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

Climate Change Talks

Air Date: Week of

Living On Earth’s Jesse Wegman talks with host Steve Curwood about the latest United Nation's Conference on Climate Change held in Bonn, Germany last week -- and how the negotiations might impact the chance for ratification of the Kyoto Protocol next year.


CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Delegates from around the world have just finished meeting in Bonn, Germany, for the fifth annual conference of the parties of the United Nations Climate Change Convention. More than 5,000 representatives from governments, businesses, and environmental organizations met to try to tie up some contentious loose ends on the document known as the Kyoto Protocol. And they have a deadline. Next year they must finalize this document aimed at curbing the world's greenhouse gas emissions. Among the contentious issues: how developing countries will be involved, and how flexibility mechanisms will be used. That is, how one nation might trade emissions with another. Living on Earth's Jesse Wegman is in Bonn. He attended the negotiation, and he speaks to us now on the line. Hey, Jess.

WEGMAN: Hi, Steve.

CURWOOD: Jess, I understand that there was talk in Bonn of going ahead and putting the Kyoto Protocol into force without the United States.

WEGMAN: Yes, Steve. The U.S. has always been seen as the main foot-dragger in these ongoing climate change talks. And this year's negotiations didn't do much to dispel that. Add to that, the fact that U.S. emissions continue to rise. Some estimates were putting them nearly 40 percent above their reduction target by 2010. And you get a lot of people beginning to wonder if the U.S. will really be able to ratify this protocol on anywhere near the same time frame as the rest of the industrialized world.
Of course, the U.S. insists that it is committed to Kyoto and that ratification will happen in due course, as soon as the questions over those flexibility mechanisms are ironed out. But those are big and contentious issues, and most of them didn't get much closer to resolution at this conference. So, groups from a few European countries, Germany in particular, have started to look at the possibility of going ahead with the protocol without U.S. involvement.

CURWOOD: Is this possible, Jess? I mean, the U.S. is the world's biggest emitter of greenhouse gases.

WEGMAN: Yes, it's true. And whether it can succeed really depends on whom you talk to. As you know, for the protocol to go into effect, it needs to be ratified by 55 countries representing 55 percent of industrial greenhouse gas emissions worldwide. Now, conventional wisdom has long been that without the U.S., ratification would simply be impossible. But a paper just released by the Heinrich Boll Foundation here in Germany has crunched some numbers. And it argues that if the European Union and Japan can get together with Russia and what are known as the economies in transition, the Eastern European countries, they will just meet that 55 percent requirement. Whether or not this is realistic, and the U.S. delegation here, as well as business representatives, certainly thought it wasn't, it's an intriguing idea. And it perked up a lot of ears here. One U.N. representative told me it was the most exciting thing he head during the whole meeting.

CURWOOD: Okay. It's one thing for a foundation to make this kind of proposal or issue a study. But it's another thing for governments to say they're willing to go along. What do the governments say, in particular Germany and Russia?

WEGMAN: Well, everyone treaded pretty lightly at the conference. They know that for the Kyoto Protocol to be at all effective in the long run, it's essential that the U.S. be involved. No one disputes that. But right on the first day of the conference, German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder came in and he said, "We're absolutely committed to getting this protocol into force by 2002." That prompted the same commitment from a number of other countries around the world, including most of the rest of the European Union and Japan. So, while that's not explicit, it definitely represents a collective will here among many of the bigger industrialized countries to get the ball rolling. I did speak with a member of the Russian delegation who said that while they're certainly supportive of U.S. involvement in the protocol, they would be willing to join whether or not the U.S. does. And I think that's the feeling on the part of many of the developed countries here, that they're not going to wait.

CURWOOD: Well, Jesse, if this happens and the protocol goes ahead after next year without the U.S., do you think the U.S. might then move more quickly?

WEGMAN: Well, some people suggested that the idea alone will push the U.S. to move faster toward ratification. Of course, the U.S. delegation keeps insisting they are completely committed to ratifying the protocol. But you know, there was a fair deal of skepticism here about that. In fact, there was a funny moment the other day, during the high-level ministerial sessions, that I want to play for you. What happened here was that each country was coming up and giving a speech for about three minutes, and then the president of the conference was saying goodbye and introducing the next speaker. And that was it; it was a very formal process. But here is what happened when Frank Loy the head of the U.S. delegation finished giving his speech.

LOY: Much needs to be done. Let us muster the political imagination and the determination, so that we may meet this great challenge, and so that we may pass on a healthy, livable planet. Thank you.


CONFERENCE PRESIDENT: On behalf of the conference, I thank the distinguished representative of the United States of America for his statement. Mr. Loy, you will have noticed that we very carefully listened to what you said, and that we all have noted down the implicit commitment in your statement.

(Audience laughter)

CURWOOD: Boy, that's about as pointed as things get in a diplomatic situation, huh?

WEGMAN: Yeah. And as you can tell, Steve, people were pretty wary of the U.S. here. On top of that, the Senate's recent rejection of the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty did not play well here at all, and it created a real sense that maybe the U.S. is not in a position to negotiate this protocol to its completion.

CURWOOD: Okay, Jess, it's about time for us to go. But quickly, next year, when the conference of the parties meets in the Hague, in the Netherlands, will there be a document that the world's nations will start to ratify, do you think?

WEGMAN: Well, I think there's a lot more optimism about that than there was, say, last year, after the fourth conference of the parties in Buenos Aires. I think that there was a real positive feeling that countries were able to talk to each other substantively this time, rather than flipping into the procedural morass that has plagued a lot of the earlier conferences. And I think that alone just signifies that things are moving ahead, and there is a good sense that next year in the Hague, they might actually get this thing finished.

CURWOOD: Well, thanks, Jess.

WEGMAN: Thank you, Steve.

CURWOOD: Living on Earth's Jesse Wegman reporting from Bonn, Germany.



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