Resurrecting Kyoto: Probably Too Little, Too Late

Reversal by U.S. Yields Climate Plan
Published: December 16, 2007

NUSA DUA, Indonesia — In a tumultuous final session at international climate talks in which the United States delegates were booed and hissed, the world’s nations committed Saturday to negotiating a new accord by 2009 that, in theory, would set the world on a course toward halving emissions of heat-trapping gases by 2050.

The standoff started when developing countries demanded the United States agree that the eventual pact measure not only poorer countries’ steps, but also the effectiveness of financial and technological assistance from wealthier ones.

The United States capitulated in that open session, which many observers and delegates said included more public acrimony than any of the treaty conferences since 1992, when countries drafted the original climate pact, the now-ailing Framework Convention on Climate Change. That change followed a more profound shift by the Bush administration, which agreed during the two-week conference to pursue a new pact fulfilling the unmet goals of the original treaty; the pact would take effect in 2012 when the only existing addendum, the Kyoto Protocol, expires.

While many observers described the United States change as a U-turn, it was the culmination of months of movement by the Bush administration, which had for years insisted that the 1992 treaty was sufficient to avoid dangerous human interference with the climate.

In 2005 talks in Montreal, for example, the American negotiating team walked out of one session, rejecting any talk of formal negotiations to improve on that pact.

While accepting the need for a new agreement, in the end the United States retained the flexibility that it had sought at the outset, fending off European attempts to set binding commitments on emission reductions. American negotiators said this was vital to gain global consensus.

That success, though, was bemoaned by some observers.

Andrew Light, an expert on environmental ethics at the University of Washington who was in Bali, said that by keeping targets out of the two-year negotiating plan, the Bush administration had, in essence, rejected the foreboding climate projections of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which it had repeatedly praised in recent weeks.

“We could have moved on from here with a confident range of future cuts,” Prof. Light said. “Instead we have to move on with the same continued uncertainty. At the beginning of the week I was really heartened by the public praise the U.S. delegation was giving to the I.P.C.C. and now I can’t help but think, was it all lip service?”

Somewhat obscured by the focus on the American delegation was another important shift: China, which has now surpassed the United States in carbon dioxide emissions, agreed for the first time to language that could commit developing countries to pursue emissions-cutting actions that are “measurable, reportable and verifiable.”

Developing ways to reliably measure how policies or projects affect emissions is a vital prelude to any commitments to limit emissions, said Philip Clapp, the deputy managing director of the Pew Environment Group.

The changing position of the Bush administration is likely a reflection of dramatic recent shifts in both the science and politics of climate change.

This year, a set of four reports emerged from the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, each stating more clearly than ever that humans were warming the world, and that the unabated burning of fossil fuels and destruction of forests would lead to centuries of disrupted climate patterns, rising seas and ecological and social harm.

Along with the science came the Oscar-winning film “An Inconvenient Truth;” Hurricane Katrina, which, while not linked to global warming in itself, was a vivid and effective icon; and spiking oil prices. Finally, the Supreme Court rejected the Bush administration’s contention that carbon dioxide was not a pollutant under the purview of the Environmental Protection Agency.

In May, President Bush signaled the change in his stance most powerfully when he announced his own parallel set of meetings with the countries accounting for 85 percent of greenhouse-gas emissions. In Bali, European delegates threatened to pull out of those talks unless the Bush delegation agreed to keep some semblance of concrete targets in the outline for the talks.

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