US turns deaf ear to climate change concerns


At the beginning of last month more than 1,500 scientists, including a majority of Nobel prize-winners in the discipline, issued a strong statement calling for decisive action to prevent the potentially devastating consequences of climate change. Led by Dr Henry Kendall, chairman of the Union of Concerned Scientists, they said that global warming was already a reality and that next month's Kyoto summit must address what had become "one of the most serious threats to the planet and to future generations".

However, the scientists' call for a "strong treaty" at Kyoto to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions which are blamed for causing climate change fell on deaf ears, at least in the White House. Indeed, the prospect of any meaningful agreement on the issue has been all but dashed by President Clinton.

As diplomats representing 150 countries gathered in Bonn for the last round of negotiations before the Kyoto summit, Mr Clinton revealed the US position; instead of honouring its pledge at the 1992 Rio Earth Summit to stabilise emissions at 1990 levels by the year 2000, it announced it would not even begin to make cuts until 2008.

Given that the US accounts for nearly a quarter of global emissions of carbon dioxide, this retrograde step was seen by the EU as a recipe for "environmental disaster". If the world's richest country and biggest single polluter is not prepared to make serious cuts, how can others be persuaded to do so?

Japan, which will be hosting the summit, has proposed a maximum reduction of 5 per cent on its 1990 emissions after 2008, while Australia, with its huge coal reserves, is not prepared to make any cuts at all. Canada and New Zealand are also taking comfort from the US's abandonment of its undertaking in Rio.

The EU has adopted a relatively radical stance, committing its member-states to achieve a collective reduction in emissions of 15 per cent by 2010. Furthermore, it believes that this ambitious target is achievable and says it is "hard to understand that what can be done in the EU cannot be done in Japan or the US".

Figures released by the European Commission last month show that the EU is now likely to stabilise its greenhouse gas emissions at 1990 levels by 2000, confounding earlier estimates by the World Energy Council that this target would not be met. It should now be able to achieve a 15 per cent cut by 2010.

The EU position is supported by China and the G-77 group of developing countries. They argue, not unreasonably, that since the world's richest countries caused the problem in the first place, it is up to them to alleviate it. Only then will China and other developing countries follow suit.

Statistics compiled by the World Energy Council show that the EU, with 6 per cent of the world's population, accounted for nearly 15 per cent of global carbon dioxide emissions last year, while the US, Canada and Australia, with 5.5 per cent of the population, generated more than 28 per cent of emissions. By comparison, China and India, which account for 38 per cent of the population, produced just over 17 per cent of global CO 2 emissions. However, with both countries developing rapidly and consuming ever-increasing quantities of fossil fuels, coal, oil and gas, their emissions will rise inexorably over the next 30 years.

The US Senate, which will have to ratify any agreement made in Kyoto, has already adopted a resolution which would effectively prevent the US acting to curb its prodigious emissions unless China and other developing countries also take action, a perversion of the "spirit of Rio".

If the developing countries are to switch to cleaner technology and reduce their reliance on fossil fuels, they will need help from the richer countries. At the Earth Summit, it was agreed that this would be done through the World Bank's Global Environmental Facility, but funding has fallen short of what was promised.

Environmentalists are horrified by President Clinton's stance, which is seen as a shameful capitulation to lobbying by the US oil, coal and motor industries. "The US may be an economic superpower, but morally they are in the Dark Ages," said a World Wide Fund for Nature spokesman.

The UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, consisting of 3,000 scientists, insists that carbon dioxide emissions would have to be reduced by 60 per cent to avoid "severe damage" to the Earth's environment. In that context, President Clinton's package is woefully inadequate.

Unless the US changes its position, which seems unlikely, the prospects for a "strong treaty" at Kyoto summit are quite bleak. Indeed, some environmentalists believe it would be better to end up with no deal at all rather than a weak agreement which represented a step backwards from Rio.