16 February 2005

Kyoto Protocol receives mixed response

After years of delays, a world plan to fight global warming goes into force on Wednesday, feted by its backers as a lifeline for the planet but rejected as an economic straitjacket by the United States and Australia.

The 141-nation Kyoto Protocol formally takes effect at midnight New York time with celebrations in the ancient Japanese city of Kyoto where it was signed in 1997.

Green groups and the United Nations say it is a crucial first step in trying to limit the onslaught of higher temperatures, rising seas and greater extremes of weather.

But some developed nations say the pact is unfair because it excludes major developing nations India, China and Brazil, whose growing economies comprise more than a third of humanity.

UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan called for global unity.

"Climate change is a global problem. It requires a concerted global response," he said in pre-recorded remarks to be aired during a ceremony in Kyoto later on Wednesday.

"I call on the world community to be bold, to adhere to the Kyoto Protocol, and to act quickly in taking the next steps. There is no time to lose!"

The pact is the first legally binding plan to tackle climate change, building on a scheme launched at an Earth Summit in 1992 to stabilise emissions at 1990 levels by 2000, a goal not met.

In Sydney, ice sculptures of kangaroos and koalas melted during a protest by green groups over Australia's refusal to ratify the pact. Prime Minister John Howard says Kyoto is bad for industry and unfairly excludes rapidly growing India and China.

Australian Conservation Foundation vice president Peter Christoff berated Howard for his stance.

"It's time that he actually got involved in the only game in town when it comes to dealing with climate change globally. Australia has just completely missed out. I think it is shameful," he told protesters in the southern city of Melbourne.

Kyoto aims to brake a rise in temperatures widely blamed on human emissions of heat-trapping gases that may spur ever more hurricanes, floods and droughts and could drive thousands of species of animals and plants to extinction by 2100.

Under the deal, developed nations have to cut emissions of greenhouse gases, mainly carbon dioxide from burning fossil fuels in power plants, factories and cars, by 5,2 percent below 1990 levels by 2008-12.

"Kyoto gives us a very solid basis for our climate policy," said Klaus Toepfer, head of the UN Environment Programme, praising it as a small first step towards preventing what could be catastrophic climate change in coming decades.

But Kyoto has been weakened by a 2001 pullout by the United States, the world's top polluter and source of almost a quarter of human emissions of carbon dioxide.

US President George Bush has dismissed Kyoto as too costly and misguided for excluding developing nations from the first phase to 2012. His administration once denounced it as "an unrealistic and ever-tightening regulatory straitjacket".

Kyoto backers say rich nations are probably the main cause of a 0,6C (1F) rise in world temperatures since the industrial revolution and so should take the lead by cutting use of fossil fuels and shifting to cleaner energy such as wind and solar.

"Kyoto won't do very much in itself but it creates a framework for action," said Kristian Tangen, head of Point Carbon analysis group in Oslo. "But there is a a real risk that the whole thing will collapse after 2012."

Big developing nations are unlikely to sign up after 2012 unless the United States joins, he said.

The United States is not alone in snubbing Kyoto. Many Kyoto supporters are far above 1990 benchmarks.

Spain and Portugal were 40,5 percent above 1990 emissions levels in 2002, Ireland 28,9 percent and Greece 26 percent, according to UN data. By comparison, Australia was 22,2 percent above 1990 levels and the United States 13,1 percent.

"Until such time 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 to the Kyoto Protocol," Prime Minister Howard told parliament on Wednesday.

In India, the world's second most populous nation, editorials in leading newspapers gave mixed reactions to Kyoto.

"The Kyoto Protocol ... comes into force on February 16 under circumstances that do not reflect well on policy-makers in many countries," the Hindu said.

"They swear by a 'globalising world' when it comes to economic phenomena but are hesitant to recognise the common threat to humanity from global warming, the causative factors behind which do not respect national borders or customs gateways."

Even if fully implemented, Kyoto would cut a projected rise in temperatures by just 0,1C by 2100, according to UN projections, tiny compared to forecasts by a UN climate panel of an overall rise of 1,4-5,8C by 2100.

For some, any reduction would be better than nothing. Remote south Pacific islands are already seeing the future of global warming and rising sea levels, as extreme high tides crash over crumbling sea-walls and flood their homes.

Around the globe, glaciers are melting rapidly and there is a growing fear warming could cause huge ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica to melt in the long term, triggering a sea level rise of many metres. Coastlines around the world would be swamped and major cities such as London, Shanghai and New York flooded.


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