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Silence from US as clock ticks loud over Kyoto

Kyoto2 is highlighted in The Scotsman's Science and Technology section on 18 November 2006, in this article by Ian Johnston, the newspaper's environment and science correspondent. Also see the article at (subscribers only).

KOFI Annan lamented the "frightening lack of leadership", scientists proposed creating a layer of pollution to shade us from the sun and delegates argued over targets, who should pay and how much we should all be doing.

The United Nations climate change conference drew to a close yesterday after 11 days in the sunshine of Kenyan capital Nairobi with many issues about the fight against global warming still unresolved.

UN officials maintained their mood was upbeat having achieved significant progress on sorting out the "nitty-gritty" of making the Kyoto Protocol work, but the absence of the world's biggest polluter from the list of signatories to the treaty cast a significant shadow over the conference.

The US refused to join 35 other industrialised nations in pledging to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases by 5 per cent below 1990 levels by 2012. Australia was the only significant absentee.

It is now less than six years before the Kyoto targets must be extended and the clock is ticking. For some, it is a matter of waiting until 2008, when the US presidential elections might deliver a leader less opposed to the emissions-cutting strategies most other countries have sought to pursue.

George Bush insists adopting Kyoto would damage the economy and has spoken of using technological advances to fight climate change instead, something roundly dismissed by most environmentalists as a far too optimistic assessment of the dangers faced and the steps required to avoid them.

"The US will return to the negotiating table with a serious proposal when a new president takes office in 2009," says conference observer Philip Clapp, president of the US National Environmental Trust, who noted that several contenders for presidential elections - both Democrat and Republican - are in favour of capping US emissions.

But while some have abandoned hope of persuading Mr Bush to adopt a green agenda - so publicly endorsed by his predecessor Bill Clinton - others hope he can be won over.

The UN Secretary-General clearly had someone in mind when he hit out at climate change-deniers and opposition to Kyoto. "Let no-one say we cannot afford to act," said Mr Annan, who stands down at the end of this year, earlier this week. "I would want leaders around the world to really show courage and to know that if they do, their people and the voters will be with them."

A sign of a certain desperation among some quarters came on Thursday with the suggestion by several prominent scientists that a "global haze" of pollution could be deliberately created to reflect back into space some of the heat from the sun.

"It was meant to startle the policymakers," admitted Paul Crutzen, a Nobel prize winning scientist at Germany's Max Planck Institute for Chemistry, who came up with the idea. "If they don't take action much more strongly than they have in the past, then in the end we will have to do experiments like this."

Once, this would have been laughed out of court, but people are taking the suggestion seriously. NASA's Ames Research Centre in California is this weekend holding a private, high-level workshop on the global haze plan and other such geo-engineering ideas.

But among those working at the coal-face of the Kyoto treaty, trying to ensure the signatories live up to their promises, there was a quiet satisfaction that progress had been made. "Though I cannot really speak for the atmosphere among the delegates, people are really very upbeat and content with what they have achieved in terms of the nitty-gritty operational things that make things happen," a United Nations Environment Programme spokesman says.

"It has been about the practicalities of making the Kyoto Protocol fully operational. It has been tying up loose ends but it's also been a very important stepping stone on the way towards post 2012 and the next instalment of the protocol."

Already people are drawing up their ideas of what Kyoto 2 might look like.

For environmental campaigner Oliver Tickell, who has drafted his own version, there should be a fundamental shift in the way the world deals with emissions. He has a suggestion that would make this task much simpler, much easier: instead of trying to deal with the consumer, tackle the producer head on.

"The absolutely key point is to control fossil fuels at the point of production. There are several thousand major producers globally who account for the majority of fossil fuel production. That's a relatively small number of players and it's quite a sensible way of controlling it," he says. "If you go to the point of consumption, you are talking about billions of points of consumption."

He wants to cap global fossil fuel production and then sell rights to produce them by auction. This would mean the cost of fuel would more closely reflect the damage it does to the environment.

And he estimates it could raise between dollars 500 billion and dollars 1 trillion a year, money that could be spent on ways of reducing the effect of climate change. "That's enough money to make quite a serious impact," Mr Tickell says.

He complains emission permits were "just handed out" to big energy companies who then "proceeded to charge customers large amounts for electricity". "They were given - for free - the ability to make massive windfall profits," he says. "They are making out like bandits and one of the reasons is they were just given these valuable emissions permits. It's a multi-billion euro rip-off that's taken place."

Mr Tickell also counters complaints from some in developed countries that developing countries are responsible for large amounts of emissions with the suggestion that they are simply catering to a demand for their goods from the west. China, he says, has turned into the "world's factory" and "so, by rights, you could say we should be responsible for the carbon emissions associated with the goods we are using".

He is among those who believe the US will only come on board with a change of leader, although he sees part of the problem as the gridlock caused by the Republicans' control of the White House and the Democrats' control of Capitol Hill."

Everybody is waiting for the election in two years' time. But that doesn't mean it's not time to start laying the ground and getting fresh ideas out there." His ideas will be among a sea of suggestions when the world finally meets to decide how to replace Kyoto.

But, he adds: "There's nothing to say humans will make the right choices. There are all kinds of things at the global political level that make it very difficult for us to make the right choices."


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