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

Bonn Climate Change Talks

Air Date: Week of

Living On Earth’s Jesse Wegman wraps up his report from Bonn, Germany, at the United Nations Conference on Climate Change. Some delegates from the 170 nations represented were frustrated at the failure of the United States to commit to ratification of the Kyoto Protocol, and there was talk that perhaps the rest of the world could move ahead without the U.S.


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Two years ago the world agreed in Kyoto, Japan, to cut the emissions of greenhouse gases from industrial nations by the year 2012. Greenhouse gases help regulate the Earth's climate, and humans are rapidly increasing the amounts of these gases by burning fossil fuels including coal and oil, and by cutting down trees. But the Kyoto Protocol has run into a political brick wall in the U.S., already the largest emitter of greenhouse gases. Meanwhile, our roaring economy is consuming more fossil fuels rather than less. As talks continue on how to meet the Kyoto targets, there are signs that the rest of the world may not wait for the U.S. to act. Living on Earth's Jesse Wegman attended the latest round of climate change negotiations in Bonn, Germany, and has this report.

(A stick beats out time. A man speaks in German)

WEGMAN: While delegates from around the world sat inside the conference hall hammering out the details of the protocol, a coalition of environmental groups was outside, trying to set the earth on fire.

(Shoveling briquettes)

WEGMAN: Beneath a globe made of hay and chicken wire, demonstrators had scattered charcoal briquettes, and were attempting to light them to symbolize the impact of greenhouse gas emissions on the planet's atmosphere.

(Metallic scraping)

WEGMAN: But the charcoal never caught, and a man with a blowtorch finally had to set fire to the globe himself.

(Blowtorch flames)

WEGMAN: Frustration reigned among many here. The negotiations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions continued to just inch along, and it created a desire to kick-start the process with a change of tactics.

(Milling voices)

WEGMAN: Delegates here did feel that they had taken small but important steps toward finalizing the rules by which they'll start cutting their emissions. Perhaps the biggest advance was a push, led by the European Union, to start implementing the Kyoto Protocol by 2002. The EU has largely embraced the need to move more quickly on climate change, and its initiative got the support of most other industrialized countries. Oil-producing nations objected strongly, almost every step of the way.

SAUDI ARABIAN DELEGATE: We cannot accept the idea of having any facilitator. We cannot accept to have anything other...

WEGMAN: Delegates from Saudi Arabia were especially vocal in their opposition, afraid that if the world shifts away from fossil fuels their economy will be devastated. But the frustration among most delegates here was more the result of positions taken by the United States. The Clinton administration helped negotiate the Kyoto deal, but under heavy pressure from the Senate, it now says the U.S. won't ratify it without certain conditions. For instance, the U.S. insists on broad use of so-called "market mechanisms" to help it meet emissions reduction targets, and greater steps by developing countries to cut their emissions. Both are hotly-debated issues. Neither was resolved here, and Roger Ballentine, the White House climate change coordinator, said the U.S. would not commit to a deadline for implementation of the deal until they are. But he said a specific date was not the point of the negotiations.

BALLENTINE: The more important focus is on committing to do the work that everyone agrees needs to be done. If that's in 2002, fantastic. If it's in 2003, or 2001, we don't think we need to sit here now and prejudice the year it will be ratified. Let's focus on the work we need to get done, and get it done as soon as possible.

WEGMAN: Critics say the U.S.’s less aggressive stance is influenced by its powerful domestic energy industry, which has spent millions of dollars arguing that climate change isn’t a problem. That position is starting to soften. Dale Heydlauff, vice president of environmental affairs with American Electric Power, a midwest utility, doesn't dispute the need to reduce greenhouse gases. But he does argue against a short timetable. The U.S. agreed in Kyoto to cut its emissions to seven percent below 1990 levels by 2010. But Mr. Heydlauff points out that U.S. emissions have already risen 11 percent since 1990, and are expected to be up 30 percent by the end of the next decade.

HEYDLAUFF: And with the seven percent reduction below that, you're looking at a 37 percent emissions reduction requirement that will take Herculean efforts that I don't think can be accomplished in that time frame.

WEGMAN: But environmentalists say it's just a matter of mustering the will in Washington to pressure industry to take quick action. John Passacantando is the director of Ozone Action.

PASSACANTANDO: I think the U.S. administration could get what it would call being out on a limb, do something bold on global warming. The American public would back it up. And we'd ultimately persuade the Senate.

WEGMAN: For now, the Senate has made it clear it will not be persuaded to go along with the other global economic powers. And that left many at the Bonn conference talking about trying to avoid U.S. politicians altogether. To go into effect, the Protocol needs to be ratified by countries representing 55 percent of industrial greenhouse gas emissions. The U.S. emits more than one third of all greenhouse gases, so it's always been assumed that the treaty will fail without U.S. participation. But a new German study found that if the European Union, Japan, Russia, and the former Eastern Bloc countries all ratified the Protocol, the treaty could enter into force. Hermann Ott, who co-wrote the report for a German think tank, says that the feeling that ratification is possible without the U.S. is growing daily.

OTT: The official line is still that we must have the United States on board. However, if you read between the lines, you'll see official statements, for instance, that say "We can do without OPEC," which can also be read "We can do it without the U.S."

WEGMAN: If this happens, it could turn up the heat on U.S. industry. Many in Bonn felt that if the rest of the world began developing new, cleaner technologies, U.S. companies would feel pressure to get into the game as well. And whether the impetus is new climate science or economic pressure, there are signs that U.S. industry is already starting to respond. The buzz in Bonn was over DuPont's recent pledge to cut its emissions nearly ten times the Kyoto target by 2010. For Living on Earth, I'm Jesse Wegman.



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