US retreats at climate change talks

Posted: 11 December 2005

The White House was forced into a U-turn on climate change yesterday after appearing to misjudge critically the international and domestic mood on its efforts to tackle global warming, reports David Adam, in today's issue of The Observer.

After American delegates walked out of the United Nations climate change conference in Montreal over the wording of a draft statement calling for international co-operation on the issue, they signed a revised version after making only 'trivial' changes, he writes.

The move came as 157 other countries agreed separately to extend the Kyoto international agreement aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The US has not joined Kyoto, so it was not involved in the talks on its future.

Environmental campaigners hailed the Kyoto breakthrough as 'a historic step forwards'. Tony Juniper, executive director of Friends of the Earth, said: 'The rest of the world is right to push ahead and leave the obstructive US behind.'

One senior British official said the US negotiators shifted their position on the joint statement because the Bush administration was stung by criticism of its stance at the meeting in the US press. 'Washington are really feeling the heat on this,' the official said.

Clinton speech

The chief US negotiator Harlan Watson walked out of talks on Friday after complaining that draft text proposals amounted to a call for negotiations which President George W Bush opposes.

Baffling some foreign ministers, Watson told the high-level meeting: 'If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck it's a duck.' US green campaigners quickly bought all the plastic ducks they could find in surrounding shops and handed them out to delegates and the media.

The conference was the first of the annual series to be held in North America, and US journalists flooded in, some privately admitting that they had not previously realised the international significance of the issue. The US delegation submitted its revised version of the statement text early yesterday, but made only superficial changes, said European negotiators. One revision replaced the word 'mechanisms', with 'opportunities'.

The change came after a well-received conference speech from former President Bill Clinton, in which he said that Bush's main reason for not joining Kyoto - that it would damage the US economy - was 'flat wrong'.

Clinton said if the US 'had a serious, disciplined effort to apply on a large scale existing clean energy and energy conservation technologies... we could meet and surpass the Kyoto targets easily in a way that would strengthen, not weaken, our economies'.

Global warming and melting ice, he suggested, could lead to a future climate conference in Canada being held on 'a raft somewhere'.

Clinton pointed out that there was a growing demand for action within the US, highlighting efforts by 10 states and 192 cities to cut their emissions. Bush administration officials reportedly put pressure on conference organisers to block his speech.

Weary negotiators finally agreed the revised statement as the talks dragged on into the small hours. They also agreed an action plan among Kyoto members to extend the protocol when its first phase expires in 2012.

The next Kyoto phase will demand harsher cuts in greenhouse gas pollution from developed countries, but the scope and timing of these have not yet been agreed.

Developing nations

Margaret Beckett, the Environment Secretary, said when she arrived in Montreal that the EU wanted cuts of up to 30 per cent by 2020.

Scientists have said global reductions of between 60 per cent and 80 per cent will probably be needed by 2050 to stabilise the climate. They believe that should keep the global average temperature to within 2C above pre-industrial levels. The world is already 0.7C towards that, with another 0.6C to come over the next few decades.

The role of developing nations in the new phase of Kyoto remains unclear, though they will probably not be asked to take on binding emission reduction targets.

One idea is voluntary targets, with no penalties for missing them and incentives for exceeding them. China and India have been a focus of the talks. Both have huge stocks of coal, whose burning would swamp any emission cuts by the developed world.

The world can breathe again

Commenting on the significance of the Montreal deal, Robert McKie, The Observer Science Editor wrote:

At a time when scientists have been bringing us grim new climatic tidings almost every day, the news that the world's leaders have agreed to sit down to talk about the dangers that our planet faces is encouraging, to say the least.

It has been bad enough to learn, as we have over the past few weeks, that the Gulf Stream is threatened; that the Greenland icecap is melting faster than predicted; that the last decade was the warmest for the last millennium; and that the world's oceans are warming at dangerous rates.

If we had then been told that politicians could not even bothered to debate these reports, we would have been sent a message of a deeply demoralising nature.

That scenario has now been avoided and we can now reasonably expect politicians to begin to hammer out some kind of deal to save the world. As Friends of the Earth pointed out yesterday: 'Montreal has sent a clear signal that the future lies in cleaner and more sustainable technologies, and is good news for people everywhere.'

