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Friday, 20 July, 2001, 15:30 GMT 16:30 UK
Last chance for Kyoto? Alex Kirby quizzed
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Talks are now under way in Germany to try to salvage the Kyoto treaty on climate change.

The agreement commits industrialised countries to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. But its future was seriously compromised after US President George W Bush rejected it in March.

Some countries, among them Japan and Australia, think the Kyoto deal is dead if America, the world's biggest polluter, is out.

But the European Union is trying to press ahead with the treaty's implementation. They think there is no time to go back to the drawing board.

Dutch Environment Minister Jan Pronk, who opened the talks in Bonn, said: "Do not start all over again. (Kyoto) is the only game in town. It is the best we have."

Is it the best we have? What is going on at the negotiations? What kind of compromise, if any, can be reached? Is this the last chance for Kyoto?

BBC News Online's environment correspondent Alex Kirby is in Bonn and took your questions in a live forum.


Transcript:


Newshost:

Jeremy Leggett, London, UK asks: Japan seems key to be everything. How is their delegation approaching the talks? Also, the history of the negotiations suggests the Americans won't hesitate to try and derail the protocol via proxies. How is their delegation behaving?


Alex Kirby:

To answer the first question: how are the Japanese behaving? I think they are taking these negotiations seriously. For some time there seemed to be two Japanese voices: the environment minister kept saying we do want to do a deal when we get to Bonn - we do want to be able to achieve a Kyoto protocol we can ratify. On the other hand the prime minister kept saying, we are not going to ratify unless the US does and the US has said it is not going to. So there seemed to be the two voices. Here it seems much more the case that there is just the one voice but they are saying we do want to get a deal that we can ratify. So people are much more hopeful.

On the second question: what are the Americans doing? Well a number of us have been asking that. The European Union environment commissioner was asked at a news conference a short time ago and she said: I honestly think the Americans are not trying to interfere - they are not trying to be obstructive. They are not seeking to put pressure on those who are naturally their allies like Australia. So the message from here is Japan and the US seem to be behaving pretty well.


Newshost:

Julie, London, UK asks: Why won't America agree to the treaty and acknowledge that they are the worst polluters of all? Can the rest of the world shame them into action?


Alex Kirby:

I think the Americans acknowledge that they are the worst polluters of all but they point out as well that they produce more wealth than anyone else and they say the two things go together. President Bush in saying he would not ratify the Kyoto protocol, gave three reasons; firstly, he was doubtful about the science - and some people are - there certainly are uncertainties in the science of global warming. Secondly, he said if he did sign up he would damage the US economy. Thirdly, he said it is not fair that we, the industrialised countries, should have to do things when the Third World - the developing countries - are not being asked to. The developing countries will have to make commitments and will have to cut their emissions at a later stage - after 2012.

The US economy, many people say, would actually benefit if the Americans did ratify. So I think President Bush is quite possibly factually wrong on those points. On the science, most people say, yes there is something here, we should be seriously worried but those are his reasons. But I don't think that trying to shame the Americans into ratifying the protocol would work. I don't think that normally does work in international negotiations and I certainly don't think it would work this time.


Newshost:

Chris Williamson, Paris, France asks: There has been much talk in the UK left-wing press of the alternative to the Kyoto agreement but will the G8 leaders be discussing this option at all?


Alex Kirby:

I don't think people here in Bonn are discussing alternatives. Jan Pronk, the president of the conference and Dutch Environment Minister, keeps saying that the Kyoto protocol is the only show in town - that is very much the phrase he uses and I think that that is the feeling here. Unless they can get the protocol to work, they really might as well pack up and go home because they have been working on it for 10 years.

There are other possibilities - there is something called contraction and convergence - the idea that you see how much pollution the atmosphere could stand, you then divide it up and say in Bangladesh, in Brazil, in the United States, in the United Kingdom, we should all have fair shares depending on how many of us there are. I don't think anyone is talking about that yet. It might come in at a later stage but at the moment everyone is intent on trying to make the Kyoto protocol work. If they can't do that they would be very, very disappointed and they are doing their best to make it work.


Newshost:

Anthony Hobley, London asks: Last night's edition of the daily e-mail of Environmental Data Services (ENDS) says "Climate of Optimism Descends on Kyoto Talks". But your news story seems to tell a very different tale. How is this so? Is it that your journalists are so used to putting a "bad" or "gloomy" spin on everything?


