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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Climate Change Talks

Air Date: Week of

The next round of negotiations on an international treaty to deal with climate change begins later this month in the Netherlands. Host Steve Curwood talks with author Ross Gelbspan about the make or break issues and the possibility of a breakdown of the Kyoto Protocol.


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth, I'm Steve Curwood. This month in the Hague, Netherlands the next round of the international negotiations on a treaty to cut greenhouse gases will take place. So far thirty countries have ratified the Kyoto Protocol, but 55 are needed for the agreement to go into effect. Many are saying these negotiations are make or break for the treaty. Joining us now to talk about them is Ross Gelbspan, author of The Heat Is On: The Climate Crisis, the Cover-up and the Prescription. "Hi Ross, how are you?

GELBSPAN: Hi Steve, thanks for having me on the show.

CURWOOD: Ross, what's on the table this time around?

GELBSPAN: On the table this time around in the Hague, Steve, basically is an attempt to finally define key mechanisms to put the Kyoto Protocol into action. In particular delegates will try to hammer out rules to govern emissions trading, they will also try to resolve the issue as to whether sinks will be allowed as counting toward countries' obligations. Sinks are basically trees and vegetation that absorb carbon dioxide. These will be very excruciating negotiations.

CURWOOD: What are the issues and problems with sinks and trading emissions?

GELBSPAN: In terms of emissions trading, under which basically countries that emit more than they are allowed to can buy rights from countries that don't emit as much. The real problem is this emissions trading is not monitorable, there's no enforcement mechanism and it's the source of huge equity controversies between the countries of the north and south. For instance the countries of the north want their emissions allocations based on 1990 levels to ensure continuity of their economies. The countries of the south say no, they should be based on a per capita level and that would mean if every resident of the U.S. had the same emissions rights as every resident of India that our economy would go down the tubes. I happen to think there is moral justice behind both arguments but that's a very, very serious issue here.

CURWOOD: And the sinks?

GELBSPAN: There are serious problems with the sinks approach. Sinks are basically means, is a shorthand for the use of vegetation and trees to absorb atmospheric carbon dioxide. The Clinton administration announced this summer that the U.S. can virtually meet all its obligations by planting trees. The problem with that ultimately is this: the UN body of 2000 scientists from 100 countries are basically the main body on climate science is very clear that to allow our climate to restabilize in a hospitable way requires global emissions reductions of 60 to 80%. And if all the world's forests were preserved and barren areas were reforested that would only account for about 15% of that obligation. It's a very inadequate mechanism.

CURWOOD: How will the U.S. respond then?

GELBSPAN: Probably not very strongly. You have a presidency with no mandate, given the closeness of the election, you have a divided Senate, and I think until you feel the force of a very strong seachange happening in the corporate world which is now beginning to understand the huge economic opportunities involved in a global energy transition, I think it will take that before you see any real movement on the part of the U.S. government.

CURWOOD: That's going to take a lot of time, what will the Europeans do?

GELBSPAN: Well, it's interesting. The Europeans are already breaking ranks with the U.S. They are disgusted with U.S. foot dragging in these negotiations. As a result, Holland just completed a plan to cut its emissions by 80% in the next 40 years, Britain has committed to 60% cuts in the next 50 years, Germany's looking at 50% cuts. It's very encouraging in the sense that these countries want to move very aggressively to deal with the climate crisis, but it could be very depressing because it could signal a total diplomatic meltdown of the Kyoto process.

CURWOOD: Now if the Kyoto negotiations do collapse, what happens next?

GELBSPAN: Well, I think you will see the world regroup and come at this problem much more aggressively. I think they will drop these low Kyoto goals and really shoot for the 60 to 80% reductions that are required. The scientific community is saying the climate is changing far more quickly than they had originally anticipated and that the systems of the planet are way more sensitive to even a little bit of warming than they had thought. So I would foresee governments coming up with much more sweeping changes. For instance, changes in the subsidy, energy subsidy policies in industrial countries. Today the U.S. spends $20 billion a year subsidizing coal and oil. I could see that money being taken away from fossil fuels and put behind renewable energies as a big incentive for the oil companies to become aggressive developers of fuel cells and solar systems and wind farms and so forth.

CURWOOD: Could you say that right now businesses are leading the U.S. government in this area?

GELBSPAN: Multinationally, I would say absolutely. Shell has just spent $500 million on a new core company to create renewable energies, British Petroleum anticipates doing a billion dollars a year in solar commerce by the end of the decade, Ford and Daimler Chrysler have just invested a billion dollars to start turning out fuel cell cars by the year 2004. So I actually think the real lead in this whole area is coming from the corporate community now.

CURWOOD: Ross Gelbspan is author of The Heat Is On: The Climate Crisis, the Cover-up and the Prescription. Thanks for taking this time with us today.

GELBSPAN: Thank you so much Steve.



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