Environment: Now the test for Kyoto resolution

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The Independent Online
Seen in the harsh light of dawn, what did more than a week of round-the-clock negotiation in Kyoto achieve? Nicholas Schoon, environment correspondent, examines the brave new world created by the new anti-global warming treaty.

Things will never be the same again ... perhaps. In Kyoto the nations of the world agreed on a decisive step to begin tackling the threat of man-made climate change. But it will take about six years before you can judge whether nearly 30 developed nations - which agreed to cut their annual output of six key global-warming gases - are serious about the new Kyoto protocol.

First, they will have to sign and ratify the treaty to make it legally binding - and there are major doubts about whether the biggest polluter, the US, with its anti-Kyoto majority of politicians in Congress, will.

Secondly, their governments will have to make a prompt start on implementing the policies needed to stop emissions of these gases rising. They have a few years to change the upward trend into a decline in order to comply with the provisions of the new United Nations treaty.

Overall, it means a 5.2 per cent cut in annual emissions of climate-changing greenhouse gases from the developed world by 2012, compared with a 1990 baseline. The European Union has agreed to an 8 per cent cut, the US to 7 per cent and Japan to 6 per cent. Although EU nations felt strongly that the US and Japan should cut emissions with the same flat rate, the fact that they took the issue most seriously and called for a deeper cut than any other group of countries has ended up with them being allocated the largest reduction.

As for Japan, its negotiators argued remorselessly and successfully in Kyoto that the nation hosting the treaty conference was a special case. Japan uses fossil fuels with high efficiency because it has virtually none of its own - they all have to be imported. As a result, it produces relatively few of the greenhouse gas emissions associated with these fuels considering its huge productivity and wealth. Under the final agreement, Russia has to stabilise its emissions. Australia, Iceland, and Norway are allowed to increase their global-warming pollution by 2012; they all pleaded successfully that they were special cases.

Environmentalists are, discreetly, rather pleased by the final agreement. Given how far the major industrialised nations were apart at the start of the conference, the depths of cuts agreed is slightly more than they were guessing at its start.

It was the Americans who caved in most of all, but there is a risk the Republican-dominated Congress will refuse to ratify the treaty. Jeremy Leggett, a former campaigner with Greenpeace who now promotes solar power, said: "I'm quite encouraged. Now we'll see whether this treaty starts to transform the energy industry." He said it sent a clear signal to big oil companies that their sales of polluting fossil fuels would be capped in the developed world, and encouraged them to move into renewable energy sources. In the long run, the developing countries will have to be brought into the treaty if it is to be effective in slowing the rate of climate change caused by pollution.

The most rational way of dealing with the problem seems to be the "contraction and convergence" approach advocated by the London-based Global Commons Institute. Under its scenario, every inhabitant of the planet would be allocated the same quantity of greenhouse gases to emit, divided out of a total which kept climate change within tolerable limits.

This would give every country, whatever its wealth, a certain quota of pollution. Developed countries have more than their fair share of this quota, while many developing nations still have less. The institute says all countries should be able to trade their quotas through a free market.