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EU: Differences On Reduction Of Greenhouse Gases Persist

  • Breffni O'Rourke

In the face of serious disagreements, international efforts are continuing to develop ways to reduce the threat of global warming caused by the emission of so-called greenhouse gases. The European Union is sticking to the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, despite the recent decision of the United States to abandon its commitment to that document. Washington is now busy developing its own alternative proposals for achieving reductions, and reports say the proposals should be ready by the end of May. RFE/RL correspondent Breffni O'Rourke reports a key factor is that, whatever their differences, the two sides are keeping in contact.

Prague, 25 April 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Climate change remains a burning issue, even though the recent split between the United States and other industrialized states has complicated the picture.

Officials from more than 40 countries, including the United States, met informally in New York last weekend to discuss a possible compromise. But Washington and Brussels are reported to be still wide apart in their approaches. The EU wants to stick to the Kyoto process, while the United States has said it wants to proceed without Kyoto. Washington says the protocol imposes too great a burden on the U.S. economy and is unfair because it does not demand efforts to reduce air pollution by developing nations.

At the New York meeting, current EU president Sweden was asked to consider hosting another impromptu meeting, this time in Stockholm late next month. Planning for that is now going forward. Sweden says the aim of the meeting will be to formulate a clearer strategy to face the challenges ahead.

Sweden's ambassador to the Kyoto process, Bo Kjellen, told RFE/RL that it is important for the two sides to remain engaged. He says the EU position is clear -- that the Kyoto process, with all the work put into it over 10 years, should remain the basis for future climate-control efforts. Kjellen said the EU hopes Washington's present policy review will lead it to look again at its decision to abandon Kyoto. He notes the advantage of working together:

"Common international action makes it easier [for a government] to take political decisions which might be somewhat delicate to take. Of course, we believe firmly that we live in a global economy and a global framework, and we believe we also need global agreements."

Kjellen suggests the EU side is ready for compromise. He told our correspondent:

"Our message would be that we would of course always be ready to look into the Kyoto Protocol, in[to] the implementation of it, in order to accommodate whatever problems the U.S. would see. But it has to be within this particular framework, because we do not see anything else."

The United States is the world's largest single emitter of greenhouse gases, and its withdrawal from the protocol has led some others to express doubts about the practicality of the whole Kyoto process.

Australia in particular has questioned the idea of going ahead with Kyoto without the United States. Australia has also noted that most of its neighbors -- including developing countries like Indonesia -- are not required to make pollution cuts.

Washington-based climate-change expert David Victor, of the U.S. Council on Foreign Relations, says that in the vacuum left by the U.S. withdrawal, the idea has developed that a two-track approach to cutting greenhouse gases might be possible. That would mean the U.S. charting its own course, while most other countries continue to follow Kyoto. Victor says:

"That's one of the theories floating around, especially in Europe, that the Europeans -- also with the Japanese, Russia, and Ukraine -- should bring the Kyoto Protocol into force on their own, and set that architecture in place, and then the United States can do whatever it wants to."

But Victor sees this idea as impractical on several grounds. One is the volume of the U.S. emissions -- one-quarter of the world's emissions -- which renders ineffective any accord that does not include Washington. Another is the probability that the remaining adherents to Kyoto countries would in the end be unwilling to accept tighter pollution controls on their industries than those imposed by the U.S. on its own industries.

Analyst Victor, like the Swedes, sees modification of Kyoto, rather than abandonment, as a possible solution.

"The question is whether the Kyoto process and the treaty which already exists will be some sort of useful framework for negotiating an alternative, and perhaps amending the Kyoto Protocol, making it something different, which is not impossible. The Bush administration could well come back with a series of proposals in a month for a U.S. program which would be consistent with amending the protocol, and I am sure they are looking very closely [at that]."

In any event, the EU has some success to report under the Kyoto process. The Union has just announced (20 April) that it achieved a 4 percent reduction of greenhouse gases between 1990 and 1999. That's half the target set for the EU under the Kyoto process, which foresees an 8 percent cut between 1990 and 2012.

The EU's Copenhagen-based European Environment Agency, or EEA, which issued the latest figures, says that despite this favorable trend there's no room for complacency. It notes that the positive result stems largely from big drops in emissions in Germany and Britain, the Union's two biggest emitters, which together contribute around 40 percent of total EU greenhouse gas emissions.

Those reductions -- almost 19 percent by Germany and 14 percent by Britain -- are largely the result of lower coal consumption, due to a shift toward natural gas in both countries. Additionally, the closure of old industrial plants in eastern Germany and improvements in Germany's energy efficiency have also served to lower that country's emissions.

The EEA warns, however, that the situation could rapidly change. In fact, preliminary estimates for 2000 showed carbon dioxide emissions were on the rise again in both countries, largely because of increased use of coal.

The EEA also points to another possible negative factor. According to present trends, more than half of the Union's member states are headed toward substantially exceeding their agreed share of the EU's total allowed emissions under the Kyoto Protocol. The countries concerned are Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Greece, Ireland, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal, and Spain.

The EEA notes that for the first time its latest emissions inventory includes the totals for all six greenhouse gases covered in the Kyoto accords.

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