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Europe: Meeting Kyoto Pollution Cuts Will Be Difficult

  • Breffni O'Rourke

The international community has done much talking over the years about the need to cut polluting greenhouse gas emissions, which are thought to be largely responsible for climate change. With these gas emissions still on the increase, RFE/RL correspondent Breffni O'Rourke looks at the latest steps used to control the pollution.

Prague, 5 October 2000 (RFE/RL) -- The international climate control process which took concrete form at Kyoto in 1997 is about to take another step forward with the holding next month of a follow-up summit in The Hague. In the Kyoto protocol, named after the Japanese city where it was agreed upon, the industrialized states pledged by the year 2010 to cut their greenhouse gas emissions by an overage of more than 5 percent compared with 1990 levels.

The coming Hague summit (November 13-24) is meant to finalize a number of key aspects of the protocol before the ratification process among the signatories.

The intentions are noble, but the chances of actually achieving the targets seem to be dimming. That's because in most parts of the industrialized world, greenhouse gases are still continuing to rise relentlessly, and achieving even a return to 1990 levels will be more difficult each year from now on.

The European Union, as well as much of Eastern Europe, are caught in this upward trend, caused mainly by the vast increase in road transport, both private and commercial. Although emissions from heavy industry in both eastern and western Europe have declined in recent years, the pollution from cars, trucks, and aircraft has risen.

Michel Raquet, a climate control expert with the environmental organization Greenpeace, says that if present trends continue, pollution from such sources in the industrialized world will be 40 percent higher in 2010 than they were in 1990.

"If we look at the current emission figures, there is a continual increase of emission in the EU since 1994-95. [It's true that] the tendency between 1990 and 1995 was for a reduction of emissions -- not due to climate policy but due to other factors -- but since that time there is a steady increase of emissions."

Figures show the extent of the trend both in east and west away from rail transport, a comparatively low-polluting way of moving goods and people around. In the 15-nation EU, railways now carry only 12 percent of the union's freight, down from 32 percent in 1970. Likewise, in Central and Eastern Europe, railways have been losing freight though the second half of the 1990s, with an 8.6 percent fall in 1998 alone. Passenger numbers have been falling, too.

In view of this gloomy situation, Brussels-based activist Raquet says it is urgent for the European Commission to draw up a clear plan of action aimed at meeting the Kyoto commitments. To make matters more pressing, in the Kyoto protocol, the EU and most east European states committed themselves to achieving 8 percent cuts in emissions -- well above the average 5.3 percent cuts of all signatories. Raquet says: "What we are hoping for is to have at least a kind of EU action plan on how to achieve this target of -8 percent, and to come up with concrete measures and to implement these measures -- that's most important."

Time is short, Raquet stresses. Such a plan -- which he says is currently lacking -- needs to be in place within the next year or two.

At EU Commission headquarters in Brussels, Pia Ahrenkilda, spokeswoman for Environment Commissioner Margot Wallstroem, says the Union is moving ahead. Much effort, she says, is being invested in the preparations for the coming Hague summit, to ensure that the protocol is properly equipped with the tools to get the job done.

"We hope to reach agreement in the Hague on compliance mechanisms, which would entail what sort of sanctions and what can be done if the parties to the climate change convention do not meet their commitment. So we are certainly looking at more than a document, we are looking at an instrument to produce concrete emission reductions."

Many environmentalists have doubts about such optimism, noting that one key mechanism will be the controversial idea known as emissions trading. That concept provides for countries that are emitting less pollution than they are allotted under the protocol to "sell" [that is, trade] their spare allotment to those countries which are polluting above their share. Environmentalists see this as an excuse, in their phrase, to "move dirt around" rather than to eliminate it.

Raquet and Ahrenkilde agree on attaching much importance to the experience of the transition countries of Central and East Europe in providing efficient mass transportation systems.

Ahrenkilde say the easterners have "experience we should definitely benefit from." She notes that EU Environment Commissioner Wallstroem is meeting Monday (Oct 9) with ministers from the eastern countries to discuss climate change and coordination of efforts.

But Raquet is more critical of the EU's approach to the East. He says, for example, that the EU is giving money to eastern nations to build more roads, which actually encourages those countries to increases their emissions. Such a policy is inconsistent, he says, with the goals of the Kyoto protocol.