So What Did Happen at the Climate Negotiations?

Stuart Parkinson examines the detail behind the headlines at The Hague talks

Article from SGR Newsletter 22, February 2001

On the morning of Saturday 25th November John Prescott stormed out of the 'COP6' climate negotiations in The Hague signaling their collapse without agreement. So did the collapse occur because Dominique Voynet (French environment minister) was too tired to understand the complexities of the deal or because John Prescott is a chauvinist male who had given away too much to the Americans? In the storm that followed, you could be forgiven for missing what was actually discussed at these talks, how crucial they were and what is going to happen now.

The 'Crunch' Issues

The 6th Conference of the Parties (COP6) to UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UN FCCC) began on Monday 13th November intending to discuss and agree (at least in general terms) over 200 pages of negotiating text covering a range of highly controversial issues relating to the practical implementation of the Kyoto Protocol. Since the meeting was only intended to last two weeks - the task was indeed an ambitious one.

Basically there were three main areas of disagreement between the countries:

  • the inclusion of 'carbon sinks';
  • the use of 'carbon trading'; and
  • financing issues.

Carbon Sinks

Probably the most controversial issue, and the one that led to the eventual collapse of the talks, was whether and how 'carbon sinks' should be included. Sinks are activities which lead to absorption of CO2 from the atmosphere and include growing or re-growing forests, various forest and agricultural land management practices and 'carbon dumping' in geological formations or in the ocean. Whilst carbon dumping is highly controversial (see SGR NL 16, or our web-site) and was not discussed at COP6, the others were all actively under consideration.

The main problems are uncertainty and permanence. Measuring the amount of CO2 a given forest (for example) absorbs is very difficult with many factors influencing the value. Further, there is the possibility that future climate change may lead to large scale 'die-back' of forests, thereby releasing large amounts of CO2 back into the atmosphere. Hence, there is disagreement about whether one tonne of carbon stored in a forest is equivalent to one tonne of carbon reduced by, for example, switching from fossil fuel to renewable energy.

The negotiations centred around how much of a country's emissions reduction action could be counted in terms of sinks. The EU wanted them excluded until 2012 whilst the US (and its allies) wanted no restrictions. Since estimates for the current annual absorption of CO2 by the USA's forests are about 19% of its 1990 emissions and its target is a 7% cut from 1990 levels, this would considerably reduce the amount of action required by the USA. During the negotiations both sides agreed that an upper limit should be placed on their inclusion before 2012 and discussions focussed on what level this should be. Eventually, with the talks deadlocked, the Chair of the meeting put forward a compromise which involved capping sinks to approximately 3% of 1990 levels. Both sides were unhappy with this, but in the final hours John Prescott managed to negotiate a level of about 5% if sinks were excluded from the Clean Development Mechanism (carbon trading with developing countries - see below). This is the deal that Dominique Voynet and some of the other EU ministers rejected. A further concession was made by the US but by this time John Prescott had stormed out and the talks ran out of time as the EU continued to argue for a stricter limit.

Carbon Trading

The other main disagreement at COP6 was on the issue of carbon trading. There is much scepticism on the reliability of using carbon trading to aid reductions of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Whilst proponents argue it will reduce costs and hence encourage greater action, its detractors have pointed out a number of problems.

The first is that GHG emissions per person in industrialised countries are much higher than elsewhere and it is those that need to fall most if long term climate protection is to happen. Then there is the problem of 'hot air' - that countries like Russia have an emissions target so lax that they can take virtually no action, and sell 'credits' and still meet their target. The third issue is uncertainty in 'baselines'. This particularly concerns the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM - carbon trading with developing countries) and was discussed in depth in SGR NL 20. A further issue is whether nuclear power should be allowed to be included under trading.

The negotiations centred on whether the amount of trading should be 'capped'. The EU, supported by several developing countries, felt it should - a level of approximately 50% was suggested - whilst the US and its allies felt it should not. The compromise proposed by the Chair suggested that the capping system should be minimal, but that nuclear power should be excluded from the CDM. The EU were willing to accept this provided the deal on sinks was strong.


Financing was the main issue of concern to developing countries, particularly for technology transfer and protection against climatic damage. Negotiations focussed on a deal which would set up a fund spending $1 billion annually on these measures.

So where now?

COP6 nearly reached agreement - some negotiators said a few more hours would have been enough. It is a positive sign that negotiators chose to adjourn COP6 and reconvene in Bonn in May (in parallel with the technical meetings) rather than simply waiting until COP7 in November. It is also worth remembering that the Biosafety Protocol agreed last January took two attempts, so the break-down of these talks could be seen simply as a brief hiccup.

However, the election of President George W. Bush, a self-confessed 'climate sceptic', is likely to complicate matters. But even this may not be a major obstacle. Corporate resistance to the Kyoto Protocol in the US is crumbling. Texaco have become the first US oil giant to withdraw from the Global Climate Coalition (the main lobby group against the Protocol) and some US farmers are now lobbying in favour of the Protocol realising the potential in energy crops and sinks.

So agreement in May does look likely. The problem is the agreement is likely to be weak. There probably will not be a cap on carbon trading - allowing industrialised countries to rely heavily on a system which may have significant loopholes and is untested. Further, significant inclusion of sinks (with all the problems of uncertainty and impermanence) means that emissions targets from the US and Japan will no longer be cuts from 1990 levels. We clearly still have a long way to go before we see action on a scale to meet the climate convention's aim to 'prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system'

The SGR Position Statement for COP6 (focusing on Carbon Trading) is available on our web-site.

Dr Stuart Parkinson is vice-chair of SGR and a Research Fellow at the Centre for Environmental Strategy, University of Surrey.

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