Vol. 5 Num 558 Wed. December 21, 2005  

Letter From Europe
Climate change: After Montreal what?

Montreal seems to be the right place for the purpose of holding difficult international conferences on environmental matters, which after long negotiations finally end in success. The city hosted its first international conference on atmospheric changes in 1987. The objective was to sign an international pact for eliminating chemicals that harmed the ozone layer. As a result of the successful implementation of the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer, which was negotiated at that conference, ozone-harming chemicals called chloro-fluoro-carbons (CFCs), have to a large extent been phased out.

Montreal has just hosted a mega-conference on environmental matters and again with successthis time it was the United Nations Conference on Climate Change. True, according to some analysts, it has achieved only partial success. Formally known as the 11th Conference of the Parties, it was attended by delegates from more than 180 countries, and representatives of many business and non-governmental organisations.

According to unofficial estimates, approximately ten thousand people participated in the meeting, in one capacity or the other. But this time, the objectives were far more ambitious. The main purpose of the summit was to forge a new international agreement on cutting greenhouse gas emissions after 2012, when the Kyoto Protocol expires.

After shameful foot-dragging by the Bush administration which was bent on halting the process altogether, in other words, to kill off the Kyoto Protocol, the summit ended in an agreement, which was described by the Independent of London as "the biggest breakthrough yet in combating global warming." Then it went on to add, "For the first time, all the countries of the worldincluding developing ones and even a kicking and screaming United Stateshave formally committed themselves to working out measures to tackle climate change."

The United States finally agreed to participate in "open and non-binding" talks on reducing emissions that will try to include developing countries like China and India in the process as well. The countries that already subscribe to the Kyoto Protocol (all the major industrialised countries of the world except the US and Australia) also agreed to make deeper cuts in greenhouse gas emissions over the next three years.

The greenhouse effect in itself is not a problem for the humanity. In fact, if the Earth's surface were not covered by a blanket of greenhouse gases (carbon dioxide, water vapour and a few other minor gases), life on Earth would not exist. It becomes a problem when there is a process of "accelerated warming of Earth's surface due to anthropogenic (human activity-related) releases of greenhouse gases due to industrial activity and deforestation."

This accelerated warming is also known as Global Warming. If the current trends in the emission of greenhouse gases continue, natural and agricultural ecosystems will be substantially altered. Due to the rapid melting of polar ice, sea levels will rise (coastal areas of Bangladesh and the nearby islands will disappear under water.) As we have seen this year, rising temperature of world's oceans will cause more intense hurricanes, typhoons and tropical storms. Most probably, it will also increase their frequency. It is also predicted that ocean currents of the world will change their courses, causing unpredictable climate changes in different parts of the world. Global Warming will have negative effect on human and animal health. Because of the increasing acidity of ocean waters, the fishing industries will suffer, which will reduce food supply for the humans.

Again, Bangladesh's thriving shrimp and lobster fishing industries which make significant contributions to the country's foreign exchange reserves will dwindle. As the mountain glaciers melt and the winter snowfalls become insufficient to replenish rivers and lakes, water will become scarce, droughts will increase, and crops will fail. There will be wars among nations for the control of scarce water resources. No one should be tempted to dismiss all this as the predictions of a doom-sayer. They are already happening in Africa, Asia, and Europe. There will, most probably, be other consequences which we cannot even imagine at this point of time.

Since economic activities have brought material progress and well-being to humankind, one cannot stop them because of damages caused by greenhouse problem. Therefore, we have to find ways and means to reduce emissions, while continuing with industrial activities. This is also true that no one nation single-handedly can do much to counteract greenhouse gas build-up in the atmosphere.

The Earth Summit held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil in June 1992 tried to address these issues. It was attended by 117 heads of state and representatives of 178 nations. Among the many treaties and conventions that came out of the deliberations, the one that drew most attention was Framework Convention for Climate Change (also known as the Global Warming Convention). Although the treaty did not set binding targets for emission reductions of carbon dioxide, methane and other greenhouse gases, the signatories agreed to reduce their emissions as a binding obligation.

A second meeting of the FCCC (Framework Convention on Climate Change) was held in Kyoto in 1997 with the objective of setting emission targets which would be binding under international law. The target set by the Kyoto Protocol for the industrialised countries was a 5.2 percent reduction in overall greenhouse gas emissions by 2012 relative to 1990. No mandatory targets were set for developing countries. The target for the EU was an 8 percent reduction, the United States 7 percent, and Japan 6 percent. In order to make the proposals more attractive to the industrialised nations, the Kyoto Protocol also introduced a curious carbon trading system.

Eight years after Kyoto, what is the situation today? 150 countries, including Russia, have ratified the treaty. Since the Protocol required ratification by countries accounting for 55 percent of global emissions to come into effect legally, Russia's ratification last year was a very important step in the right direction. It finally came into effect on February 16, 2005. The United States, which happens to be the world's worst polluter (more than 25 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions) and its ally Australia have refused to sign it on the excuse that it will hurt their economies. The developing countries do not have targets in spite of the fact that China and India are emitting more and more greenhouse gases because of their rapid industrialisation. The EU as an economic region has reduced its total emissions slightly. Germany and the U.K have so far been successful in reducing their emissions by 18.2 percent and 13 percent respectively. Unfortunately Spain, instead of reducing its emissions, increased them by 45 percent in 2004. This increase may even reach 50 percent by the end of the year 2005. But even with Kyoto in place, it seems that if the current rate of increase continues, global emissions will increase by 50 percent between now and 2030 because of the reasons explained above.

The conference in Montreal has been successful in driving home the fact that the threat of climate change is real, indisputable, and pervasive. The organisers of the conference deserve our praises and congratulations. But the fact remains that the final agreement fell far short of expectations. Climate change is a global problem. Therefore, it has to be tackled globally. Immediate steps are required, first to put a brake on the current rate of increase, and then to reduce overall gas emissions. None of these objectives can be achieved without the active cooperation of the United States.

Although the Bush administration, after last-minute brinkmanship gave its lukewarm support to non-binding talks on emission control, the fact remains that it has not shown any signs to indicate that it appreciates the gravity of the situation. According to the Press of Christchurch, New Zealand: "The United States under President George W. Bush, although apparently changing its position slightly, is still miles away from signing up to the assumptions and requirements of the Protocol."

So what is required on the part of the US is its full and enthusiastic commitment to the cause. Once America joins the battle whole-heartedly, Australia, which is now following a policy of wait and see, will come on board. India, China and Brazil will lose their excuses for not giving their full support to emission control. It would then be easier for the United Nations to draw up a global long-term plan for emission control covering highly technical subjects like non-polluting energy sources, methane management, renewable energy, carbon sequestration and reforestation.

But the sad truth is, without the active cooperation of the world's most powerful nation and at the same time its worst polluter, it will be impossible to implement any plan, however good or comprehensive it may be. Now the question is: Will this great nation rise to the occasion?