Prague, 1 April 2004 (RFE/RL) -- As the time approaches for actually implementing the pollution cuts foreseen in the Kyoto Protocol on climate change, some Western European countries are wavering.
This became evident as the European Union's deadline arrived yesterday for member states to submit their national plans on cutting carbon dioxide emissions during the first Kyoto commitment period -- from 2005 to 2007.
"What they don't seem to realize is that environment protection and climate protection actually contribute to a healthy economy."
Austria managed to turn the process on its head by drawing up a plan that actually foresees an 8.5 percent growth in carbon dioxide emissions for that period. Irwin Mayer of the Greenpeace environmental organization says Austrian Economy Minister Martin Bartenstein is trying to invent a "new kind of reduction.”
"Maybe Mr. Bartenstein is trying to redefine the word 'reduction.' Maybe he can give it to the dictionary and propose a new meaning for it, because he is always talking about 'reduction,' whereas the result is a strong 'plus,' " Mayer said.
Under the Kyoto process, the EU has committed itself to cutting its greenhouse gas output by an overall 8 percent of 1990 levels by 2012.
Greenpeace's Mayer said he expects the European Commission to reject the Austrian submission. Economy Minister Bartenstein said earlier this week that his country should not be "overzealous" in its efforts to cut greenhouse gases because that might drive industry away to other countries with looser requirements.
The minister's fears appear well grounded. The same day, the chief executive of the Boehler company, one of Austria's biggest steel producers, threatened to scrap local expansion plans and relocate to Brazil -- if limits on his company's carbon dioxide emissions are too harsh.
German political leaders, meanwhile, have been expressing the same sort of fears as their colleagues in Vienna. Economy Minister Wolfgang Clement said last week that Berlin's proposed carbon dioxide emission limits are too severe in their original form and that economic growth "isn't possible that way."
German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder also said European economic competitiveness could suffer. He implied that if Russia does not ratify Kyoto, there is no need for Europe to rush ahead to meet the protocol's targets.
Berlin's concerns are reflected in the submission they finally agreed to send to Brussels yesterday. The German plan foresees a reduction in greenhouse gases -- but of less than one-half of 1 percent.
Brussels-based Greenpeace activist Mahi Sideridou says that in talking of cost burdens, European governments are forgetting the advantages of environmental improvements.
"What they don't seem to realize is that environment protection and climate protection actually contribute to a healthy economy, because they eliminate certain threats. It modernizes the energy sector, and it has a lot of co-benefits. It improves citizens' health, for example," Sideridou said.
Doing nothing is also expensive in environmental and economic terms, she says. And those costs are set to rise steeply as extraordinary weather events become more common.
"We have the biggest re-insurers in the world, like [a company called] Munich Re, who are publishing extraordinarily high figures about the cost of climate change. And though we are not really sure what those costs will be on a geographical distribution -- we don't know exactly what they are going to be for Austria or Germany or Portugal -- but we still know they are going to be huge as a whole, so everybody has to take action to make sure this is avoided," Sideridou said.
The Kyoto Protocol springs from the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, which came into force 10 years ago -- in March 1994. The treaty and its subsequent protocol set out a path toward controlling emissions of greenhouse gases, which are believed to cause global warming.
But in 2001 the United States rejected the Kyoto accord as too damaging to industry, and Russia has more recently expressed doubts about it on similar grounds, and may not ratify it.
Russia plays a crucial role in the survival of the Kyoto process. For the protocol to become valid, it must be ratified by countries accounting for 55 percent of the total carbon dioxide emissions by industrialized countries. Without Russia and the United States, the present ratifying states make up only 44 percent of emissions.
The EU is the main remaining backer of Kyoto. If the bloc loses heart, the process will wither. To reach its set targets, the EU has developed an emissions trading scheme that assigns carbon dioxide certificates to major industrial companies, which specify how much gas they are allowed to emit. If their actual pollution exceeds that limit, the company can buy the certificates of other firms that are producing less than their quota. The idea is that companies will seek to reduce their pollution levels so that they can earn money on the trading scheme.
While the world dithers on Kyoto, new threats are emerging to the planet's ecosystems. The UN Environmental Program this week warned that so-called "dead zones" are rapidly increasing in the world's oceans.
Dead zones are areas where there is not enough oxygen in the water to support marine life. The zones are caused by run-off into the sea of pollutants, particularly substances like nitrogen from fertilizers.
The UN report says that some of the dead zones are up to 70,000 square kilometers in size, and are increasingly found in the Baltic, Adriatic, and Black seas, as well as off the coasts of the United States, Latin America, Southeast Asia, China, Japan, Australia, and New Zealand.