Green politics in a harsh climate

Any legally binding international agreement on the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions was last week in danger of being scuppered completely by political infighting as the Conference of the Parties on Climate Change (COP6) in The Hague wound up.

Any legally binding international agreement on the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions was last week in danger of being scuppered completely by political infighting as the Conference of the Parties on Climate Change (COP6) in The Hague wound up.

First reports out of the Dutch capital suggested the rift that had left a negotiated ratification of the Kyoto Protocol on the rocks was an historic one: England vs. France. John Prescott, the UK deputy prime minister, singled out his French counterpart at COP6, Environment Minister Dominique Voynet, for undermining a compromise deal he had shepherded for the last 12 days.

"She got cold feet, felt she could not explain it, said she was exhausted and could not understand the detail, and then refused to accept it. That is how the deal fell through," said Prescott.

Voynet, for her part, was unrepentant. She accused Prescott of having "conceded too much to America" during all-night discussions on finding a middle road toward implementing cuts to greenhouse gases, including CO2, as established at the Kyoto summit in 1997.

She added that Prescott was an "unreconstructed male chauvinist" whose involvement at COP6 had been "mediocre."

Thorny issues

That talks in The Hague failed may, in fact, have had more to do with Prescott's having misjudged his statesmanship in cementing a last-minute deal than any gender bias.

He did, reportedly, succeed in getting the US delegation to accept the untenability of plans to buy so-called "carbon credits" by planting forests overseas to offset domestic emissions levels. But he was criticized by the Germans, Danes, Swedes-and the French-for going along with the "US insistence that forest or agricultural changes at home be accepted as carbon credits."

Some observers reckon Prescott failed to appreciate the extent to which the European political landscape has changed in the 3 years since Kyoto, when he took credit for the 11th-hour accord that at least staved off defeat of the protocol.

There are also lingering questions over Prescott's real commitment to clinching a deal following his departure from The Hague soon after talks collapsed on Nov. 26.

Dutch Environment Minister and COP6 conference Pres. Jan Pronk had adjourned greenhouse gas emissions discussions until May.

Disturbing outlook

A new publication from the International Energy Agency should put the spurs to these upcoming discussions. In the "reference scenario" of its biennial World Energy Outlook 2000 report, the Paris-based energy watchdog forecasts global CO2 emissions rising in tandem with energy consumption between now and 2020-some 2%/year-as oil, gas, and coal "continue to dominate the world fuel mix."

Despite efforts to date to curb "energy-related" CO2 emissions, the IEA calculates that levels will have risen by 60% from 1997 to 2000, with developing countries accounting for some two thirds of this increase. Emissions from China will soon match those of the whole Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Power generation and the transport sector will see their emissions climb by around 75%.

With North American emissions projected by the IEA to be 42% higher than Kyoto targets by 2010, the breakdown of COP6 talks may prove a missed opportunity to pull global greenhouse emissions regulations back from the brink.

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