12 October 1999




The Executive Secretary of the United Nations Climate Change Convention, Michael Zammit Cutajar, briefed correspondents this morning at Headquarters on the Fifth Conference of Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP-5), to be held from 25 October to 5 November in Bonn, Germany.

Some 4-5,000 persons, including 80-100 Ministers, were expected to attend the Conference, which would focus on developing solutions to questions raised by the previous Conference, and building confidence towards the next Conference, to take place at The Hague in November 2000.

Emissions of greenhouse gases from developed countries were rising dramatically, he said. The 1997 Kyoto Protocol sought to bring those emissions down to approximately 5 per cent below 1990 levels by the year 2010. By current projections, emission levels would reach 18 per cent above 1990 levels by that date, so early and decisive actions would be needed to meet the target.

The increase was primarily from countries of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), Mr. Cutajar said. Countries with economies in transition were below their Kyoto targets and probably would not use up the targets that had been allocated to them. The United States, Russian Federation, Japan and Germany were the biggest emitters in that group of countries. Globally, China and India would be part of the top six. If emissions per head were compared, the United States had 20 tonnes of carbon dioxide (CO2), China 2.5 tonnes per head, and India, less than one.

Those numbers told the story of what the negotiations were focusing on, he continued. On the one hand, there were big emitters among the developing countries that the North would like to take on board; on the other hand, developing countries wanted to preserve their development options. In that respect, the discussion was a North-South matter.

On the North-North side, the negotiations could loosely be grouped between the European Union and the other OECD countries, which varied on certain key points, he said. Essentially, the Union would like to have countries achieve 50 per cent of their Kyoto targets at home, through domestic measures which would stimulate innovation and technology, changes in consumption patterns and in long-term trends. The others, including the United States, Canada and Japan, did not want such limits, and wanted to be able to choose their own options.

Underlying these issues was the question of whether the Kyoto Protocol would "bite" -- whether the targets would be met and whether there would be a cost for failing to comply. That was a main subject of negotiation at the moment: a compliance system that would carry consequences for non-compliance.

A correspondent asked about a possible link between the spread of the West Nile virus in the eastern part of the United States and global warming.

Mr. Cutajar said the spread of insect-borne diseases was one of the likely consequences of global warming. As temperature bands spread, so would the range of insects that carried diseases.

The health hazard was one of the main effects of global warming, according to the recent reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which was the scientific advisory body to the Convention. While there was no evidence to isolate and link the current outbreak of West Nile fever to climate change, it was the sort of event that would be expected to occur as global temperatures rose.

Other impacts of global warming included sea-level rise, which would affect low-lying islands and deltas, such as Bangladesh, for example, he said. There would be changes in rainfall, which would affect agriculture both positively and negatively. Also, there would be stresses on agriculture and forests would suffer. Diseases would spread and people would move as well.

Global warming could be seen as a generally destabilizing phenomenon, on top of all the other sources of destabilization that might affect the world in the next century, he said.

A correspondent said the Conference seemed to be "never-ending" and asked whether any specific decisions were to be expected from COP-5. Mr. Cutajar said the Conference might seem "never-ending" because it was supposed to meet every year and it did. While it had a full agenda at all times, there were peaks of decision-making. The actual adoption of the Convention in 1992 had been one peak, the launch of the Kyoto process in 1995 another, Kyoto another and the next peak would be next year, with COP-6.

From the Fifth Conference, he expected some decisions on matters which did not have to wait until next year, for example on capacity-building for developing countries, he said. Most developing countries lacked the wherewithal to contribute more, even if they wanted to. A major effort was being undertaken by them, which developed countries welcomed. Also, technical work was under way, some of which could be ratified, on methods for measuring greenhouse gas emissions. This was an extremely important point, since without good accounting methods, the credibility of the Protocol suffered.

In addition to technical and morale-boosting decisions, the Conference would signal where the negotiations were going and thereby keep the private sector engaged, he said. One of the characteristics of the Protocol was that it sought to engage the private sector in responding to climate change. As in any negotiations, some positions would draw closer but the last cards would not be played, he added.

Asked about ratifications of the Kyoto Protocol, Mr. Cutajar said all of the 14 countries that had done so to date were developing countries. For the Protocol to enter into force, 55 ratifications were needed, including from developed countries equaling 55 per cent of the CO2 emissions that group had produced in 1990. What that meant, in real terms, was that if the United States and Russian Federation did not ratify, the Protocol would not enter into force. There were other formulas for meeting that 55 per cent, but those two countries together accounted for more than 45 per cent of the 1990 CO2 emissions. In any case, the United States was such an important player that it must be on board.

