Kyoto Protocol comes of age

The Kyoto Protocol, the world’s most far-reaching environmental treaty, took effect on Wednesday at 5am GMT with 34 industrialised countries legally bound to slash pollution causing global warming.

The treaty took effect at midnight at United Nations headquarters in New York, which is 2pm in Kyoto, the ancient Japanese city where the landmark agreement, now supported by 141 countries, was reached in 1997.

“It enters into force today,” said Seth Osafu, senior legal adviser at the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, Kyoto’s parent treaty.

The treaty requires industrial countries as a whole to cut carbon-dioxide gas emissions by 5,2% before 2012 compared with their 1990 levels, with targets set individually for each nation.

The developing world has no obligations under the treaty, which was rejected by the United States in one of President George Bush’s first acts after taking office in 2001.

Australia is the only other major industrial country which has rejected Kyoto. Australia and the United States together account for 30% of global greenhouse-gas pollution.

The Australian government ignored renewed pressure on Wednesday to ratify and implement the protocol amid claims that its refusal to join has made it the world’s “environmental bad boy.”

Environmentalists, opposition parties and even doctors called on Prime Minister John Howard’s government to go further by ratifying the pact.

“Human health is linked to the health of the planet and the environment,” Australian Medical Association president Bill Glasson said.

“Australia must act in the interest of countries who are less well off and less able to advocate on their own behalf, and in the longer term interests of all Australians.”

The Labour opposition, which has committed to ratifying Kyoto, said the government’s concerns were contradictory, embarrassing and absurd.

“The Kyoto Protocol is an essential first step and shows what can be done when the international community works together,” Labour environment spokesperson Anthony Albanese said.
“It is a global solution to a global problem.”

Speaking from Kyoto where the agreement was formulated in 1997, Senator Bob Brown, leader of the minor left-wing Greens Party, said Australia was known as the “environmental bad boy”.

“John Howard’s siding with the Bush administration in refusing to ratify the protocol is an international embarrassment,” he said.

But the government says Australia, as a large country with huge energy resources and a small population, would be seriously disadvantaged by a pact which requires less of non-industrialised countries.

“Until such times as the major polluters of the world, including the United States and China are made part of the Kyoto regime it is next to useless and indeed harmful for a country such as Australia to sign up for the Kyoto Protocol,” Howard told Parliament.

The protocol can be traced to early scientific evidence in the 1970s and 80s about the peril of man-made global warming. Its framework was adopted on 12 December 1997 in Kyoto by 159 countries that are members of the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). But it took almost four more years of negotiations to complete its rulebook and then nearly three more years to get the deal ratified so that it could take effect.

The pact seeks to cut emissions of carbon dioxide, the byproduct of burning oil, gas and coal. It also seeks to cut emissions of methane (mostly the result of agriculture), nitrous oxide, hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), perfluorocarbons (PFCs), and sulphur hexafluoride.

Scientists say that reductions of around 60% are urgently needed to avoid wreaking potentially catastrophic damage to the world’s climate system.

The present “commitment period” under Kyoto runs out in 2012. Negotiations begin under the UNFCCC in November on the post-2012 pact. Parties will be under pressure to make far deeper cuts, to include China and India in targeted reductions, to coax the United States back into the multilateral fold—and to make the follow-on deal far simpler. - Sapa-AFP

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