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

The Hague

Air Date: Week of

Negotiators from 185 countries, meeting at the Hauge in the Netherlands, have failed to agree on final details of the Kyoto Protocol, the international agreement to reduce green house gas emissions. The sticking point came around the methods that industrialized countries should be allowed to use to meet their reductions. Living On Earth’s Steve Curwood was in the Hague and speaks with Diane Toomey about the controversy between the U.S. and the European Union on this issue.


CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.

TOOMEY: And I'm Diane Toomey. Talks in the Hague that were supposed to put the final touches on the Kyoto protocol to fight climate change collapsed November 24th. Steve, you spent much of that week in t the Hague with climate negotiators. What went wrong?

CURWOOD: A lot, Diane. One could say that the negotiators couldn't see the forest for the trees - literally. Now, one of the undone pieces of the Kyoto accord is - how much credit nations should get for what's called "carbon sinks" --things like forest and agricultural products that soak up carbon dioxide. Under the Kyoto Protocol the U.S. has committed to cutting the equivalent 600 million tons of carbon emissions a year, and we've done the math in this country and we say that we have 300 million tons a year that is taken up by trees and we should get credit for that. Well, that's what we walked into the negotiations with, anyway. In effect, that meant that the U.S. was trying to reduce its commitment by half. Later in the negotiations, we lowered our demand 125 million tons and ultimately, there was a deal with the negotiating team of Europeans for 75 million tons.

TOOMEY: So, at certain point, there was a deal on the table.

CURWOOD: Exactly. Hands were shaken around the table, and then the Europeans went back to the entire European community - a sub-committee had come to the U.S. and the deal fell apart because many of the Europeans said, "Nope, this is too much of a free ride for the U.S., which is, after all, the biggest source of industrial carbon in other greenhouse gasses" so the Europeans held out at 25 million tons. Now, I'm told that at various times in the last hours the US went to 50 and down to 40 but the gap was never closed and negotiations broke off.

TOOMEY: Why were there such high stakes over carbon-sync credits?

CURWOOD: Well, there are a couple reasons. Let's look domestically at the U.S. and politics here. Now, it's true that forests have the vast bulk of carbon but farming practices do account for about 25 million tons. Now, when you consider the opposition in the U.S. Senate to the Kyoto process so far, there are a lot of senators from farm states. And if farmers maybe would be getting cash or credits and connection with fighting global warming, that might change the minds of a lot of senators and maybe, tip the balance towards ratifying the treaty. The U.S. also wanted to get something for the forestry crowd.

TOOMEY: What's your take though on why the Europeans were so tough on this issue?

CURWOOD: Uh, well they were rolling their eyes at the notion that the U.S. could get, what they saw as, a free ride here. They see us as trying to dodge making hard choices such as building more efficient cars, shifting to renewable energy, changing our tax policies to encourage the conservations of fossil fuels. I mean, they see us riding around SUV's and say, "Excuse me, can you do something about that?" Americans use twice as much energy per capita - three times as much as the Japanese.

TOOMEY: Any other reasons?

CURWOOD: Yeah - the European politics, Diane. A number of the environmental ministers are from the Green party or the equivalent of it and they're pretty strong environmentalists. And this includes the Germans, the French, the Swedes, the Danes. Um, they were looking at home at the elections and they couldn't give, what they thought was, a free ride.

TOOMEY: How does the science play out in all of this?

CURWOOD: Good question, Diane. There's a lot of controversy over the science because the Europeans, in particular, see it as voodoo science that trees are going to sequester all this carbon forever. What happens if there's a forest fire, for one thing? They had a study from the British government don't always help global warming. Here's what the top climate researcher for the British government told me in an interview:

JENKENS: For example, if you plant trees - so called Kyoto forests - to absorb CO2 and if climate changes in such a way that those trees don't grow as fast as you think then the amount of CO2 that your going to absorb and take credit for is going to be much less than you thought, perhaps. Now, the other thing that trees do when you plant them is to darken the surface. If you think of an underlying surface that has got no vegetation and if trees are planted there and they grow then if you look at the earth from outside the planet you will see that those areas are much darker. Now, when they're darker they absorb more sunlight which warms the planet. And in some parts in the world, perhaps in northern parts of the American continent and the Asian continent, there may be areas where planting of trees overall is actually warming climate rather than cooling it.

CURWOOD: Jeff Jenkins of the British government's Hadley Center.

TOOMEY: So, the Europeans had a number of reasons to be nervous about carbon sinks. But this deal was so close. Why did it break off?

CURWOOD: Diane, I think an important reason is the level of the delegation the U.S. sent to the Hague. Frank Lloyd, the head of our delegation, is smart, he's competent, he's capable but he is Under-Secretary of State. He's well down the pecking order when it comes to international diplomacy. The French sent their president; the Brits sent their Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott, the equivalent of vice president. There were other presidents and equivalents of vice presidents and plenty of full cabinet level ministers. We sent a deputy cabinet level minister. Now when things got stuck in Kyoto in 1997, Al Gore, Vice President of the United States showed up. This time Al Gore was nowhere to be seen. By the way, there were a number of U.S. senators though who did show up. Democrat John Kerry of Massachusetts pushed hard on the delegation to be responsive and Republican Larry Craig of Idaho did inject an interesting note suggesting that if the Kyoto pact does get finished the U.S. Senate may be more willing to ratify it. Senator Craig has been a long time critic of the Kyoto process and a skeptic of humans causing global warming.

CRAIG: I think there is now a coming together of scientific minds that suggest that "yes the climate is warming and greenhouse gasses produced by all of us we believe may be a contributor of 30 to 40 percent a little more a little less" and if that's so, then it is significantly increasing the heating cycle.

CURWOOD: Republican Senator Larry Craig from Idaho.

TOOMEY: So the talks have broken down, everyone has gone home, what happens next?

CURWOOD: Well, technically this meeting was suspended so it could resume at any time, presumably after some footwork has been done. The French would like this soon, before a new U.S. president has been sworn in. That remains to be seen. There is another low level session already scheduled for late May that could be upgraded to a high level one. In the meantime, the urgency remains. The Europeans, in particular, are anxious to move foreword after the recent spate of flooding in Britain and in Western Europe. Public opinion there is linking these storms to climate change.

TOOMEY: Well thanks Steve, I'm sure we'll be following these developments.

CURWOOD: Living on Earth will be there, as always.



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