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''We'll need imagination after Kyoto''

By Diego Cevallos*

Klaus Toepfer, the world's top environment official as chief of the United Nations Environment Program, spoke with Tierramérica in the lead-up to Feb. 16, the day the Kyoto Protocol on climate change takes effect.

MEXICO CITY - The 1997 Kyoto Protocol, frequently given up for dead, finally enters into force on Feb. 16. Its critics say the global pact for fighting climate change comes too late and offers to little: not only are its targets for curbing greenhouse gas emissions modest (5.2 percent below 1990 levels), but many of the industrialized countries that signed the treaty will not be able to meet the goals by the 2012 deadline.

Meanwhile, the international community is gearing up to launch negotiations this year that go beyond the Kyoto Protocol timeframe, a period in which several scientific forecasts indicate that climate change could be worse than previously thought.

The world's top environment official, Klaus Toepfer, executive director of the United Nations Environment Program, spoke with Tierramérica from the UNEP headquarters in Nairobi, Kenya.

- What can we expect from the Kyoto Protocol? Some observers fear that industrialized countries will not be able to meet their targets by 2012.
- I don't share those pessimistic predictions. The Protocol's entry into force is a crucial step in the fight against climate change. Now the industrialized countries have the legal obligation to reduce their emissions, and they have to report them to the global public. I don't believe in questioning whether these goals are achievable or not. The governments decided to do it, they are obligated, and will do everything possible to meet them.

- The case of Canada is symptomatic: they have warned that they will not be able to meet the Kyoto goals unless the country invests around a billion dollars a year in buying carbon credits from countries like Russia.
- I can't make judgments about any particular country, but I don't blame governments for using the Protocol's mechanisms. Purchasing emissions reductions is valid through the three instruments of the treaty: emissions trading, joint implementation and the clean development mechanism. The last one seems especially vital because it would allow industrialized countries to meet their goals by investing in clean energy technologies in the developing world. It is a positive partnership for both parties.

- Critics maintain that the energy and transport industries in the North have resisted moves towards energy efficiency. What is your assessment?
- Meeting the Kyoto goals is only possible if there are commitments to both sides of the coin. One is the development of renewable energies, the other is energy efficiency, that is, using the available energy more intelligently. I see that the big auto companies are already breaking sales records with hybrid cars (powered by a combination of, for example, electricity and gasoline). Energy efficiency in the transportation industry is very important, but it is also important in other sectors, including in the home.

- What should be the priority in the debate after Kyoto?
- The big issue is adaptation to climate change in developing countries, in other words, how to support them in confronting its impacts. But we need to have a very broad vision for future negotiations, for imagining new alliances, more ambitious goals. For example, strengthening cooperation amongst cities, amongst regions, and promoting commitments by corporations to reduce emissions. We need a great deal of imagination. The challenge we face is enormous and we cannot afford to restrict thinking.

- There has been a proposal for setting a ceiling on the total CO2 concentration in the atmosphere, and based on that, establishing global emissions limits that would also obligate the developing world to reduce greenhouse gases. What do you think of such a proposal?
- Yes, there has been talk in various forums about establishing that maximum limit. But that does not change a substantial principle agreed in Rio de Janeiro in 1992: shared but differentiated responsibilities in fighting climate change. That means industrialized countries are the ones that should take the lead, make reductions and develop technologies towards a less carbon-intensive economy.

- Is it plausible that the United States (which has not ratified the Kyoto Protocol) might return to the climate change negotiations?
- There is a great deal happening now in the United States. There are numerous actions related to climate change, for example, in the state of California, and there is intense national debate on energy policy. Also, the broadening of supply and energy efficiency are crucial economic objectives in the United States. That is why I'm very optimistic.

- Last week a prominent British scientist said that Antarctica is not a sleeping giant, as the Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has described it, but rather is quite awake and could cause a dramatic rise in sea levels. What is your opinion?
- I am not a climate scientist, but I can say that I was in the Arctic recently and saw with my own eyes the melting of glaciers and that yes, it is a very rapid process. Now, I follow the IPCC assessments and I assure you that all of this information from numerous scientists is taken very seriously and incorporated into the work of the IPCC.

* Diego Cevallos is an IPS correspondent.


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