Supporters of an international agreement to combat global warming are optimistic that more talks next spring could achieve a breakthrough on the role of carbon 'sinks' — the issue that last weekend sank the latest round of climate-change negotiations in The Hague.
Disagreement centred on whether countries' carbon emissions should take account of the contribution of biomass — such as forests and farm crops — in absorbing carbon from the atmosphere.
The meeting had been held to reach agreement on methods of attaining the carbon-emission reductions agreed three years ago in Kyoto, Japan. The Kyoto meeting had led to a consensus that in principle countries would aim to reduce their carbon emission to 5% below their 1990 level by the year 2012, although no major industrialized country has yet ratified this commitment.
Last weekend's breakdown occurred when several European countries rejected a last-minute deal under which the United States would have agreed to scale back earlier demands to use calculations involving carbon sinks to achieve its Kyoto target.
The breakdown was widely condemned by environmental groups and some scientists, who had been expecting a firm, practical commitment to emerge from the meeting, attended by 7,000 participants from some 180 countries. Many blamed it on a lack of willingness by political leaders, particularly those in the United States, to take the tough measures needed to reduce global warming.
But several people close to the negotiations say that the gap between the two sides is not large. This was particularly true after the US delegation had backed off from trying to include reforestation efforts in the developing world in its calculations, and had cut its demands for the maximum domestic allowance for carbon sinks from 300 million to 75 million tonnes a year.
This move was reported by the Washington Post as having followed a late-night conversation between President Bill Clinton and British Prime Minister Tony Blair, and formed the basis of a compromise agreement thrashed out between Blair's deputy, John Prescott, and the US delegation led by Frank Loy.
But some European countries rejected the agreement. Particularly strong opponents were the environment ministers of France and Germany, Dominique Voynet and Jürgen Trittin, respectively, who are both members of their countries' Green parties. Voynet said that Britain had “conceded too much to America”.
Supporters of the US–UK compromise blamed the failure to bridge the negotiating gap on the inability of government officials, exhausted after two weeks of talks and two all-night negotiating sessions, to calculate its technical implications accurately.
Jan Pronk, the Dutch environment minister and chairman of the conference, said that the key political issues — including rules for counting emissions from carbon sinks — “could not be resolved in the time available”.
Environmental groups oppose any allowance for sinks in emissions calculations. Greenpeace described earlier proposals from Pronk, which would have allowed the United States to include 50 million tonnes of sinks a year in its calculations, as a “free gift” that would allow emissions to continue growing.
But there are signs that the inclusion of sinks could increase the chances of the Kyoto agreement being ratified in the US Senate. US farmers' groups this month came out in favour of an international agreement on carbon sequestration.
“This is a critical shift which greatly improves the chances that the Senate will ratify the Kyoto Protocol,” says Philip Clapp, president of the National Environmental Trust, a Washington-based advocacy group.
Margot Wallström, the European Union's environment commissioner, said that the experience of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, which was agreed only at the second attempt, “shows that a temporary setback can lead to a better result in the end”.
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Ecological Economics (2001)