''We'll need imagination after Kyoto''
By Diego Cevallos*
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
- 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
- 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
- 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.