FEATURE - Political climate cools for fight on global warming
BRUSSELS - The world woke up to global warming at the 1992 Rio Earth summit, but 10 years on, what some consider the planet\'s biggest environmental danger has fallen off the agenda of a major follow-up conference.
Next month\'s summit of world leaders in Johannesburg will focus on poverty, not pollution - a worry for some environmentalists who say the poor will suffer first if climate change is not stopped.
In Rio de Janeiro a decade ago, leaders took the landmark decision to try to stop rising emissions of the greenhouse gases which trap heat in the atmosphere, and created the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.
U.N. scientists said the build-up of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere since the Industrial Revolution was trapping heat in the atmosphere. They predicted major climate disruption if emissions were not cut.
Five years later, with emissions still rising, countries beefed up the convention with the Kyoto Protocol which contained binding targets on emissions reduction for industrialised countries.
But the pact has yet to come into force and the United States put its future in doubt when it pulled out last year.
\"If you look at the record since Rio, climate change is the most glaring failure,\" said Rob Bradley of the campaign group Climate Action Network.
\"Countries took a commitment to stabilise emissions and then promptly didn\'t do it. That gave the lie to the idea that countries were there because they realised how serious it all was.\"
U.S. CLOUD OVER SUMMIT
Kyoto can still survive without the world\'s biggest producer of greenhouse gases, but not until Russia ratifies, supplying the required number of developed countries for it to take effect. That is not expected for another several months.
While Kyoto\'s supporters are disappointed it will not be in force before the summit, they blame U.S. influence for the fact that climate change is barely mentioned on the agenda.
\"EPA (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency) officials told me the American administration preferred to have climate change not at all on the agenda at Johannesburg, to instead focus on water,\" said European Parliament member Alex de Roo.
\"What do you see? The first item on the agenda is water. The second is energy, which has some climate implications, but the word climate isn\'t mentioned. That\'s the cloud of the Bush administration hanging over the Johannesburg summit.\"
But other Kyoto supporters are happy that the treaty will not be the centre of attention at Johannesburg.
\"We more or less have solved the negotiations. To have major discussions again in Johannesburg would perhaps give the impression that something more has to be done,\" said Jan Pronk, the former Dutch environment minister who chaired the key climate negotiations before and after the U.S. withdrawal.
Pronk, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan\'s special envoy to help prepare the summit, wants to see Washington return to the treaty, but said any such discussions at Johannesburg \"would not be very useful\" because they would be unlikely to succeed.
ENVIRONMENT VS DEVELOPMENT?
The summit\'s focus on fighting poverty reflects the overriding concern of developing countries where scourges such as water-borne diseases, malaria and AIDS, which kill millions every year, appear far more menacing than global warming.
Many scientists say climate change will exacerbate those problems. Research over the past 10 years has given scientists a better idea of what effects global warming could have on water supplies, agriculture and population migrations.
While some scientists are sceptical about climate change and its effects, a broad-based U.N. scientific panel has predicted that unchecked emissions could raise global temperatures by between 1.4 and 5.8 degrees Celsius this century.
Reports of coral bleaching and melting ice sheets have indicated that global warming may be well under way.
Mick Kelly, an atmospheric scientist at Britain\'s University of East Anglia, said policymakers would have to take on board detailed forecasts of the impact of climate change on populations to enable countries to cope.
\"Whatever politicians may do, some degree of climate change is inevitable and therefore we have to plan to adapt,\" he said.
While Rio and Kyoto were about reducing the emissions blamed for causing climate change, more emphasis was now needed on ensuring countries can manage the consequences, for example by protecting themselves from sea level rises, Kelly said.
\"It has to be a twin track strategy.\"
Some analysts believe Johannesburg could deliver results for the fight against climate change, both by helping poorer states develop so they can tackle the impact of global warming, and by getting them to develop more cleanly than rich countries did.
A push for renewable energy, for example, could reduce the greenhouse gas emissions that would inevitably come from a greater use of fossil fuels in the developing world.
\"(Climate change) is on the agenda to the extent that they are addressing the future energy requirements of developing countries,\" said Jacqueline Karas, climate change research fellow at London\'s Royal Institute for International Affairs.
\"It may seem that climate change is a less immediate problem than tackling poverty, but on issues like water supply, which is susceptible to climate change, the most vulnerable countries are those in the tropics and the south.\"
So although water, sanitation and energy for the poor will top the agenda at Johannesburg, climate change will not far from people\'s minds, Karas said.
\"It will be climate change by another name.\"
Story by Robin Pomeroy
REUTERS NEWS SERVICE
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