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International progress to prevent serious climate change is being achieved at a grossly inadequate rate. But, as long as negotiations continue to be based upon the polarised positions of power politics and a persistent reluctance to embrace radical change, global greenhouse gas emissions will go on rising.
The Fourth Conference of the Parties of the Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP4 of the FCCC) took place in Buenos Aires in November 1998. It was the next step in the official process to protect the climate from anthropogenic (human-induced) climate change, following and building on the agreement reached in Kyoto in December 1997 - the Kyoto Protocol - committing Governments in the developed world for the first time to legally binding obligations to reduce six greenhouse gases. In the run-up to COP4 at least two polarised visions of political reality had emerged.
One was the fundamentally "Northern View": the next steps in protecting the climate required two things. The first was a means of ensuring the eventual participation of the developing world in greenhouse gas emissions reductions. The second was the development or refinement of the mechanisms that would begin the slow incremental reduction of those gases without causing undue financial hardship to those developed countries making the cuts. The other position can be characterised as the "Southern View": that the current state of the negotiations continues to deny to the developing world their right to benefit equally from the protection of what is a common resource belonging to the entire global population: the atmosphere. The challenge for COP4 was to unite those two visions.
Progress at Kyoto?
Yet as the smoke clears and the hundreds of negotiators and lobbyists return to their respective homes from COP4, is that unity of vision any clearer? The complex rituals of the climate negotiations are not converging on consensus. First, examine the concrete results of the meeting: in spite of a deepening knowledge of the increasing damage to the climate system, action to reduce emissions of greenhouses gases is not accelerating. The reverse is actually true - in both the developed and developing worlds, emissions are currently increasing.
Under the Kyoto Protocol, whilst developing countries are not obliged to accept any emission reduction or stabilisation targets, the industrialised world collectively agreed to a cut of just 5.2 percent below 1990 levels by 2012, with the European Union agreeing to a reduction of 8 per cent, the USA 7 per cent, Japan and Canada 6 per cent and Australia winning an increase of 8 per cent. Even if these targets are to be achieved, when emissions from developing countries are added to those of the industrial countries, the global total is projected to increase to some 30 per cent above 1990 levels by 2010 and by 2020, emissions are projected to be up by 60 per cent, even with compliance. These figures are likely to be higher still given the potential loopholes built into the Kyoto Protocol, such as emissions trading and sink accounting (see box on page XX) that could allow industrial nations …