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World: As Kyoto Struggles, Smaller-Scale Initiatives Push Ahead On Global Warming

  • Kathleen Moore

Russian scientists this week delivered what could turn out to be a fatal blow to the Kyoto Protocol on global warming. They advised President Vladimir Putin to reject Kyoto -- and if he heeds their advice, it will deal the final blow to the seven-year-old pact. But even as the fate of the protocol looks increasingly grim, a growing number of local groups, governments and businesses are willingly adopting Kyoto-like measures to cut harmful gas emissions.

Prague, 20 May 2004 (RFE/RL) -- In December, when the prospects for the Kyoto treaty were looking particularly bleak, the EU's environment commissioner, Margot Wallstrom, said the pact was merely "holding its breath" -- waiting for one key country, Russia, to ratify it and thus bring it into force.

Six months on, the climate-change treaty is still holding its breath. Russia has yet to say clearly if it will ratify Kyoto -- the only chance left for the pact to survive since the United States pulled out three years ago.

But as international efforts to curb greenhouse gas emissions appear to be stalling, other, smaller-scale initiatives are gathering pace.

"What's happening is really quite extensive,” says John Pershing, a climate-change expert at the World Resources Institute, an environmental think tank in Washington.

He says one of the main examples is the European Union's emissions-trading scheme, which the bloc says will come into effect in January regardless of whether the Kyoto treaty is in force.
There's a growing awareness of the risk climate change poses to business -- particularly after last year's European heat wave and other weather-related disasters.

This will set limits on emissions for thousands of factories, and allow countries to buy and sell their allowances.

"It's not just in Europe -- [climate-change initiatives] are around the world,” says Pershing. “Canada has them -- a series of programs at the national level. It includes a Canadian system for emissions trading, but also the same kind of efficiency programs and renewable energy projects, and general efforts in non-CO2 (carbon dioxide) gases. [There's a] huge array [of programs], and the same can be said of Japan. These countries are moving forward, partly in compliance with Kyoto and partly developing national systems."

In the United States, too, individual states are putting in place policies to address climate change.

"A trading program in the northeast of the U.S. is being developed,” Pershing says. “About 20 states have renewable portfolio standards, to promote renewable energy. Many states have got programs that look at transportation emissions, at forestry and agricultural emissions. So there are a whole set of projects under way -- which to me suggests a willingness to act, but in this administration [of U.S. President George W. Bush], an unwillingness to sign on to Kyoto."

There's activity at the corporate level, too. More and more top global businesses are setting their own targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, or investing in renewable energy.

Experts say that's partly because many top companies now have to contend with legislation on greenhouse gas emissions. It's also because they now realize it makes business sense.

There's a growing awareness of the risk climate change poses to business -- particularly after last year's European heat wave and other weather-related disasters.

That's the view of Paul Dickinson, at the London-based Carbon Disclosure Project. The project is run by a group of international investors who survey top world companies on their greenhouse gas emissions.

The group's latest survey was released yesterday. Signatories to the project have increased threefold since the last survey -- and responses are up, too.

"Companies and investors don't exist in isolation; they also have opinions on this. An example of a corporate leader is John Brown, the CEO of oil firm BP. He said in a conference recently that he believes there must be stabilization of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere at a certain level. He believes, and many agree with him, that there will have to be massive changes in the way the world consumes and acquires energy. And we're beginning to see those changes coming into play. That is why 10 trillion dollars' [worth] of investors are asking questions [via the Carbon Disclosure Project], and that is why 60 percent of companies we asked questions of are giving us full and exact responses."

Still, experts say these Kyoto-like measures and voluntary initiatives are, on their own, not enough to seriously counter global warming.

And if Kyoto is not, in the end, ratified, that could have a chilling effect on these efforts too.

Pershing says some sort of international cooperation will still be needed if Kyoto does not come into force.

"There is the biggest country in the world, the U.S. -- in terms of greenhouse gas emissions, it's collectively responsible for about 20 percent of those, if you include all six greenhouse gases. But the next-biggest country is a substantially smaller share, and after you get out of the top 10 there [is] no one who has got more than about 1 percent. But there are dozens of countries in the 1 percent range. Which means that if you really want to solve the problem you have to get them together, because no one country could do it. And that, to me, means it's multilateral,” Pershing says.

Pershing says it remains an open question of whether such international cooperation will happen under the aegis of the UN or of some other forum. But Pershing says, “I can't see that you can do it with a bilateral relationship or a unilateral set of actions.”