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

Curwood Reporting from Kyoto

Air Date: Week of

Steve Curwood talks with Laura Knoy about what is happening at the climate negotiation treaty in Kyoto, Japan where some five thousand representatives from one-hundred-fifty nations are gathered to discuss global climate change and greenhouse gas emissions.


KNOY: This is Living on Earth. I'm Laura Knoy.
After 2 years of talks about a new version of the United Nations climate change treaty, diplomats are coming down to the final days of negotiation in Kyoto, Japan. But it's unclear if, in fact, a consensus can be reached. Greenhouse gas emissions around the world have continued to rise rapidly, despite a climate protection agreement signed in 1992, that set voluntary limits. But efforts by more than 160 nations to set binding limits on carbon dioxide, and other pollution linked to climate, have gotten bogged down in a complicated set of disputes. Living on Earth host Steve Curwood is at the talks, and joins me now on the line from Kyoto. Hi, Steve.

CURWOOD: Hey, Laura.

KNOY: Steve, what's going on? Why are these negotiations so sticky?

CURWOOD: Well, Laura, I think it's well to remember just how much money is involved in the activities that produce greenhouse gases. I mean, Americans alone, just on this one day, today, will spend almost a half a billion dollars on gas and oil. And transportation's only about a third of what we spend on energy. So that means that people in the energy and related businesses have large sums at stake, and they're here in force, especially those who feel they have something to lose.

KNOY: What are those businesspeople doing?

CURWOOD: Well, over 800 of them took over a major downtown hotel here, and held a paralleled 2-day conference, in which they spoke out against binding limits on greenhouse gases, and called for the present voluntary measures to continue. Now, some of the businesspeople here do represent innovative approaches, for energy conservation, and renewables that will combat global warming, but there's a strong presence here of the Global Climate Coalition, which is made up of many of the major oil and coal producers and US car makers. These folks say a new treaty would be bad for business, and they are determined to stop it in its tracks, and Laura, if the present mood continues, they may well get their way.

KNOY: What is the present mood, Steve?

CURWOOD: Well, it's pretty cranky. I mean, things are stuck. They haven't gone very well. Tensions are especially high over the US insistence that the developing countries make some sort of commitment now, to a schedule for binding limits. Now, that certainly makes sense, in the broader picture, if you think about it. I mean, every nation needs to help fight the threat of global warming. But the developing countries say they feel sandbagged on this, because back in 1995, when everyone agreed it was time to set binding limits, the industrialized nations said they would go first. So now, at the last minute, says the developing countries, the US is trying to change the rules of the game. They don't like it. But the US Senate, you remember, passed a resolution demanding this last summer. Some called it a poison pill back then, and it certainly is proving to be bitter for the developing world to swallow. And this might just be what ends up standing in the way of a deal.

KNOY: Is anyone else there--cranky, as you put it?

CURWOOD: Well, yeah, the Europeans aren't very happy either. They don't like it that the US waited so long to put a proposal on the table--it was just back in October--and from their perspective, the essence of the US proposal is a 10-year delay of implementing what was promised in 1992. And plus, the US has been putting the heat on the Europeans, to admit that their so-called bubble, that is, considering the European Union as one emitting unit, that would allow the emissions of some European countries to rise, as long as the overall average declined, that it gives the Europeans an unfair economic advantage, and the Europeans don't like being caught with their hand in the cookie jar.

KNOY: Steve, has there been any progress at all? Anything agreed to?

CURWOOD: Well, in fact, it does seem that the Europeans and the developing countries have agreed in principle, to the US proposal of having different targets for different countries, as long as things are balanced towards a net reduction in world emissions. But there's a problem in the details, here, and no one's quite sure exactly how it would work, because if everyone gets the choice, then no one will want to reduce any more than another country, and there could be--no reductions. It seems that what they'll do in the end, if they decide to incorporate this in the agreement, and they said they are going to try to do this, they'll kind of arbitrarily set what each country's limit is going to be. It'll be a political decision.

KNOY: So, where does it all go from here?

CURWOOD: Well, so far, it's been largely bureaucrats who've been haggling here. And shortly, the politicians will come, and the talks will move up to the ministerial level. Now, presumably, these ministers, and of course, the Vice President of the United States, will have more flexibility. And historically, these kinds of talks come right down to the last hours of the last day. So, quite a bit could happen. I mean, for example, the United States might agree to much sharper reductions in greenhouse gases, if we were allowed to, say, buy large amounts of emissions credits from someplace like, Russia, or the Ukraine. Now, you recall that the Germans have achieved remarkable cuts, in part because the Berlin Wall came down, and they closed a bunch of polluted plants in the former East Germany. The former Soviet Union emissions are now 30% below 1990 levels. What if they sell some of those credits to us? Perhaps we would find it in our interests to give them some badly needed aid, maybe some cash to help put a better lid on Chernobyl, or to dismantle some nuclear warheads?

KNOY: Steve, you talked about what the diplomats and the bureaucrats are doing in Kyoto. What are the scientists saying there?

CURWOOD: Well, they're saying a lot. Virtually every day there's a press conference here, about one study or another, that a scientist has, talking about a threat from climate change. A vanishing species; declines in human health; prospect of climate snaps in Europe, that could really reduce the habitability of northern Europe; and along with the science, almost all of these briefings include a plea to the negotiators, to try to find a solution, so that these threats from climate change can be averted before it's too late.

KNOY: Well, Steve, take care. Thanks for talking with us, and we'll hear from you next week.

CURWOOD: My pleasure, Laura.



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