Marrakech climate talks heavy on rhetoric, low on news

Published January 1, 2002

Global warming talks in Marrakech, Morocco, taking place October 29 through November 9, produced the usual anti-warming rhetoric but little concrete news. Delegates had hoped to hammer out the final details of the Kyoto-Bonn protocol and build public relations momentum against U.S. skepticism regarding the accord.

Hardliners forced to make concessions

The few agreements achieved at Marrakech were predominantly concessions to such nations as Japan, Russia, Australia, and Canada, which share much of America’s reluctance to enter into a warming treaty.

The new concessions came at the expense of European Union hardliners and accentuated, rather then muted, American influence on the protocol. With America refusing to sign on, the EU was required to give in on contentious issues on which it previously refused to budge.

First on the agenda, the hardliners had hoped to establish emission targets as “legally” binding rather than simply “morally” binding. Japan, however, led a group of nations in insisting that negotiators wait until after formal ratification of the treaty, likely next year, before determining whether the agreed-upon targets should be legally binding.

Hardliners subsequently suffered another blow as Russia prevailed in doubling the amount of carbon-absorbing credits it could claim for its extensive farms and forests. The EU had initially balked at the notion any countries should receive credits for farms, forests, and other such carbon “sinks.” Russia’s ability to claim double its previous allotment struck a painful blow to the EU’s hardline position.

Finally, Saudi Arabia and other oil exporting nations stepped up lobbying efforts for financial compensation for revenues they stand to lose when other nations lower their oil consumption to meet emission targets.

The setbacks to hardliners came on the heels of Bonn concessions regarding carbon sinks and emissions trading. Before the U.S. withdrew from the warming talks prior to the Bonn meeting, any of those concessions seemed highly unlikely as the European Union repeatedly refused even to consider budging on such issues. After America voiced its decision not to ratify the emerging protocol, the EU was forced to take a more conciliatory and American-friendly position in order to keep Russia, Japan, Australia, and Canada on board.

Still unacceptable to America

Despite the EU’s recent compromises on carbon-absorption credits and emissions trading, the U.S. objects to the developing pact in many important particulars:

  • Credits granted for carbon-absorbing farms and forests are insufficient to reflect the real-world benefits of carbon sinks;
  • Emissions trading is limited such that industrial nations are prevented from trading with developing nations;
  • The choice of 1990 as the base year would force America to absorb crushing blows to its economy in order to reach compliance;
  • Most of the world’s nations, including top-five CO2 producers China and India, would be totally exempt from emissions limits;
  • The potential for “legally” binding targets gives other nations the power to penalize America at will; and,
  • The science supporting global warming theory is dubious in the first place.

While the mainstream media was quick to trumpet the Marrakech talks as an important achievement regarding world unity pertaining to global warming theory, many observers offered a different perspective.

“Without U.S. participation and with credits being granted for ‘business as usual,’ I think the reductions you get off the baseline are very small,” said Eileen Claussen, president of the Pew Center on Global Climate Change.

“The big question is how we can bring the United States into the biggest international effort against the greenhouse effect,” conceded Olivier Beleuze, Belgium’s environmental secretary and head of the EU delegation.

The fizzle of Marrakech stood in stark contrast to the hopes of the hardline nations before the meetings began. “The work of translating the Bonn agreements into a detailed operational rulebook must be completed here in Marrakech,” stated Michael Zammit Cutajar, executive secretary of the Convention, prior to the delegates’ arrival.

“Certainty about the Kyoto protocol’s rules will further motivate businesses and other economic actors to create the low-carbon economy of the future. It will also clear the way for governments to ratify the protocol and bring it into force. Marrakech should be the turning point that enables the protocol to move into high gear,” Cutajar explained.

Doing our own thing

As the Marrakech talks wound to a close, EPA Administrator Christie Todd Whitman stated that U.S. rejection of the Kyoto protocol did not mean America was unconcerned about so-called greenhouse gas emissions. Whitman claimed the U.S. has offset its emissions in other ways, such as through EPA voluntary climate-change programs. Such programs, according to Whitman, have eliminated more than 35 million metric tons of carbon equivalent.

“Just because you’re not mandating everything from the top doesn’t mean you’re not making a difference,” observed Whitman. Moreover, “We’re not going to obstruct any actions that any other country wants to take.”

Whitman predicted President Bush would have specific proposals of his own in the months ahead, but noted the administration’s efforts “got knocked off-track by September 11.” She added, “the President’s very interested in it and he asked at the last Cabinet meeting where we are. The staff has been working on it right along.”