Published on Sunday, November 26, 2000 in the Observer of London
How The Future of the Planet Grew Dark
Europe wants drastic cuts in carbon emissions.
America wants to carry on guzzling.
by Robin McKie in The Hague
At 11am yesterday the United Nations talks aimed at imposing realistic greenhouse gas reductions unravelled catastrophically. Faced with implacable opposition from his European counterparts, the UK head of delegation John Prescott found himself isolated in his bid to broker a deal with the United States.
His attempt to save the planet had collapsed and the enraged head of Britain's delegation stalked furiously from the convention.
'I am gutted,' the furious Deputy Prime Minister told the reporters who followed him out of The Hague's convention centre. Shortly afterwards Svend Auken, head of the Danish delegation, emerged. The climate convention had begun to disintegrate.
The cleaners started to sweep away the debris and to prepare for the next conference, a meeting of oil industry specialists.
Only a few hours earlier, an ebullient Prescott and an equally enthusiastic Environment Minister Michael Meacher had briefed reporters that the pair were close to brokering a deal between the US and the European Union, the two major opponents in the talks.
Meacher and Prescott had entered the final phase of negotiations late on Friday and were prepared, with other delegates, to sit up all night to hammer out a plausible deal. These negotiations centred on a basic ideological division. On one side stood an umbrella group - led by the United States - that included New Zealand, Australia and Japan. On the other stood the European Union nations and the developing world.
The US camp had come to The Hague seeking to avoid cuts in carbon dioxide emissions from cars and factories. Instead they wanted to fund carbon sinks - forests and plants that absorb carbon dioxide - as a substitute for halting their profligacy with petrol and their factories' energy inefficiency.
By paying for the growing of new plantations in developing nations and by demanding that greater allowance be made for their own forests, these countries - particularly the United States - hoped to avoid cutting their own emissions.
Europe was committed to the idea that the developed world had to reduce its burning of fossil fuels and considered the American carbon sink plan as a bid to avoid global responsibilities. Who would be responsible for such plantations, asked European delegates? What would happen when they died off? And would they be made of giant monoculture plantations of endless rows of pines and eucalyptus trees that would devastate local wildlife? They received few satisfactory answers.
The deadlock held until 3am yesterday, when Prescott decided to take action. He persuaded US delegates that if they abandoned their attempts to fund carbon sink forests in developing nations, European delegates would be more sympathetic to America's arguments that its own carbon sinks, both its forests and its agriculture land, would be given greater importance in negotiations.
John Loy, head of the US delegation, agreed - and so Meacher and Prescott called in the media to announce their plan. 'We have put this to the European Union delegation, and they asked for more information,' said Prescott. The deal looked good, in other words, a view that was later shared by Jan Pronk, the conference president who was responsible for all negotiations. 'At six o'clock this morning it looked too close to call,' he said. There was everything still to play for.'
Prescott then called a meeting of his fellow European delegates in the expectation of success. It was to be a disillusioning experience. Europe's delegates were led by the formidable Dominique Voynet from France, and by the equally committed Jürgen Tritten, from Germany. Both are Green Party members and view with extreme suspicion the antics of the US delegation.
Why should the US have special exemptions and be allowed to reduce its cutback quota just because it is a rich and powerful country, they asked? One by one delegates voted down the Prescott plan.
This rejection might not have been so bad if European delegates had then offered a negotiating response. But time was running out and Pronk called a halt just after 11am. 'It was incredibly frustrating,' said Meacher later on. 'We were that close to a deal in there.'
A few minutes later Prescott walked from the building, with stunned members of the world's media trailing in his wake. 'The talks are finished, there is no deal,' he announced, before heading to Amsterdam airport.
It was a grim experience for the ebullient Prescott. He had pinned great hopes on his ability to persuade the two sides to agree, but failed - mainly because he had, naively, underestimated European hostilities to the Americans and to the belligerent negotiating of the US team. As a result he had been made to look ridiculous as he stormed from the conference, furious at his treatment by his fellow European delegates. It had been a chastening visit.
His failure and that of the other delegates raises a critical question, however. Can a global climate deal ever be negotiated? To judge from events, the answer is not encouraging. The US has consistently treated these negotiations as just another round of trade talks. The US - whose citizens account for 4 per cent of the world's population and 24 per cent of its greenhouse gas emissions - will have to reduce its carbon output by 650 million tonnes by 2010 if it is to meet its Kyoto obligations, about a third of its current output.
From the start of these talks the US team attempted to find any way it could to reduce this amount. It was simply a haggle for a bargain.
But Europe could see no justification for giving America any deal over carbon sinks. After all, no other developed nation was to be given one. It was a matter of principle, of climatic importance - an attitude that has defined Europe's but not America's position.
In the end, it was this difference in ideology that so fatally damaged last week's talks and that has now left the world's hopes of a deal over climate control, and of saving the planet from catastrophe, in tatters.
Can plantations save the Earth?
Establishing plantations of young trees is one way of creating a 'carbon sink' as part of attempts to absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere rather than contribute to it. America wanted to include a large contribution of sinks in the total, so that it would not have to reduce the amount of fossil fuels that it was burning. In other words, it wanted to grow trees rather than cut down on car use.
Environmentalists are opposed to carbon sinks because there are huge uncertainties about the amount of carbon that forests really absorb. Also a plantation of fast-growing pine trees absorbs far more carbon dioxide than a mature forest. That would mean that including forests in the total would encourage countries to cut down old forests such as rainforests and replace them with monoculture plantations.
Europe was opposed to the American proposal on carbon sinks because the Americans wanted to be allowed to claim credit for so much carbon being absorbed by its forests, that it would have allowed them to increase their emissions of greenhouse gases by 8 per cent rather than cutting them by 7 per cent as they had promised under Kyoto. If this formula were accepted, it would have meant that Sweden and Finland would be allowed to increase their fossil fuel emissions by up to 40 per cent. European countries were opposed to this because it would have undone the hard-won agreement at Kyoto to cut the emission of greenhouse gases.
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2000