BRUSSELS -- Environmentalists have greeted the European Union' s decision to ratify the Kyoto Protocol on climate change with relief and applause.
The Kyoto Protocol -- adopted at the third session of the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in Kyoto, Japan, on December 11, 1997 -- commits the 15 EU nations to reduce carbon dioxide emissions to 8 per cent over the period 2008-2012 compared to 1990 levels.
Carbon Dioxide, emitted by motor vehicles and industries that burn fossil fuels, is blamed for climate change and global warming.
''The EU decision to ratify the Kyoto Protocol is an historic benchmark towards its entry into force by the time of the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg,'' said Michel Raquet, Greenpeace climate advisor after the ratification on Monday.
''The whole Kyoto protocol was at stake today. This act sends a clear and definitive signal to all countries around the world that the EU is serious about Kyoto.''
Matthias Duwe, Climate Policy Researcher at Climate Network Europe, said: ''It sends a strong political signal to the rest of the world, particularly to Moscow and Tokyo. It shows that the 15 EU member states want to fulfill their commitment together and act as one voice.''
According to environmental NGOs, Japan and Russia have been waiting for the EU to make the first move before they go ahead and ratify.
Two conditions are needed for the Kyoto Protocol to come into force: it must be ratified by 55 countries, and ratifying parties together must represent at least 55 per cent of world emissions.
So far 47 countries had ratified, but of these only two are industrialized -- Romania and Mexico.
Once the Protocol has been signed by countries making up at least 55 per cent of world emissions it will take at least 90 days for the Protocol to enter into force. If the EU is to live up to its commitment to ratify before the Johannesburg summit (August 26 -- September 4), all the 15 member states must send their ratification letters to the United Nations by the first week of June. Now that the EU has ratified the text as a body, there is a real possibility that the EU can live up to its self-imposed deadline.
A common document endorsed by EU Environment Ministers on Monday says that the implementation of the Kyoto Protocol will preserve, protect and improve the quality of the environment, protect human health, contribute to the prudent and rational use of natural resources and promote measures at the international level to deal with regional or world-wide environmental problems.
The current president in the EU's six-month rotating presidency, Jaume Matas Palou said: ''Climate change is the most serious environmental problem faced by the EU. Ratification by the EU is an important achievement that will save the Kyoto Protocol.''
But EU commitment is not enough on its own, he said. ''The EU will keep open negotiations with other countries to encourage them to ratify,'' he said.
''This is a great day for climate and a great day for sustainable development,'' said the EU's Environment Commissioner Margot Wallström.
''It allows us to maintain our credibility and keep taking the lead in climate change policy. Of course all countries have to act, but we in the EU have a certain responsibility and have to take the lead on this.''
Wallström admitted that there is a certain cost to implementing Kyoto. '' We estimate that Kyoto will only cost 0.06 per cent of GDP if efficient means such as emissions trading are used. If less efficient means are used it could cost 0.3 per cent. But climate change also costs.''
Wallström announced that she will immediately write to the governments of Russia, Japan and Australia, urging them to speed up the ratification process.
Activists say that the EU's commitment to Kyoto can no longer be questioned, and it is just a matter of time before the rules come into force.
All the EU member states have to ratify Kyoto separately, and also as a whole. ''It's a done deal. We know all the conditions and all the details. We now just have to get the processes though national parliaments,'' said Duwe.
NGOs are most concerned about Italy and Greece, the two countries that are most behind in their internal procedures. ''The finalization of national procedures must not thwart the overall EU commitment,'' said Duwe.
The European Union also declared itself opposed to the Bush climate plan, saying that Kyoto is the only credible international instrument to tackle climate change. Wallström said: ''We have calculated that the Bush plan will even allow the U.S. to increase its emissions by up to 33 per cent.''
The Bush plan, much of which must be approved by Congress before it can be implemented, proposes a 'cap and trade' system that would set limits for emissions of three major air pollutants -- but not carbon dioxide.
Under this plan, permits would be assigned for each ton of pollution. By cutting emissions, firms would save up these permits for use at a later date or to trade with other businesses. By contrast, the international community' s Kyoto Protocol insists on mandatory reductions.
Also in preparation for the Johannesburg World Summit, EU Ministers adopted a set of conclusions on the EU's sustainable development strategy (SDS). Environment ministers declared that the EU's SDS concentrates too much on economic and social issues, and overlooks the importance of the environment.
The European Parliament had also demanded that the environment be placed on an equal footing with economic and social policy in a resolution adopted on February 28. Members of the European Parliament are asking for specific targets to measure the reversal of unsustainable trends.
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