Of particular note is the agreement of India and China, the world's two new industrial superpowers, to play an active part in future negotiations. These two countries, which are now ranked as developing nations, are exempt from the Kyoto climate agreement, even though they are pumping out massive amounts of carbon dioxide from new power plants. In acknowledging this fact, India and China have sent a signal to the rest of the world that they understand that climate change is their problem as much as it is the West's.

But most encouraging of all - paradoxically - is the stance of the United States. Admittedly, the Bush administration continues to show climatic intransigence of breathtaking cynicism. However, it is also clear that many Americans have privately become deeply worried about global warming, as well they might.

As a result, north-eastern states have announced that they are about to launch their own carbon-trading system and several dozen leading US companies, including General Electric, have begun to cut emissions from their plants. Such actions give us great hope that America will soon see sense.

That is unlikely to happen for several years, of course, and it remains to be seen whether the world can wait that long. As Alan Thorpe, head of Britain's Natural Environment Research Council, has made clear: 'What the world needs badly are are talks about taking urgent action. So far, all we have had are talks about having more talks. If we keep that up, things are going to get pretty desperate around the world fairly soon.'

As Thorpe points out, the world faces a rise of a further 2C or 3C on top of the 1C rise it has experienced since the start of the Industrial Revolution. However, only a 60 per cent cut in current greenhouse gas emissions will produce a stabilisation around that level. To date, politicians have not even got close to debating the kind of industrial changes that could bring that about.

They have a lot to talk about, in other words. Thankfully, that is what they have now agreed to do.

Copyright The Observer 11 December, 2005. Reproduced with permission.

'Kyoto Protocol is stronger'

Commenting on the outcome of the Montreal conference Greenpeace International campaigner, Steve Sawyer, said "How often does one walk into one of these things and come out at the end of it at 6 in the morning with just about everything you asked for coming in? Not very often."

"The Kyoto Protocol is stronger today than it was two weeks ago. This historic first Meeting of the Parties has acknowledged the urgency of the threat that climate change poses to the world's poorest people, and eventually, to all of us. The decisions made here have cleared the way for long term action," said Bill Hare, Greenpeace International Climate Policy Advisor in Montreal.

Key agreements

Greenpeace listed the agreements at Montreal as follows:

  • To start urgent negotiations on a new round of emission reduction targets for the second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol (2013-2017). A special group has been established to ensure that these negotiations are concluded "as soon as possible". This is necessary to ensure the continuity of carbon markets, and to allow governments to put policies and measures in place to ensure that the new, deeper emission reduction targets are met

  • To start now to review and improve the Kyoto Protocol. Mandated under the existing treaty, this review will formally begin at next year's meeting.

  • A Five Year Plan of Action on Adaptation, to assist least developed countries to cope with the impacts of climate change. This programme will begin to address the fact that climate change already impacts the world's poorest, and that it will get much worse in the coming decades. It is the ethical, political, and legal responsibility of the industrialised countries to provide for this.

    Historical footnote

    Greenpeace commented that "As expected, the Bush administration attempted to derail the process, at one point even walking out of the negotiations, but the rest of the world showed a resolve to move ahead regardless. For once, the Bush administration was forced back to the table and into agreement with the international community. No doubt the overwhelming presence of US civil society at these talks has had a positive effect.

    "The US has continued to attempt to lure countries away from the UN multilateral climate regime with its international emission trading to an ineffective approach based on voluntary actions and 'partnerships'. Today, however, governments have agreed to hold substantive talks beginning in May 2006 on the Kyoto Protocol's second commitment period, sending an unmistakable signal that we are on the road to new and more ambitious targets."

    According to Sawyer, "What will be remembered is that this was the moment when the future of the Kyoto Protocol and legally binding emissions reductions and the cap and trade system was secured...Australia and the US are isolated as never before, and the overwhelming presence of US state governments, cities, trade unions, businesses, churches, youth and many other parts of civil society gave the rest of the world confidence that Americans do care about climate change, and that the Bush administration's intransigence will sooner rather than later be remembered as an unfortunate historical footnote."

    Greenpeace

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