Too much hot air

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 26 November, 2000, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 26 November, 2000, 12:00am

IN the end, talks in The Hague aimed at reaching a detailed, legally binding agreement on ways to achieve a reduction in global warming, amounted to little more than arguments by some countries to find ways to do nothing.

Beyond the mountains of arcane technical reports and much-examined scientific evidence, the stakes could not have been much higher. But perhaps the concept of the preservation of the earth's climate was simply too abstract a concept for some of the representatives of the 180 countries attending the United Nations conference to grasp.

Final, desperate efforts to strike a deal - notably the much-savaged plan put forward by the Dutch Environment Minister and chairman of the UN World Climate Change Conference, Jan Pronk - suggested that an agreement, any agreement, was more desirable than allowing the talks to appear to finish in failure. In truth, Mr Pronk's plan contained little that ever had a chance of bridging the gulf between the two main antagonists, the European Union and the United States.

Blame for the failure to reach agreement on ways to implement the three-year-old Kyoto Protocol will no doubt be targeted at many quarters. Certainly, a lack of unity among EU members contributed to failure; but it was the United States - which is responsible for 24 per cent of the world's carbon dioxide production - that fundamentally was at odds with much of the rest of the world. Its proposal of an open-ended market in quota trading, allowing countries to buy emission quotas from others that reduce emissions by more than their targets, simply favoured the richer nations. In addition, the US proposed gaining emission quota credits for existing agricultural and forestry land, because these absorb carbon dioxide. Again, this meant that some countries could achieve their quotas without cutting carbon dioxide production at all. Others would be rewarded for doing nothing. In contrast, the EU, along with China and the Group of 77 developing nations, reasonably proposed that these mechanisms could only be used to reach 50 per cent of emission-reduction targets.

The US-led proposals searched only for loopholes and took little account of the spirit of the Kyoto Protocol. Without a willingness to take concrete steps to achieve a genuine reduction of the production of damaging emissions, all the talk in the world about methodology amounts to little more than hot air.