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

What Happened at Kyoto Summit

Air Date: Week of

Years of negotiations over a climate change prevention treaty are over, and the world has begun to absorb the impact of the unprecedented deal. The Kyoto accord establishes a new world currency, of sorts: tradable emission reduction credits, that nations and private companies can trade. And while developed countries have reduction targets, the developing countries will not have binding limits in this phase of the climate convention. Parties to the treaty will meet again next year to review the pact. Living On Earth host Steve Curwood attended the Kyoto talks and has reports this assessment of the outcome.


KNOY: It's Living on Earth. I'm Laura Knoy.
Years of negotiations over a climate change prevention treaty are over, and the world has begun to absorb the impact of the unprecedented deal. Under the terms of the Kyoto Protocol, most industrialized nations are legally bound to cut collective emissions of 6 greenhouse gases by an average 5% below 1990 levels. Their deadline: the year 2012. The US will reduce emissions by 7%, Japan by 6%, and the Europeans by 8%. The Kyoto Accord also establishes a new world currency of sorts: tradeable emission reduction credits that nations and private companies can trade. But developing countries will not have binding limits in this phase of the climate convention. Parties to the treaty will meet again next year to review the pact. Living on Earth host Steve Curwood attended the Kyoto talks, and has this assessment of the outcome.

(Ambient conversation)

CURWOOD: Even as the final wording of the accord was being worked out in Kokusaikaijijo, the giant convention hall here in the ancient capitol of Japan, it was clear that what was agreed to in Kyoto will continue to evolve and remain controversial in the months, if not years, ahead. There are many players who must implement the goals and timetables set out in this agreement to combat global warming. Consider the business community, which is of 2 minds on the measure. On the one hand is Fred Smith, president of the think tank The Competitive Enterprise Institute. He sees the Kyoto accord as simply bad for American business.

SMITH: I think it's one of the most disastrous moves that has ever been made in US foreign policy.

CURWOOD: On the other hand, you have Ron Schiffler, executive director of International Utility Efficiency Partnerships, an emissions trading group working with business. Emissions trading is the key element of the US-backed market approach to reduce greenhouse gases, that was adopted by industrialized nations, and Mr. Schiffler is excited about the possibilities.

SCHIFFLER: What we have here is the creation of a new environmental commodity. A commodity market that may be approaching several hundred million dollars in value very shortly.

CURWOOD: But emissions trading is one of the issues that developing nations balked at while considering the accord, with the loudest objections coming from China, India, and Saudi Arabia. They say it lets rich nations simply buy their way out of cutting emissions. Developing nations came to the Kyoto conference angered by a last-minute attempt by the United States to force them to accept binding limits, even before industrialized societies had made a clear commitment themselves. The developing nations see it as a matter of equity. For example, your average American emits 10 times the amount of greenhouses gases as does your average Chinese. Gaining cooperation from the less-developed countries won't be easy, says Phil Clapp, who heads the National Environmental Trust in Washington.

CLAPP: The most important piece is that we have to work with the developing countries to bring them in, in a way that recognizes their level of economic development, the aspirations of their people for an improved lifestyle. I felt one of the most apt statements at this conference was someone said that what we really had here was the nations of sport utility vehicles telling the nations who rode bicycles that they could never even have a scooter. And that, in essence, is a very, very serious limitation on their ability to improve their lifestyles. And what we have to do is put together a package that really recognizes their state of development.

CURWOOD: Mr. Clapp says lending policies that encourage sustainable development and the sharing of technology with the developing world will be key. When all is said and done, he suggests, energy efficiency standards, rather than emissions caps, may be the more appropriate way to ensure that development does not overwhelm the Earth's atmosphere. K. Sakura, Minister of the Environment of Indonesia, one of the 4 largest developing nations, says in time Indonesia will make firm commitments to control greenhouse gases if 2 conditions are met.

SAKURA: First is the seriousness and sincerity that we sense here from the developed countries. It's a very important precondition.

CURWOOD: You mean, in terms of implementing the Kyoto Accord.

SAKURA: Implementing the Kyoto Accord. And then the second thing is the economic advantage, yeah, of joining the wagon, so to speak. I'm not pessimistic on these 2 counts, because basically this is the direction that the world has to move to in the first place. There's no getting away from that, because climate change is not good for anybody.

CURWOOD: Without binding limits on emissions from the developing nations, the Kyoto Agreement could be rejected by the US Senate, which must ratify any deal. John Kerry, a Democrat from Massachusetts, came to Kyoto and told a press gathering here it doesn't make sense for President Clinton to seek ratification right away. Senator Kerry says the US should seek bilateral agreements with key developing countries such as China, Brazil, and Indonesia first.

KERRY: I would actually counsel the President to go very slowly with respect to ratification. I'd say sign it, let us try to begin to implement, let's assume our responsibility as a nation to do the best we can. And as we go down the road, we can bring other nations in and put it into a position so that hopefully it ultimately were to get 100 votes in the United States Senate.

CURWOOD: And more time, Senator Kerry says, will let public opinion build in favor of climate protection. Recent polls show a majority of Americans favor a hike in the gas tax if it will help prevent global warming. Delay will also allow the Kyoto accord to become a campaign issue for Democrats in the election next fall. Senator Kerry claims Republicans in business too often exaggerate the cost of environmental protection.

KERRY: When we did the Clean Air fight in the Senate back in, I think it was 86, I remember the automobile industry and coal industry and others telling us that the price of reducing one ton of emissions at that point, SO2, would be $1,500. And that it was going to radically alter the economy of our country. In point of fact, because of the technology curve and the implementations of that technology, it cost $6. This is an opportunity to create jobs, to create new technologies for new companies to be born for a major transition. And I think that that is a fight I'm willing to fight in the United States Senate.

CURWOOD: Clement Mahlin, a vice president of Texaco and chairman of the International Chamber of Commerce, says there are good reasons for business to be concerned about the Kyoto agreement. Climate protection is important, Mr. Mahlin says, but meeting the accord's timetables could jeopardize jobs.

MAHLIN: Long-term, I'm a very confirmed optimist about the world's, the US economy in particular, to be able to meet a challenge of this sort. Short-term, we're going to have some very, very substantial transaction costs.

CURWOOD: One of those costs Mr. Mahlin may well be concerned about involves the American automobile fleet. Adam Werbach, president of the Sierra Club, says it's time President Clinton followed his own staff recommendations and used his executive powers to raise fuel efficiency standards for cars and light trucks.

WERBACH: Domestically we need to take the biggest single step we can do to curb global warming, which is working on CAFE standards. We need to be at 45 miles per gallon for cars. We also need to move up on light trucks as well, because light trucks are a huge loophole right now and the United States is really paying the price for that.

CURWOOD: In the end, the work done in Kyoto is only a beginning, but it marks a milestone. The accord is perhaps the most complex set of international negotiations ever conducted. And it will have a massive impact on the world's economies and ecologies. To halt global warming, scientific studies point to the need for much sharper reductions in greenhouse gas emissions than what was called for in Kyoto. But many delegates, observers, and activists here say at least the first step has been taken. For Living on Earth, I'm Steve Curwood in Kyoto, Japan.



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