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Saturday, 11 November, 2000, 23:55 GMT
'Massive' pollution cuts needed
ozone hole
The ozone hole over the Earth is growing
By environment correspondent Alex Kirby

With the UN climate conference delegates assembling in The Hague, a UK Government minister says rich countries may have to cut pollution by around three-quarters.

Environment Minister Michael Meacher said this would probably be necessary to allow the developing countries to raise living standards.

His forecast, which he himself described as "mind-blowing", would mean cuts in emissions of greenhouse gases about 15 times deeper than the world is planning.

It will be branded politically extreme, but has the backing of many scientists.

Sharing prosperity

Mr Meacher outlined the reductions he thought could be needed in a speech to open the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research at the University of East Anglia in Norwich.

Michael Meacher
Michael Meacher: "The political implications are mind-blowing"
He said: "Globally, emissions may have to be reduced, the scientists are telling us, by as much as 60% or 70%, with developed countries likely to have to make even bigger cuts if we're going to allow the developing world to have their share of growing industrial prosperity.

"Over time we will need to see more action by more countries. Let's never forget that the developing country emissions will exceed the industrialised world's in less than 30 years."

The international treaty on tackling climate change, the Kyoto Protocol, requires developed countries to cut their emissions of the six main greenhouse gases to 5.2% below their 1990 level by no later than 2012.

Contentious issues

Mr Meacher said: "The Kyoto Protocol is only the first rather modest step.

"Much, much deeper emissions will be needed in future. The political implications are mind-blowing."

Representatives from about 160 countries which have signed the protocol are gathering in The Hague for a conference which runs from 13 to 24 November.

Most of them will accept, even without Mr Meacher's stark reminder, that the protocol's planned cuts are necessary but nowhere near sufficient.

But even achieving the Kyoto targets, slight as they are, will be hard enough. The conference is meant to finalise the details of the protocol's working, and there are some contentious issues for it to resolve.

Carbon 'sinks'

One of the most intractable is the use of carbon "sinks" for cutting emissions.

Sinks are natural features like forests and soils which absorb and store carbon dioxide (CO2), the main greenhouse gas caused by human activities.

Some developed countries want to plant forests and create other sinks, and then claim that these have reduced their emissions by locking up the carbon.

But there are huge uncertainties and accounting problems involved with the use of sinks.

And with total global biomass (plants, trees and other vegetable matter) estimated at 5 gigatonnes (Gt: a gigatonne is a billion tonnes), there will never be enough to absorb all the CO2 we are likely to produce.

Speeding up warming

Carbon emissions today are about 6 Gt annually, and their projected growth could take the annual rate to 35-40 Gt.

And UK scientists have reported that carbon sinks are likely, as the Earth warms, to change by about 2050 from storing CO2 to releasing it, accelerating climate change.

They say this means that global warming will develop 50% faster than they had thought and will cause much more damage.

Compliance with the protocol is another complex problem, involving decisions on the penalties for infringements.

Senate decision

And a fundamental difficulty underlying the entire Kyoto process is the credibility of the moves so far to cut emissions.

Many industrialised countries look unlikely to reach their individual reduction targets, which will make it harder to persuade the developing world to commit itself to emission reductions in its turn.

And until the developing countries do agree to undertake "meaningful" measures, the US Senate refuses to ratify the protocol. If the Americans, the world's biggest polluters, do not ratify Kyoto, there must be a danger that other countries will lose interest in it.

The Hague conference's main priority will be to keep the Kyoto Protocol alive.

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See also:

11 Nov 00 | Sci/Tech
Clinton's climate change warning
06 Nov 00 | Sci/Tech
Climate treaty 'robs the poor'
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