Published on Friday, November 10, 2000 by Inter Press Service
Conservationists Warn 'Loopholes' Will Weaken Climate Treaty
by Danielle Knight
WASHINGTON - Even as more than 160 nations prepare to gather in The Hague to hammer out the final details of the international treaty to reduce heat-trapping greenhouse gases, the convention is facing a political quagmire which could prevent its successful implementation worldwide.

At issue are ''flexible market mechanisms'' such as emission permit trading and getting credit for planting trees, which absorb the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide. Most environmentalists view these proposals as loopholes that would enable countries to get credit for meeting most of their target reductions for actions that would have happened anyway.

Unless countries resolve their differences and make a strong commitment to reduce their emissions in The Netherlands, Nov. 13-25, scientists say the consequences could be disastrous. Most climate experts believe that global warming is caused by mostly carbon-based gases emitted when fossil fuels, like oil, gas and coal are burned.

Already these gases have been blamed for heating the deep oceans, fracturing Antarctic ice shelves and fuelling more intense El Ninos. Severe storms in Britain and France last week are the latest weather disruptions that are being viewed as an early taste of global warming.

According to an upcoming report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which was leaked to the press, the international committee of climate experts is expected to say that it is likely that greenhouse gases have ''contributed substantially to the observed warming over the last 50 years''.

To deal with the threats of climate change, industrialised nations - despite strong opposition from powerful oil, coal and gas industries fearing for their bottom-line - negotiated an international agreement in 1997, known as the Kyoto Protocol. Named after the Japanese city where it was drawn up, the treaty requires that industrialised countries reduce their emission by an average of five percent below 1990 levels by 2008 to 2012.

The Protocol requires the ratification of at least 55 of the countries that signed the Convention, including the industrialised countries of the Organisation of Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), which in 1990, accounted for more than half of carbon dioxide emissions, one of the main greenhouse gases.

Yet the agreement has yet to be ratified by most of its signatories. Since its inception, the treaty has been plagued by political resistance from the United States, by far the world's largest emitter of greenhouse gases.

While the administration of US President Bill Clinton signed the treaty, the US Senate refuses to ratify the Kyoto Protocol and has put language into appropriations bills that forbids the government from spending money to comply with the Kyoto Protocol.

But most of the developing economies of Latin America, Asia and Africa argue that the wealthy industrialised nations should make the first move toward reducing emissions since they are responsible for the bulk of the emissions already in the atmosphere.

The contentious issues left to be hammered out in The Hague revolve around the treaty's so-called market-based ''flexible mechanisms'' such as how emissions trading will work and whether there should be a limit to the extent this can be used to account for a country's Kyoto target.

While the European Union believes there should be a limit to how much market mechanisms can be used, the US administration argues that it should be able to use flexible mechanisms to meet all of its reductions.

Fourteen Latin American countries recently announced that they would back the US bid for emissions trading which would allow the United States to count the reduction of emissions in poorer countries and the use of carbon sinks - the planting or saving of forests - as part of its own quota under the Kyoto Protocol.

Here in Washington this week, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), the National Environmental Trust, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) released a report saying that these mechanisms will amount to nothing but loopholes that will allow business to continue as usual.

Environmentalists argue that international carbon trading - either between industrialised nations or between industrial and developing nations - cannot work since carbon is emitted from millions of sources all over the world and would be impossible to monitor.

''Accounting gimmicks may fool bureaucrats, but they will not fool Mother Nature,'' says Alden Meyer, director of government relations at the UCS. ''The climate treaty must make real cuts of real pollution or the severe storms and other impacts that we are already starting to see will only get worse..'

Further complicating the situation is the variation in emissions trends since the 1990 base year.

Owing to economic collapse, Russia's 1995 emissions were 29 percent below 1990 levels, and Ukraine's 1997 emissions were down by 49 percent. Meanwhile, in 1997 the European Union's emissions were only four percent below 1990 emissions while US emissions were 11 percent above 1990 levels.

Because of these discrepancies, countries such as Russia and Ukraine under the Protocol have been granted carbon emission credits potentially worth billions of dollars annually. This then would allow the United States and other major emitters to meet most of their reduction commitment by purchasing credits from this region for reductions that have already taken place.

''Trading of 'hot-air' would undermine the legitimacy of this (emission trading) system, making it more an arena for political horse- trading than a market mechanism,'' argues Hillary French, vice president of research at the Worldwatch Institute in Washington.

In The Hague, countries will also debate how to harness the ability of forests to absorb 'greenhouse' gases. The United States, Japan, Canada and Australia are pushing for the inclusion of emission credits for tree plantations.

But a report by Greenpeace and WWF released here this week says that rules to allow the use of forest plantations to store carbon pollution from the atmosphere could actually accelerate the destruction of old-growth or ancient native forests around the world.

The environmental groups document how Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), Japan's largest power utility, has been implicated in the destruction of old-growth forest in the Australian state of Tasmania.

According to the report, the company cut down native forest and replaced it with fast-growing eucalyptus plantations intended for 130,000 tons of credits that could be offset against rising carbon emissions in Japan.

''We could see native forest destruction accelerate but still see no benefit for the global climate if Japan, Australia, Canada and the United States get their way,'' says Jennifer Morgan, director of WWF's climate change campaign.

Environmentalists are also worried about that another of the flexible mechanisms under Kyoto called the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) which will permit industrial nations to buy inexpensive reductions in developing countries.

A typical CDM plan might involve selling China technology to make its coal cleaner, or a US coal-burning utility could pay to expand or preserve carbon-absorbing forests in Costa Rica.

Ross Gelbspan, a long-time US-based author on climate change issues, says the CDM plan is inequitable since it would allow industrial nations to buy limitless amounts of cheap emission reductions in poor countries and to bank them indefinitely into the future.

This would mean that when developing nations eventually become obligated to cut their own emissions, they will be left with only the most expensive options, says Gelbspan.

''This clearly constitutes a form of environmental colonialism,'' he says.

In early October, more than 130 environmental organisations also criticised the US proposal for the CDM plan that would allow nuclear power plants to receive emission credits.

Groups, including Public Citizen, Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth, say the US stance amounts to the transfer of a harmful outdated technology to Asia, Latin America and Africa.

''Western nuclear companies, unable to get contracts at home due to safety, environmental and cost concerns, would be attempting to dump their unwanted and failing technology on developing countries,'' says a letter the organisations sent to Clinton.

Copyright 2000 IPS