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Saturday, 25 November, 2000, 23:19 GMT
Analysis: What next?
Environmental protesters opposite the conference centre in The Hague AFP
Protesters dismantle their conference dyke
By BBC News Online's environment correspondent Alex Kirby in The Hague

The optimists here say the conference did not fail: it simply was not a success.

One remarkable feature is that nobody said they doubted the science of climate change

They say the talks were not abandoned, but will be resumed in a few months.

The pessimists - who may well be the realists - see it as rather worse than that.

They have several causes for concern. The breakdown of the talks, which had been trying to finalise the workings of the international climate treaty, the Kyoto Protocol, happened because of a basic difference between the US and the European Union.

The Americans appear to have believed genuinely that the protocol, concluded in Japan in 1997, gave them the right to use "carbon sinks" to soak up much of the greenhouse gases their industries and vehicles produce.

Kyoto promises

Sinks, as the conference called them, are basically different sorts of vegetation - forests and grasslands which mop up carbon dioxide while they are growing, store it for a time, but release it when they decay or are burnt.

The Europeans are deeply unhappy about allowing sinks to be used under the protocol, because they think this is a loophole so wide that the protocol could become a sham.

Conference chairman Jan Pronk
It was a tough moment for chairman Jan Pronk
If you say forests are soaking up a lot of the pollution you produce, they argue, then you could logically reach the point where you say you do not actually need to cut your emissions of greenhouse gases at all - because they are all being absorbed by the sinks.

So they believe sinks will do nothing to prevent further emissions of carbon dioxide and the other greenhouse gases.

And the Americans think they are being denied the right to use something Kyoto promised them.

Grim prospect

What is worrying many of The Hague delegates is the thought that, if agreement was impossible here, it may be no more achievable when the Son of Hague meeting, or Cop 6 and a Half (this was Cop 6, the sixth conference of the parties to the protocol) is held some time next year.

US delegation head Frank Loy receives a protest pie
US delegation head Frank Loy receives a protest pie
Agreement may in fact be less achievable by then. If the incumbent of the White House is George Bush, the US is likely to be less inclined to move towards the EU position than it has been here.

The cynics say none of this matters because the emission cuts which Kyoto agreed are so small that they would make very little difference to the atmosphere.

It is true that many scientists say cuts 12 to 15 times as deep as Kyoto mandated are necessary fairly soon.

But the protocol sends an important signal, and the signal from The Hague is that the world just cannot agree how to tackle a problem most agree is increasingly urgent.

Agreement on the problem

Delay in finalising the protocol means it will be even longer until it can be ratified, and that will probably mean some countries do not reach their Kyoto emission reduction targets.

Many Hague delegates worry that, if agreement was impossible here, it may be no more achievable next year

One remarkable feature of the whole fiasco is that nobody said they doubted the science of climate change. And that is hardening all the time.

There were some brave faces among the delegates streaming out of the hall here.

But many were very doubtful about how to keep the Kyoto Protocol on the road, and in step with the science.

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See also:

25 Nov 00 | Sci/Tech
Climate talks end in failure
25 Nov 00 | From Our Own Correspondent
Science takes a back seat
23 Nov 00 | Sci/Tech
Climate treaty 'almost irrelevant'
28 Oct 00 | Sci/Tech
Global warming 'worse than feared'
07 Aug 00 | Sci/Tech
The dangers of climate change
25 Nov 00 | UK Politics
Angry Prescott storms out
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