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

More Grappling with the Greenhouse Effect

Air Date: Week of

Host Jan Nunley discusses climate change policy with Alden Meyer of the Union of Concerned Scientists. Climate talks in Geneva have increased interest around a multinational strategy that rewards countries for helping to reduce greenhouse gas emissions anywhere — including in other nations.


NUNLEY: The Global Climate Change Treaty signed at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 goes into effect in March. It's a document that reflects many of the debates over the issue: scientific uncertainty, reluctance to make possibly expensive commitments, and rifts between rich and poor countries over how to share the burden of cutting greenhouse gases. The treaty's primary goal is to reduce worldwide greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by the end of the decade. But the countries which signed the document are still trying to figure out how to do that. Representatives of 180 countries met in Geneva in mid-February, and a lot of the discussion centered on what's known as joint implementation. For an explanation of what's turned into a major issue in the climate talks, we turn to Alden Meyer, the director of the Energy and Climate Change Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists.

MEYER: Basically, joint implementation is a very elegant theory that would allow industrial countries or other countries to meet some of their obligations under the treaty in terms of reducing emissions of greenhouse gases, by making investments or cooperating in projects in other countries. For example, the United States might help Poland or Czechoslovakia modernize some of its power plants and thereby reduce emissions of carbon dioxide from burning coal, and then take some credit for those reduced emissions toward the United States objective.

NUNLEY: So the basic idea is that since it's all one atmosphere it doesn't really matter where the reductions come from so long as they happen. So what problem do people see with that?

MEYER: Well, there's a number of concerns. First of all, only the industrial countries have taken on specific targets for greenhouse gas emissions. If you allow countries that have made specific commitments, such as the United States or western Europe, to in effect trade those commitments with developing countries that have made no binding commitment, you could see the industrial countries not reaching the target they had set for themselves, whereas the developing countries still have their emissions growing. And as a result, net planetary emissions continue to increase dramatically.

NUNLEY: Why is joint implementation a popular concept in the developed countries?

MEYER: Well, I think there's a couple of reasons. First of all, from an economic point of view, it makes a lot of sense if you have limited funds to put into reducing greenhouse gas emissions, to make sure that you are investing in the most cost-effective reduction measures, whether they're in the United States or India or Czechoslovakia. So from a theoretical point of view, it makes a lot of sense. There's also a political element to this, which is, I think, many industries in the west, in the industrial countries, would like to slow down the rate of change required of their industries in the industrial countries to deal with climate change. And one way they see of doing that is by pushing for measures in the developing countries to reduce their emissions.

NUNLEY: But the developing countries say that this is basically grandfathering overconsumption in the developed countries. Correct?

MEYER: There is that element of criticism of it. There's a concern that it's not equitable, but there's somewhat of a tension there as well because obviously the developing countries are looking for financial assistance and for technology transfer. And joint implementation is one way of augmenting the development assistance budgets which, as we know, are under a lot of pressure.

NUNLEY: Is there a way that everybody can get what they want using this strategy?

MEYER: Well, I think from the nongovernmental point of view, most of us see joint implementation as something that could be made to work in the context of serious reduction commitments by the industrial countries. The current commitments in the climate treaty only require the industrial countries to try to return their emissions back to 1990 levels by the year 2000, but make no commitment to actually reducing emissions below those levels. Now, in that context, we don't see a big role for joint implementation over the next 5 or 6 years. But, for example, if countries were able to adopt a goal of reducing emissions 20 or 25% below 1990 levels, then I think a lot of us would feel more comfortable having joint implementation be a part of the way they meet that commitment.

NUNLEY: Now that the countries have signed on to the treaty, there's a general feeling that it's not as strong as it needs to be. Are the countries willing to go back and make the agreement stronger now? Do they really have the ability to do that?

MEYER: Well, most of the industrial countries over the last couple of weeks in Geneva, including the United States, stated that in their view, the current treaty was inadequate. What they haven't done is spelled out specifics of how they think they would go below current emissions levels, what kind of commitments they would make. Would it be an additional percentage reduction country by country? Would it be commitments to implement specific energy efficiency measures? Would it be commitments to rapidly commercialize renewable energy technologies like solar and wind? So they haven't gotten down to the details, and I think the hope is that the next session of the negotiations in Geneva in the coming August, that they will put some specific proposals on the table.

NUNLEY: Alden Meyer of the Union of Concerned Scientists spoke with us from Washington, DC. Thanks for being with us.

MEYER: Thank you. Glad to be here.



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