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Global warming Tuesday, 10 November, 1998, 20:19 GMT
World debates global warming
factory chimneys
Industrial countries have agreed to cut emissions
The world climate conference in Buenos Aires faces tough choices, writes Environment Correspondent Alex Kirby:

Officials and ministers from 180 countries are meeting in Buenos Aires for yet another round of international negotiations aimed at tackling the threat of climate change.

They are trying to work out ways of reducing the world's emissions of greenhouse gases.

As the conference prepared to get under way, a group of UK scientists released their predictions of how climate changes will affect the earth in the next century, timed to coincide with the Buenos Aires talks. It makes grim reading.

Their report predicts a rise in the number of sick, hungry and thirsty people between 2041 and 2070.

It also warns that 50 years from now, the world's forests will not be helping to soak up the main greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide(CO2). They will themselves be a significant source of carbon emissions.

(Click here for full details of their report.)

Delivering Kyoto's promises

Carbon dioxide graphic
The world committed itself last December at a meeting in the Japanese city of Kyoto to make the cuts. The Buenos Aires meeting is about how to deliver on Kyoto's promises.

The meeting is known formally as the Fourth Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.

In Kyoto, the industrialised countries agreed to reduce their greenhouse emissions to 5.2% below their 1990 levels. Now they have to work out the rules for reaching that target.

The Convention's Executive Secretary, Michael Zammit Cutajar, says: "These rules are critically important because they will affect the economic cost of cutting emissions over the next decade".

Reducing the cost of the cuts

Kyoto agreed on three "mechanisms" to help to reduce the cost of making the reductions:

  • An emissions trading regime will let countries which cut emissions below their agreed target sell the excess as credits to countries that still have some way to go

  • A clean development mechanism will allow industrialised countries to finance emissions-reduction projects in developing countries

  • A joint implementation mechanism will work in a similar way, but will operate only between industrialised countries

All of these ideas will have to be fleshed out in Buenos Aires.

There may well be fierce disagreements, over both the details of the Kyoto commitments and their underlying principles.

The Road to Buenos Aires factbox
The Convention states that it is in the interest of everyone in the world to make sure that human activities do not interfere dangerously with the climate.

But the poorer nations point out that most of the interference so far has been caused by the industrialised world. They do not see why they should pay to undo damage which they did not cause.

But they go further - they insist that they will have to increase their own, relatively low emissions in order to give their people a better standard of living.

In Buenos Aires they will face hard choices. The government of Argentina, which is hosting the meeting, is insisting that the agenda includes an item on voluntary commitments by Third World nations to put an upper limit on their emissions.

That could lead to some of the liveliest debate of the entire two weeks.

The policy of the United States may prove another focus of disagreement.

The Americans are the world's biggest polluters but are the world's most reluctant candidates for tackling global warming.

The UK Government will be looking for a chance to persuade the Americans to support the Convention wholeheartedly.

Why the talks matter

Woman in floods
The dangers of climate change
The British Environment Minister, Michael Meacher, has called climate change "the single most serious environmental problem facing humanity".

Probably Buenos Aires will be a disappointment to those who believe, with Mr Meacher, that the threat is too urgent to allow us to delay.

Most of the world's climate scientists need no persuading about the urgency.

They predict that the global temperature will rise by up to 3.5 degrees Centigrade over the next century - greater than any climate change in the last 10,000 years.

They predict that sea levels will rise by anything from 15 to 95 centimetres by the year 2100 - and that they will go on rising for another 400 years.

So Buenos Aires matters because it is another chance for the scientists to try to persuade the doubters and the foot-draggers.

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BBC News
The BBC's Fergus Nicholl takes a global look at the prospects for agreement
See also:

26 Oct 98 | Science/Nature
13 Oct 98 | Science/Nature
05 Nov 98 | Global warming
02 Nov 98 | Science/Nature
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