Asked about climate changes, Mr. Cutajar said global warming would result in more rainfall in some areas and less in others. It was expected to increase the frequency and severity of tropical storms. Some speculated that it could change the course of the Gulf Stream and freeze Norway, but there was no proof for that hypothesis. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change had not yet reported on a firm link between global warming and El Niño, although, as a layman, he thought there should be a link.

A corespondent then asked about efforts to enlist the President of Ford Motor Company. Mr. Cutajar said he would be very glad if he joined the progressive wave in industry. There was a growing consciousness in industry that one could make profit while helping climate strategy. Natural gas producers were generally on that side, as was the nuclear industry, with definite qualifications.

The motor vehicle industry was a key player, in that it was the fastest growing source of greenhouse gas emissions, he continued. His hunch was that the industry had the wherewithal to produce cleaner cars but was waiting for the market signals. For example, with the ozone issue, the big chemical companies producing chloroflourcarbons (CFCs) had waited until they had a substitute and it was profitable to switch before doing so, and the Montreal Protocol had followed. If Ford moved forward it would be great, but such movement could not be forced.

A correspondent asked for comment on the postulation that the Russian Federation could benefit from global warming. Mr. Cutajar said one scenario was that the Russian Federation, Canada and countries near the North Pole would have increased opportunity for agricultural production. But there were downsides. The soils might not be the right ones, while the warming of the tundra might release a tremendous amount of methane, which would make the climate cycle worse.

The position of the Government of the Russian Federation was difficult to judge, he continued. That country had excessive tonnes of carbon to sell. It had a target well ahead of its needs and its main concern now was to preserve its option to be able to sell those excess tonnes. The European Union would like to restrict that. He was not aware that the prospects of agricultural improvement had entered into the calculations.

The United States Senate seemed to think that if that country ratified the Protocol there would be enormous economic costs, a correspondent noted, and asked whether efforts had been made to address that concern. Mr. Cutajar said he understood that the Senate's concern was linked to two economic factors.

The first had to do with competitiveness, he said. In that sense, they wanted to see developing countries that were trade competitors with the United States -- notably China -- bound by commitments that would keep a level playing field, if one could apply that term to unequal in terms of wealth and capacities.

That concern was channeled into the debate about the involvement of developing countries in the future of emission commitments.

China was not bound by any emission cap, and fiercely resisted any such suggestion, yet it had been reducing the emissions intensity of its economy, he noted. China emitted much less per dollar of gross national product (GNP) than it had years ago, not because it was committed to doing anything for climate change, but because it was pursuing its development in ways that produced that result. The effect was nonetheless positive.

The other concern of the United States Senate was whether adopting measures would result in the imposition of excessive costs on United States industry, he said. The first point to be made on this issue was that there was no formula in the Protocol on which measures must be adopted. Countries were free to adopt the measures that suited them best, including the most cost effective.

Further, the Protocol had developed three different mechanisms that enabled countries to search for the least-cost options for emission reductions offshore, he continued. Countries and companies with a target to fulfil could go off-shore and buy tonnes of carbon through emissions trading, or invest in projects in countries in transition or developing countries which would have a better result, and they would get credit for emissions thus averted or avoided. There was no formula in the Protocol that put a cap on economic costs, but there were a range of options available that were now being worked out.

A correspondent said that despite new developments in the automobile industry, such as a car by Toyota that got 80 miles to the gallon, there seemed to be a lack of cooperation overall. The motor industry had to sell cars that people wanted, Mr. Cutajar said. The challenge was to develop technology that would make cars cleaner while responding to people's needs. If a car was spic-and-span clean but did not respond to commuting or transportation needs, it would not sell. One could try to change consumer habits, but that was difficult.

It could not be said that the motor industry was united against something, he stressed. They determined the time to introduce innovations. Japanese car companies were coming up with some ideas, although they were expensive and would probably have to be subsidized. Daimler-Chrysler was investing in new technologies. Things were happening. Whether the whole market would change could not yet be seen. It was a question of incentive. Movement might not happen unless conditions were created that provided incentives and motivations to move, and that was still somewhere down the line.

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