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EU: Hague Summit Discusses Global Warming

Today marks the opening of a two-week (Nov. 13-24) conference in The Hague on ways to combat global warming. The conference continues the work of the 1997 Kyoto protocol. That agreement set out targets for reducing the greenhouse gas emissions that are believed to contribute to warming and climate changes. RFE/RL's Breffni O'Rourke reports that in spite of the good intentions, countries in both Eastern and Western Europe will have trouble meeting the protocol's standards.

Prague, 13 November 2000 (RFE/RL) -- The international climate control process which took concrete form at the Japanese city of Kyoto in 1997 is about to take another step forward today with a follow-up summit in The Hague.

In the Kyoto protocol, the industrialized states pledged by the year 2010 to cut their greenhouse gas emissions by an average of more than 5 percent from 1990 levels.

The 11-day meeting that begins today in The Hague 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 becomes more difficult with each passing year.

The European Union, together with much of Eastern Europe, is 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 emissions 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 a continuing movement in both Eastern and Western Europe away from the use of trains, a comparatively clean technology, in favor of road transport. In the 15-nation EU, railways now carry only 12 percent of the freight, down from 32 percent in 1970. Likewise, in Central and Eastern Europe, railways have been losing freight through the second half of the 1990s, with an 8.6 percent fall in 1998 alone. Passenger numbers are 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 Eastern 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 minus 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, said the Union is moving ahead. Much effort, she says, has being invested in preparations for the Hague meeting to ensure 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 emissions reductions."

Some 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" 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 Eastern Europe in providing efficient mass transportation systems. Ahrenkilde say the Easterners have "experience we should definitely benefit from."

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.