Climate Protocol Survives -- Barely

November 13, 1998

Climate Protocol Survives -- Barely

Climate negotiators in Buenos Aires kept the Kyoto Protocol alive--but just barely--in two weeks of contentious marathon deliberations now ending, 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 that may be contributing to an unprecedented series of weather-related disasters in the past year," according to Institute Senior Vice President Christopher Flavin, who participated in the Buenos Aires talks.

The Buenos Aires negotiations were complicated by the fact that many governments seemed more intent on shifting the burden of the climate problem onto others, rather than on the common challenge of finding solutions. 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 modest achievements of Buenos Aires--focused mainly on establishing a work plan for implementing the Protocol, including shaping its emissions trading provisions--will keep the process alive, but hardly healthy," Flavin notes. "The unprecedented technical and political complexity of the climate problem has come close to overwhelming the ability of political leaders to respond. A Protocol that was supposed to be completed last year may not truly be finished until after the year 2000. The weather is now changing faster than human decision makers are."

"It is a sad measure of the Buenos Aires meeting's achievements that the U.S. decision to become the 60th country to sign the Protocol, and Argentina and Kazakhstan agreeing to pick their own emissions targets are viewed as the most tangible outcomes. At this rate of progress, climate change may not be stopped soon enough to avoid extensive economic damage."

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 out growing markets 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 address the climate problem seriously. Thomas Casten, Chairman and CEO of the Trigen Energy Corporation, describes climate change as "a huge business opportunity" that has helped to increase his company's revenues from $1 million in 1987 to $41 million in 1997.

One of the challenges facing climate negotiators in the year ahead is to move the process fast enough to hold the interests 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 developing 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 in the Protocol.

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. If the Protocol is not ratified within the next 3-4 years, it may be too late to meet the goals it has established, which kick in beginning in 2008.

"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 has not yet produced the 'good air' that its name implies--and it will take a lot more political leadership in the year ahead to ensure that it was even a small step in that direction."