Alex Kirby:

I hope I am not used to putting a bad or gloomy spin on everything - I hope I report the facts as I find them. Certainly it is possible I have got it wrong - it is always possible we get it wrong. But I have tried talking to people, listening to people to get a picture of what is happening here. Yesterday before I filed my last story, I went to a briefing given by the head of the UK delegation, Margaret Beckett, who said there is great anxiety about whether we can resolve the outstanding issues here. It seemed to me fair to report that and if that is gloomy, I am sorry but that was the fact that was presented to us.

In the last hour I have seen something else which said that are tentative signs of progress here. I will report that next time I file a report. But taking the balance of everyone I speak to, it does seem that there are real doubts - I won't say any more than that - but real doubts about whether Bonn can succeed where the failed climate talks in the Hague broke down last November. Everyone hopes they will succeed but no one is counting on it and we do try faithful to reflect that and if we get it wrong Mr Hobley, I am very sorry.


Newshost:

James Mill, Basle, Switzerland asks: Could countries producing per the Kyoto agreement promote this as a label on their products? Boycotting non-Kyoto country products would then be the decision the public could take. This would shame the US into action. Would this be practicable?


Alex Kirby:

Not using the stick but using the carrot - incentivising is the phrase that goes around. Well, I suppose it is possible, yes. I think we have to remember that the Kyoto protocol is acknowledged by those who support it to be only a very modest first step which is going to have to be overtaken. The Kyoto protocol talks about making cuts of round about 5% on 1990 levels in greenhouse gas emissions. Scientists are saying, later this century, we are going to have to make cuts of 60% - 70% if we want to avoid seriously destabilising the climate. So the Kyoto protocol, in its present phase, is going to be overtaken pretty soon. I think you could get to the situation where you stick labels on products sometimes and you have to change them fairly soon. But the principle is an interesting one - perhaps countries would gain an advantage from saying - we are sticking by the protocol, buy our products and not other people's.


Newshost:

Nick, Oxford asks: Is there any talk amongst countries of placing sanctions on US goods if the US does not abide by Kyoto?


Alex Kirby:

There is talk but I don't think it goes much beyond talk. I think the talk comes mainly from non-governmental organisations and not from governments here. I think to apply sanctions to countries that didn't sign up would be a very large step in international diplomacy. It is not just the Americans that aren't going to sign up - I am pretty certain that the Australians won't do so without the Americans and there is some debate about whether Canada will do so. If you start boycotting the goods or applying sanctions to all those who don't sign up, you could find yourself actually reduced to a relatively small group of countries. So I think it is unlikely that anyone here will talk seriously about sanctions or seek to apply them.


Newshost:

Paul M. Neville, Jackson, MS, USA asks: If manmade CO2 emissions constitute only 5% of total CO2 emissions and the treaty is designed to reduce manmade emissions by only 6% how can any person seriously contend that a .03% reduction in CO2 in the atmosphere will alter the climate?


Alex Kirby:

I would try and simplify the question and say two things. Firstly, human impact on the climate is now acknowledged by the scientists who produced the inter-governmental panel on climate change reports and by most of those who are here. Human influence on the climate is acknowledged to be significant. The scientists say probably human activity accounts for something like 70% of the climate change scene in the last three decades. So we are having an effect but no one pretends that the climate is something which is affected only by humans. It is a natural system, it is a naturally unstable system, it is changing all the time. I think critics of the Kyoto protocol - critics of the science of climate change - imagine that those who support the protocol believe if it goes through then we shall be able to preserve the climate in aspic and go back to a golden age of an unchanging climate. But that is not the case at all. All that the people here are arguing for is to reduce human influence on the climate as much as possible so that the natural influence works its way out without us adding to it.

I said just now that the protocol is only a very modest first step if it goes through with its provision for 5% cuts in emissions. We are going to have to do something like 12% - 15% more than that before this century is out according to the scientists. That I think would be a considerable step towards reducing the human footprint. But Kyoto, if it doesn't go through, is going to leave a gap. If it does go through, it will set down a benchmark saying the world has got to act. That is the difference.


Newshost:

David, Norwich, UK asks: The implementation of the Kyoto protocol will have no effect on the climate system. Which as a result of human selfishness is running out of control, so why should we bother.


Alex Kirby:

I think we should bother because it is not too late to do something. I think the question is right in the sense that it says what is going on in the climate is going to have an impact for years and centuries ahead. What we have already done to the climate, to the atmosphere and to the oceans which store heat for centuries means that the impacts of the industrial revolution are going to go on being felt many years ahead. What we can do is try to slow down the effect we are having - to reduce the human impact and that, most people here think, is worthwhile. They say it is not too late to avert serious destabilisation of the climate. That is a relatively modest statement but I would say a pretty one if the scientist predictions of potentially catastrophic change are correct and most people here think that they are.


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