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Germany: Climate Deal Is Weak

From the Hague to Bonn: Snatching Retreat from the Jaws of Defeat

by Bonner R. CohenEarth Times News Service
July 24th, 2001

BONN, Germany -- One of the surest indications that trouble is at hand is when diplomats start hiding behind catchy phrases and meaningless terminology. Participants and observers to the COP-6 Climate Change Conference here have been told that a "breakthrough," "deal," or "compromise" (take your pick) had been achieved.

The Kyoto Protocol, we have been given to understand, has been "rescued," and the "process" will go forward. These and similar sentiments were prominently on display at a hastily called press conference Monday at which the adoption of new rules for implementing the Kyoto Protocol were announced.

Margot Wallstrm, the European Union's Environmental Commissioner and a leading figure in the EU's struggle to avoid another Hague failure, assured the press that "commitments on what is to be done" had been made, and that a "structure for compliance" had been created. The structure, however, is completely lacking in anything other than words that could hold it together.

At issue is a question that has plagued global warming negotiations for years and -- brave rhetoric notwithstanding -- went unanswered in Bonn. What is to be done with those countries who do not keep their "legally binding" commitments to reduce their emissions of greenhouse gasses by dates set forth in the Kyoto Protocol?

Absent any enforcement mechanism worthy of the name, the answer is nothing. The rules adopted in Bonn contain no such enforcement mechanism, meaning that the commitments made by the parties to the global warming treaty are subject to what the political and economic circumstances prevailing in each country will tolerate. Small wonder that the US delegation, representing a nation which has rejected the Kyoto Protocol, chose not to interfere with the deal struck in Bonn. The Americans have nothing to fear. The treaty is no more workable now than it was eight months ago when the first round of COP-6 talks collapsed in The Hague.

What's more, to keep Japan, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand from joining the Americans and wandering off the reservation, the EU had to swallow its pride (or what's left of it) and accept "sinks" as a means of reducing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. It was over sinks that Americans and Europeans parted company in the Hague. What the EU adamantly refused to accept then, turns out now to be something it can live with, at least on a limited basis.

Emissions trading, also once a taboo in the EU, is now acceptable if it helps keep the Japanese, Australians, etc. on board. Greenpeace is quite right when it says that "what has survived is a weaker version of the agreement than was adopted in Kyoto in 1997."

Desperate to keep the enterprise afloat, negotiators in Bonn have watered down the treaty so much that they have created a diplomatic wetland. The wetland's purpose is to prod the industrialized countries to ratify the Kyoto Protocol and thus isolate the United States. The key to this strategy is to get Japan and Australia to break with the US and ratify the treaty. Don't hold your breath. Japan has been in the economic doldrums for a decade and recently slipped back into a recession. Cutting its greenhouse-gas emissions plays a poor second fiddle to restoring its economic viability. What's more, Japan is keeping a wary eye on China and is in no mood to stray too far from the American security guarantee. Tokyo knows that the EU can offer no such protection.

Australia, the world's largest exporter of coal, was never enthusiastic about Kyoto in the first place. It went along with the idea only because the Clinton-Gore administration wanted it to. Now that the Bush administration has rejected the treaty, the Australians may follow the Americans to the exit. The rules adopted in Bonn will alter this not in the least. "Face" was saved in Bonn. The "process" will continue. But Kyoto remains the most fragile of entities.

Bonner R. Cohen is a senior fellow at the Lexington Institute in Arlington, VA.





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