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Governments to seek greenhouse gas cuts at Kyoto climate talks
Kyoto, November 1997 - Ministers and other senior officials from some 150 governments are meeting in Kyoto from 1-10 December for what promises to be the most high-profile conference on environment and development since the 1992 Rio Earth Summit.
The goal of the conference is to accelerate the pace of international action under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. Most importantly, developed countries will for the first time adopt legally binding targets and timetables for reducing their greenhouse gas emissions.
"Kyoto will succeed if the industrialized countries take a bold lead and honestly confront the conflict between the short-term, defensive concerns of certain economic sectors and the broader economic and environmental interests of society at large," says Michael Zammit Cutajar, the Convention's Executive Secretary. "While there will be winners and losers in the marketplace, significant economic and technological benefits can be achieved by reducing emissions."
A number of proposals for emissions cuts are already on the table. The European Union is calling for reductions of 7.5% by the year 2005 and 15% by 2010 in three major greenhouse gases; the Group of 77 and China (developing countries) supports these targets plus a 35% cut by 2020. Japan - which as host government of the Kyoto conference has a central role to play in finding a consensus - proposes a reduction of 5% by 2008-2012 (taken as an average over these years), although individual countries could opt for lower targets. Members of the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS), threatened by sea-level rise, want to see a 20% rollback by 2005. The US supports returning all greenhouse gases to 1990 levels by 2008-2012. The Russian Federation suggests that each country reduce its emissions on the basis of its own proposed target, resulting in an overall cut of some 3% by 2010. The baseline for all proposed reductions would be the year 1990.
Without new control targets, global emissions will continue to soar; according to US government projections, for example, with current and planned limitation measures US emissions would rise 23% by 2010 compared to 1990. An agreement on meaningful emissions cuts in Kyoto will require developed countries to take new measures and to move towards environmentally sustainable economies.
Under an effective agreement, national economies will benefit from greater incentives for technological creativity and the adoption of "no-regrets" solutions that make economic and environmental sense irrespective of climate change. Because activities and products with zero or low emissions will gain a competitive advantage, the energy, transport, industrial, housing, and agricultural sectors will gradually move towards more climate-friendly technologies and practices. Individuals, communities, and companies will need to play an active role in this transition if the emissions reductions promised by governments are to be achieved.
In addition to identifying targets and timetables, negotiators must also grapple with a number of other, related issues. These include the questions of "differentiation" (should all developed countries have the same target or should individual targets be defined to reflect national circumstances?); "flexibility" (should countries be allowed to trade emissions quotas with one another, receive credit for reducing emissions from other countries, "bank" reductions for future credit if they exceed their current target, or "borrow" from the future if they miss their target?); and "policies and measures" (should there be a common set of legally binding policies and measures for all developed countries, or should these countries have the flexibility to adopt the policies most appropriate to their domestic circumstances?).
Another issue that has been raised is the role of developing countries in controlling emissions in the immediate future. Under the Convention these countries have a general commitment to address climate change, and many are also taking early action to use energy more efficiently and thus limit the increase in their emissions while pursuing sustainable development. The current talks on new emissions commitments, however, address only developed countries, leaving the matter of emissions limitation commitments by developing countries to future negotiations.
This is the same approach that was pursued so successfully by the 1987 Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer. Because developed countries were responsible for the bulk of past and present emissions, they agreed to take the lead in reducing emissions and to provide financial and technological support to help others follow suit. Only later did developing countries adopt similar, if delayed, emissions-reduction schedules.
Under the Climate Change Convention, developed countries have agreed to take measures aimed at returning their greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by the year 2000. At the first session of the treaty's Conference of the Parties (COP) in 1995, the international community recognized that stronger measures were needed to minimize the risk of climate change. The Ad hoc Group on the Berlin Mandate (AGBM) was established to negotiate new developed-country commitments for the post-2000 period. While these negotiations explicitly exclude discussing new commitments for developing countries, the Group is also tasked with advancing the implementation of existing commitments by both developed and developing countries. The AGBM held its eighth and last session in October and developed a draft text that will form the basis of the Kyoto talks (the session will be resumed for a half day on 30 November).
The Convention was opened for signature at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. It entered into force on 21 March 1994 and has been ratified by close to 170 countries. The treaty negotiations were inspired in large part by the scientific findings of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), an international network of thousands of scientific and technical experts sponsored by the UN Environment Programme and the World Meteorological Organization.
According to the IPCC, current trends in greenhouse gas emissions are likely to cause the average global temperature to increase by 1-3.5 degrees C over the next 100 years. As a result, global sea levels are expected to rise by 15 to 95 cm and climate zones to shift towards the poles by 150 to 550 km in the mid latitudes. Forests, deserts, rangelands, and other unmanaged ecosystems would face new climatic stresses, as would human societies, health, and infrastructure. The IPCC's Third Assessment Report, to be finalized by end-2000, will review efforts to reduce the scientific uncertainties about climate change, improve the understanding of regional impacts, and refine possible cost-effective policies and solutions.
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