Was it a fair COP in Marrakech?

Submitted by Anonymous on Tue, 11/09/2004 - 10:10

By Mark Lynas


Perhaps it was a signal of approval from on high. The night before a deal was done at the climate negotiations in Marrakech, the heavens opened and drought-stricken Morocco got some much needed rain.

But then perhaps it wasn’t. The rain stopped after half an hour, and the weather system moved on to neighbouring Algeria, where over a thousand people were killed in flashfloods and mudslides.

Of course very little of these outside realities filtered through to delegates meeting in the cloistered confines of the Marrakech Palais de Congres, despite an expedition organised by a Moroccan NGO to a mountain valley nearby where 250 people were killed in a similar flash flood event in 1995.

Instead, delegates were busily occupied with finalising the small print needed for implementing the Kyoto protocol, and especially with putting meat on the bones of the agreement reached at the resumed COP6 in Bonn last July.

This was no easy task. If the climate negotiations were complicated before, now they were almost completely unintelligible to anyone without a degree in law. Several delegates from poor countries and small island states confided that the linguistic gymnastics had made it nearly impossible for them to contribute. Their only option was to take refuge in the regional positions taken by the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS) and the G77 and China group of developing countries.

"I was the only delegate from my country," said Rickie Morain, from the Caribbean island of Grenada. "This was also my first COP, so I had a lot of work to do keeping up with the discussions. It did concern me that countries like Canada and Japan were able to send 50 to 100 delegates each, while I was expected to represent Grenada on my own." Despite this, he says that "I am happy to see that many of the outstanding sticky issues were being resolved or in some cases compromised upon in Marrakech."

The main (but generally unstated) objective of the conference was to keep Russia and Japan in the Protocol, following the withdrawal of the United States earlier this year. In order for Kyoto to come into force, parties representing 55% of industrialised country greenhouse gas emissions need to have ratified. This target can be achieved if the EU, Japan and Russia ratify. Canada is wavering, and Australia, which has just re-elected its unpleasantly right-wing Howard government, looks certain to stay out.

Ratification before Rio +10 (the World Summit on Sustainable Development, meeting in Johannesburg next September) has now become the overriding objective of pro-Kyoto parties like the EU, who want to see the Protocol coming into force by the time of the next big environmental summit. This would also constitute a clear ‘up yours’ to the Bush Administration, whose representatives in Marrakech, anticipating this embarrassing outcome, spent much of the conference trying to remove references to ‘climate change’ and the ‘Kyoto Protocol’ from the Marrakech Ministerial Declaration to the Rio +10 summit. Ultimately they failed, although the text is now a good deal more vacuous than was originally intended.

Apart from this spat, the other two great sticking points at COP7 were the issue of compliance, and Russia’s absurd demand to double its sinks allocation. ‘Sinks’, you’ll remember, are the cute name given to forests and agricultural practices which absorb carbon from the atmosphere. With very little reference to the considerable scientific uncertainties surrounding this issue, ‘sinks’ are assumed to absorb tonnes of CO2 in an equivalent way to them being released from fossil fuel combustion. (There are many reasons why this is a bogus assumption, which there isn’t time to go into here.) At Bonn, parties were given specific per-country caps on the sinks tonnes they could claim for forest management. At Marrakech, Russia demanded that its allowance of 17 megatonnes per year be increased to 33 megatonnes, and threatened not to ratify Kyoto unless other countries gave in, which they duly did.

There is only one reason why the Russians were so insistent with this particular piece of blackmail — hard cash. Russia is already set to be the big winner under Kyoto, because the collapse of its economy means it has already more than achieved its target of stabilising emissions at 1990 levels by 2008-12, and can sell the difference under emissions trading rules as so-called ‘hot air’. When sinks entered the equation, it didn’t take the Russians long to realise that if they could also count their forests against their Kyoto target, there would be even more ‘hot air’ available to sell to carbon-guzzling rich countries like Japan. Greenpeace has even coined a term for it: ‘laundered sinks’.

What it’s easy to forget amongst all the complexities is that the real reason sinks came to occupy such a big part of the Kyoto Protocol is that they were the only reliable way to weaken the original Kyoto targets. Once the deal was struck in 1997, industrialised countries were committed to an overall reduction of greenhouse gas emissions of 5% by 2008-12, a target which none of them are even vaguely on course to making (the only rich country exceptions are the UK and Germany, which have so far met their targets by mistake). Once agreed, these targets could not be changed directly, so sinks offered an easy way to do this via the back door, and allow the carbon-based economic growth boom these countries were enjoying to continue.

However, even with the sinks and other loopholes, industrialised country greenhouse gas emissions will still be much lower with Kyoto (perhaps by 10 to 15%) than would otherwise have been the case under a ‘business as usual’ scenario, a fact that is easy to overlook amongst all the Kyoto-cynicism. But this does depend on Bush being removed at the 2004 US election and replaced by an administration and a Congress which agree to ratify the Protocol. If Bush gets a second term, and the US stays out, global carbon emissions will continue to soar upwards, with Kyoto having only a negligible impact. The reason is simple mathematics. The US is the world’s largest polluter by far, responsible for over a third of global emissions. If it continues to pump out greenhouse gases at ever-increasing rates, the economic tinkerings of a loophole-ridden Protocol could look increasingly irrelevant.

Any real impact also depends on ratifying countries actually implementing Kyoto, another big ‘if’. It is this which has caused such a stink around the issue of ‘compliance’ — what happens when a party does not meet its targets. At Bonn, it was agreed that countries not in compliance would have to pay back carbon tonnes at a rate of 1.3 to 1 in the next ‘commitment period’ (2008-12 being the first commitment period), and would have their right to sell carbon credits suspended. But the question of whether or not to make the compliance regime binding under international law additionally seemed to cause an immense problem for the Japanese. No-one was really sure why, but it was rumoured to be something to do with a conflict with Japan’s domestic law. Anyway, in the small hours of the morning on the last day at Marrakech, the issue was fudged, and will now be decided only once the Protocol has come into force.

Of course, even if the full 5% from 1990 Kyoto reductions were achieved without the use of any loopholes the impact on the climate would be infinitesimally small — a point made repeatedly by both the fossil fuel industry and environmentalists. But Kyoto was never meant to be an end in itself, so it is perhaps unfair to slag it off for having no impact on the climate by 2100. We all know that 60-80% cuts in greenhouse gases are needed, so the main battleground will soon shift to what emissions reductions targets industrialised countries commit to in a second commitment period after 2012, and the equally thorny issue of whether developing countries like India and China — which have large overall but low per-capita emissions — come on board. The biggest task for environmentalists now is to change the domestic political realities in all of these countries, so that next time governments are sitting around the table, solving climate change is top not bottom of the agenda.

Kyoto essentially represents a battle lost by the environmental community — a good idea which was gradually gutted by powerful economic interests until the market mechanisms and emerging carbon trade became increasingly more important than the reductions themselves. The only way to win round two of the climate war — maybe the last chance we’ll have globally to head off catastrophic global warming — is for civil society (manifested through electoral and on-the-streets pressure on governments more than elite NGO lobbying in the corridors) to have a powerful voice.

In summary, if the loopholes are used and the Americans stay out, Kyoto will have lost us ten vital years. On the other hand, if it is implemented fully and begins to turn around a carbon-dependent global economy, it could still represent an important first step. But it’s a gamble - and all the time the clock is still ticking.