more transparent and democratic UN process was in danger of being hijacked by the Ottawa/Oslo process. A deal reached between the US and the EU would have meant that the South would be given a fait accompli at the resumed negotiations, that would essentially have been against the interests of the South, and negative too for the environment. Developing countries, which have been participating actively in the climate negotiations, were not party to the attempted Ottawa/Oslo meetings.

This exclusive process came in the wake of the disastrous conference last November in The Hague, when the sixth meeting of the Conference of the Parties (COP6) to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change was suspended after two weeks of intensive negotiations.

Obstinate Senate

Bush’s predecessor Bill Clinton had openly announced that as a legacy of his presidency, he wanted a deal that will persuade the US Senate to ratify the Kyoto Protocol. However, many observers and delegates from developing countries were doubtful that the US Senate would accept any compromise as long as it requires any adjustment by the US economy. During the run-up to the Kyoto Protocol finalisation, 97 senators (including Democrats) had adopted a unanimous resolution instructing the US negotiators that any climate change deal must not adversely affect the US economy, and that developing countries (meaning especially the big countries such as India and China) must also take on commitments to reduce emissions.

Developing countries are polluting far less than the industrialised countries, and in fact need to grow to meet their development needs. That is why the Climate Change Convention and Kyoto Protocol operate under the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities. The responsibility to reduce emissions rests with developed countries, while developing countries are to shift towards sustainable development using clean fuels and technologies so as to avoid the same polluting path of the developed countries.

Therefore, to accept a compromise that ‘wins over’ the US Senate has two flaws. First, there is no guarantee that the Senate will even accept the package. The split Senate makes this an elusive goal. Secondly, the US demands negate both the spirit and the letter of the climate change agreements.

But more fundamentally, a deal struck without the full participation of developing countries violates the foundation of universal and democratic decision-making.

The science of global  warming is no longer disputed. The question is only its extent and severity. It is also undisputed that developing countries will suffer most from the adverse effects of climate change. Small island developing states are amongst the most vulnerable, with some of them facing the reality of disappearing altogether with rising sea levels. They have been a strong voice in the UN negotiations, very often the conscience of the world when vested corporate interests occupy the energies of the industrialised countries.

During the last 36 hours of the climate change conference in The Hague, it was already reduced to a showdown between the US and the EU. The compromise that Prescott brought back to the EU ministers was rejected by Sweden and France, among others.

As Bernaditas Mueller, a key G77 negotiator from the Philippines, described the failed talks at The Hague, ‘We (the developing countries) were to be left holding the bag if the EU and the US made a deal.’

The G77 and China ministers and officials were already very frustrated and unhappy with the situation. Years of work with the detailed proposals of the various groupings were replaced with a ‘political’ package put together by Dutch Minister Jan Pronk who chaired the conference. That and the closing of the negotiation process to the rest of the world brought about distrust and apprehensions that once again, developing countries would be confronted with a ‘take-it-or-leave-it’ package agreed to by the US and the EU.

Exploiting loopholes

The Kyoto Protocol, concluded under the Framework Convention in 1997, was itself the result of tough negotiations. Industrialised developed countries are committed under the Protocol to reducing their carbon dioxide emissions by 5% below 1990 levels, between 2008 and 2012.

Rather than take actions to reduce emissions at the domestic level through energy efficiency, replacement of fossil fuels with renewable energy, clean production methods, relevant consumption taxes, etc., the US has systematically worked to exploit loopholes in the Protocol. It has sought to turn supplementary mechanisms such as carbon sinks (forest  and land use that can absorb CO2), emissions trading and the earning of credits from investing in clean technologies in developing countries, into complete substitutes for domestic action.

At the same time, commitments to transfer and assist in the development of clean technologies vis-a-vis developing countries are being reneged on. Instead, technology providers (predominantly from the developed countries) want market access, i.e., developing countries are to pay full market prices.

Instead of transferring clean technologies, and thereby earning CO2 credits to offset its domestic reduction commitments, the US also wanted to include forestry projects in the so-called Clean Development Mechanism (to be set up under the Protocol for technology transfer to the developing world). This means that by investing small amounts of money to plant trees or conserve forests in the developing countries, the US can earn CO2 credits. Since 80% of global warming is caused by fossil fuel use, the majority of developing countries and some EU countries oppose the disproportionate use of carbon sinks.

‘High-level rescue attempt’

While negotiators battle over interests ranging from those of powerful oil corporations and opportunistic carbon traders to countries devastated by more frequent and severe hurricanes, drought, deaths and increased poverty, the fate of the Kyoto Protocol was almost decided by a few countries.

The aborted Ottawa/Oslo negotiations were urged on by many of the industrialised world’s leaders, anxious to show that they were doing something in the face of growing attention from their public. The collapse of The Hague conference has thrust climate change issues into the forefront of their countries again.

According to the UK newspaper, the Independent on Sunday (17 December), Tony Blair and Bill Clinton discussed it at length during their talks the week before, and the outgoing US president departed from the text of his speech at Warwick University on 14 December to stress its importance.

President Jacques Chirac of France was also involved in the so-called ‘high-level rescue attempt’, and EU leaders agreed at the Nice EU Summit to push for urgent action to revive the stalled negotiations.

John Prescott held two conference calls while inspecting the floods at Shrewsbury - one with EU ministers, the other with ministers from 25 countries around the world, from a pub by a canal in Telford. He told the Independent on Sunday: ‘I hope we can all produce a Christmas box for the world that is worth having.’

The Christmas box did not materialise. Since it could have been a Pandora’s Box instead, developing countries should take the failed attempt at bilateral talks as a wake-up call. The South should now organise itself and ally with like-minded developed countries committed to truly breathing  life  into  the  Kyoto  Protocol.