Published on Sunday, November 19, 2000 in the Observer of London
US Plays Dirty As Planet Chokes
Squabbles as America fights to avoid reducing emissions
by Robin McKie at The Hague
It took a surprisingly short time to sandbag the Hague yesterday. In only two hours, environmentalists managed to surround the city's great conference centre with a 5ft wall made up of 50,000 sacks filled with soil and grit.
The activists - some from Latvia and Estonia, a few from Japan, several coach-loads from Britain and hundreds from other nations - had gathered to lay siege to the building in which diplomats and civil servants were trying to thrash out ground rules for limiting global warming. It was a manoeuvre replete with irony.
However, the real eyebrow-raiser was the speed of the Friends of the Earth stunt which contrasted starkly with the lumbering negotiations that have been taking place within the convention centre. For the past week, delegates have been trying to hammer out a framework for a climate-saving deal that their ministerial bosses can then knock into shape when they arrive tomorrow.
There have been few signs they are going to succeed. Despite evidence that the greenhouse effect is now at its strongest for 20 million years, that Europe's growing season has lengthened by 11 days in the past century and that scientists are predicting all Arctic ice will have disappeared by 2080, delegates remain obsessed with the minutiae of conference protocol. As one leading UK negotiator put it: 'This could turn out to be the most important conference in human history, yet all we get is haggling over trivia.'
These squabbles threaten to erupt into full-scale war, particularly between the United States and Europe, which began an alarming exchange of insults late last week. One European Union statement even accused the Americans of 'threatening the integrity' of the entire climate change convention.
At heart, the problem is simple: how can the world halt the global warming that is increasing global temperatures, sea levels and climatic instability? At the Kyoto environment summit three years ago, the industrialised nations agreed, in principle, to reduce carbon dioxide emissions to a figure 7 per cent below their 1990 output. Unfortunately, no one has been able to agree how to achieve this, or even to ratify the Kyoto summit. That is the purpose of the Hague summit.
The prime problem is America, the world's greatest emitter of carbon dioxide, which presses, with increasing insistence, that it should be spared from reducing its output and should instead be allowed to create new forests, both in the US and the Third World. These trees and plants, known collectively as carbon sinks, will soak up all that nasty carbon dioxide, say US delegates, and will obviate the need for Americans to abandon their profligacy.
The US also believes that by planting crops specially designed to soak up carbon dioxide, it could extend its 'sink' philosophy from the wild to the farmyard, thus strengthening its case for unabated industrial emissions. It was this idea, introduced at the Hague last week, that provoked that outburst of fury by Europe's delegates.
Other US agricultural innovations circulating last week included the wonderful idea of feeding sheep, pigs and cows special anti-flatulence diets to reduce levels of methane, another greenhouse gas. This notion merely induced derisive laughter.
Europe and most developing nations, as well as most non-governmental agencies, scorn the idea of carbon sinks. Only the real thing - cuts in emissions - will definitely work, they say.
In the words of the Environment Minister Michael Meacher, who will lead Britain's negotiations this week: 'There is no substitute for taking domestic action to reduce the emissions by burning less fossil fuels.'
Yet America remains obsessed with the idea it can use the dollar to buy itself out of trouble and has proposed other ploys including the concept of buying 'carbon credits' from countries such as Russia and Ukraine whose industrial collapse over the past decade means they have already reached their Kyoto reduction targets. The US wants to buy these non-existent 'saved' emissions to put towards its own target.
In short, the nation with the greatest output of carbon dioxide, the cheapest petrol in the West and the most inefficient energy industry is struggling to avoid any domestic action that might help the planet. Its delegates claim its stance is scientifically valid, though there is little evidence at the Hague to support the claim. For example, planting trees that gobble up carbon dioxide is a dangerous game, as researchers at Britain's Hadley climate centre revealed. 'Yes, trees do soak up gases produced by factories but they also contribute to global warming,' said a meteorologist, Richard Betts.
'Trees have dark leaves and bark and stand out against light backgrounds, particularly in higher, snowy latitudes. As a result, they stop sunlight being reflected back into space. Our calculation show that in places like Canada and Siberia, planting new trees would actually increase global warming.'
So is it simply a matter of Americans trying to keep their styles of life while the rest of the world struggle just to keep their lives?
Many at the Hague privately think so, although the US delegation, emollient and polished to a man, insisted theirs was the only way forward.'We have just as much to lose as the rest of the world,' said David Sandalow, the US assistant secretary of state for international environmental affairs.
At the end of the conference its organiser, the United Nations, hopes that a group of developed nations that represent a total output of 55 per cent of all carbon dioxide emissions will be able to ratify the Kyoto protocol. If that magic number is reached, the deal becomes an international treaty. However, without the co-operation of the US, which accounts for 24 per cent of the world's total output of carbon dioxide, there is little likelihood of success.
And so the world's nations will square up to their climatic 'High Noon' at the Hague tomorrow. On one side, Europe - led by Britain and Germany and supported by the developing nations and green groups - is pressing for real emission cuts. On the other, the US is backed by Canada, Australia and Japan, nations which are desperate to avoid taking any action that might risk the wrath of voters.
These, then, are the hate figures of the environment movement, a motley crew that also includes any representative of an oil company, China which wants to build more nuclear power stations and the environmentalists' special bogeyman, Saudi Arabia, which is trying to scupper the entire Kyoto protocol because it fears a downturn in petrol use.
The Saudis claim they should be compensated by the rest of the world for any loss of revenue. 'Nothing is too outrageous for them,' said Kerr Davies, of Greenpeace.
It is against this background that more than 2,000 official delegates have struggled over the fine print of the Kyoto protocol in a bid to make it acceptable to their political masters. Most negotiations have been conducted behind closed doors, though those held in open session may as well have been held in secret so inscrutable is their terminology, with phrases like 'biome-specific threshold values' and 'verified sink credits' causing nothing but general bafflement.
Added to these hard-pressed bureaucrats are 3,500 official observers from 180 nations and more than 700 journalists, as well as a phalanx of interested parties, including green groups, wind generator suppliers and climate researchers. 'We have about 80 different meetings going on, as well as press conferences,' said the conference organiser, Michael Williams. 'This is bigger than any UN arms conference. I don't think there has been a bigger, more complex conference.'
It may be the biggest conference show on Earth. But will it save the planet? The conference president, Jan Pronk, warned delegates on Friday that if they could not agree on a deal that was 'environmentally credible' then the 'whole thing will fall apart'. Given America's hardening stance and Europe's mounting irritation, such an agreement looks unlikely.
The best the world can hope for is continued negotiations in coming months. The worst is an American victory, won through its vast industrial muscle.
As Lars Georg Jensen, of the World Wildlife Fund, said: 'If America gets its way, it won't cut emissions until its people can actually smell the carbon in the air. It will be too late for the rest of us by then, of course.'
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2000