Science & Technology

Fruitful, Rich, Useless

The Kyoto Protocol creeps along


Milan —"The Parties conducted a fruitful and rich dialog in a good working atmosphere," declared Miklos Persanyi, the Hungarian environment minister who served as president of the ninth Conference of the Parties (COP9) to the UN's Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) at the closing press conference here. Which is to say that the 5,000 delegates and 95 ministers who attended the meeting didn't end up yelling and calling one another names. But was anything other than civil discussions over canapés and the opportunity for delegates to browse Milan's posh shops accomplished at COP9?

Persanyi answered that question by comparing the COP process to the building of Milan's famous Il Duomo cathedral. "We did not build a new nave for the cathedral, but we made a lot of progress in the decoration of the cathedral," said Persanyi.

So what were some of the new decorations that the COP9 added to the Kyoto Protocol?

One gargoyle added to the edifice of the Kyoto Protocol was the creation of a new Special Climate Change Fund (SCCF), which is designed to help developing countries adapt to climate change. UNFCCC executive secretary Joke Waller-Hunter suggested that the SCCF would fund qualified projects in poor countries relating to activities like water and land resource management, fragile ecosystem protection, and integrated coastal zone management. A pledging conference at which UNFCCC signatories will be asked to contribute to the SCCF will be called next year.

Amusingly, but understandably, some of the environmental groups waxed apoplectic when the oil rich kingdom of Saudi Arabia made some noises about using the SCCF might to help its economy diversify as other countries move away from using petroleum. Persanyi mildly opined that he didn't think that donors to the SCCF would want to finance projects in high per capita income countries. But in true UN fashion, the thorny decision as to which countries might qualify for economic diversification funds was put off until next year at COP10.

COP9 delegates built a new flying buttress by finalizing some of the very complicated requirements for how to account for "carbon sinks." A carbon sink is anything that absorbs carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, which essentially means forests. The idea here is that rich countries that emit more greenhouse gases than they are allowed under the Kyoto Protocol can get offsetting credit by paying for carbon sequestering forest projects either at home or abroad.

One might think that encouraging the expansion of forests would be applauded by environmental activists, but that's not so in this case. First, they are very wary of sinks, and point out that forests are only temporary repositories of carbon since they eventually die. For example, Friends of the Earth International (FOEI) issued a press release urging "Northern countries to focus on curbing greenhouse gas emissions at home and on promoting renewable energy and energy efficiency" instead of funding forest projects in poor countries. The FOEI also objected to the fact that the COP9 delegates did not oppose counting plantation forests or the planting of genetically modified trees.

At the end of the day, one must keep in mind that all of this hard bargaining and meticulous nitpicking over regulatory arcana is taking place against the background fact that the Kyoto Protocol has still not come into force six years after it was negotiated. It may turn out that Persanyi's Kyoto Protocol cathedral is being erected on foundations of sand.

Never mind. Whether the Kyoto Protocol collapses or not, COP10 will meet in Buenos Aires next December where the Parties will no doubt once again conduct "a fruitful and rich dialog in a good working atmosphere."