Buenos Aires Post-Mortem

November 18, 1998

Buenos Aires Post-Mortem

Climate negotiators in Buenos Aires kept the Kyoto Protocol alive-but just barely-in two weeks of contentious deliberations that ended Saturday, according to an assessment by the Worldwatch Institute. "Much work remains to be done in the months ahead, if the world is to slow the accelerating pace of climate change," says Institute Senior Vice President Christopher Flavin, who participated in the Buenos Aires talks.

The Buenos Aires "tango" began with tough speeches, and soon devolved into "hostage taking" of key paragraphs by governments more intent on shifting the burden of the climate problem onto others, rather than on the common challenge of finding solutions. A deepening North-South split in Buenos Aires was only papered over by the decisions of Argentina and Kazakhstan to accept voluntary limits on their emissions-a move that was viewed with deep suspicion by other developing nations. The world's two environmental superpowers, the United States and China, are now locked in a struggle over climate policy that at times seems to rival the bitterness of the Cold War.

"The main achievement in Buenos Aires was to develop an 'action plan' for finishing the Kyoto Protocol by the end of the year 2000," Flavin notes. "This means that even in the best of circumstances, the Protocol will be ready for ratification three years behind schedule. This is dangerously late; if the Protocol is not ratified soon, it may be too late to meet the goals it has established, which kick in beginning in 2008."

The good news in Buenos Aires was largely outside the main plenary hall, where companies and citizens groups announced major steps they have taken to develop new environmentally friendly technologies and reduce emissions. Daimler Benz displayed a prototype fuel cell car, for example, that is to be on the market in five years' times, while the wind power industry-which is growing faster than any other energy sector-announced a strategy for getting 10% of the world's electricity from the wind.

Although many fossil fuel lobbyists were busy trying to derail the negotiations in Buenos Aires, other business executives were there to seek profits in low-carbon technologies, and in a possible future market in emissions credits. Perhaps the biggest success of the Kyoto Protocol so far is that it has spurred hundreds of companies to take the climate problem seriously. Thomas Casten, Chairman and CEO of the Trigen Energy Corporation, describes climate change as "a huge business opportunity" that helped increase his company's revenues from $1 million in 1987 to $241 million in 1997.

One of the challenges facing climate negotiators in the year ahead is to move the process fast enough to hold the interest of companies in developing solutions to the climate problem. Businesses are particularly interested in the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM), a new fund included in the Protocol that could help finance climate-related projects in developing countries. Unfortunately, the U.S. Government has held up work on rules for the CDM, which it views as a bargaining chip to be traded to developing countries later, in exchange for other provisions the U.S. wants.

It was clear in Buenos Aires that the climate negotiating process is now running on fumes. The scale of the climate problem, and the complicated politics involved, have led negotiators to create a Protocol of unprecedented complexity-a complexity, it now seems, that may defy efforts to finalize the agreement and get it ready for ratification. "Whether political leaders can abandon business-as-usual politics, and create a sunnier climate for negotiations soon enough remains to be seen," Flavin concluded. "If not, the treaty process could at some point become more a drag than a spur to efforts to change government policies and corporate practices."

"Buenos Aires did not produce the 'good air' that its name implies-and it will take a lot more political effort to ensure that future negotiations will. It is time, in particular, for much closer North-South cooperation, including more generous support for new energy technologies in developing countries.

"NGOs and governments who do not believe that negotiations are moving fast enough should consider mounting a new Leadership Initiative like the one that resulted in an international landmines convention last year," Flavin urges. "Leadership in the climate arena can be defined in terms of early ratification of the Kyoto Protocol, commitments to domestic action before the Protocol goes into force, and an accelerated transition away from fossil fuels. Those that are ready to move ahead of the accounting gamesmanship of the greenhouse numbers game to actually change policies, should consider stepping forward to push the rest of the world in the direction of an energy economy that is viable for the twenty-first century."