A global strategy on climate change has been agreed under the 1992 United Nations Climate Change Convention and its 1997 Kyoto Protocol. This international legal regime promotes financial and technical cooperation to enable all countries to adopt more climate-friendly policies and technologies. It also sets targets and timetables for emissions reductions by developed countries.
Most governments, however, have still not ratified the Protocol, which means that its emissions targets for developed countries - which add up to an overall 5% reduction compared to 1990 levels during the five-year period 2008-2012 - are not yet in effect. Many governments are awaiting agreement on the operational details of how the Protocol will work in practice before deciding on ratification.
The Hague meeting must decide these details and ensure that they will lead to action that is both economically efficient and environmentally credible. It must also strengthen the effectiveness of the many activities taking place under the Convention.
"The Hague conference is a make or break opportunity for the climate change treaties," said Michael Zammit Cutajar, the Convention's Executive Secretary. "Unless governments of developed countries take the hard decisions that lead to real and meaningful cuts in emissions and to greater support to developing countries, global action on climate change will lose momentum."
"The meeting's success will be measured by the early entry into force of the Kyoto Protocol - I hope by 2002, ten years after the adoption of the Convention at the Rio Earth Summit. With scientists increasingly convinced that we are already witnessing the effects of global warming, we must ensure that the next decade produces real progress on lowering emissions and moving economic growth on to climate-friendly paths," he said.
Developed countries are concerned that this rapid transition to a lower-emissions economy could have short-term economic implications, including a potential impact on trade competitiveness, both among themselves and vis-à-vis those developing countries that are now industrializing.
The Protocol will only enter into force after it has been ratified by at least 55 Parties to the Climate Change Convention, including industrialized countries representing at least 55% of this group's total 1990 carbon dioxide emissions. So far, only 30 countries - all from the developing world - have ratified the Protocol.
Key Protocol-related issues that still need to be resolved include rules for the Protocol's Clean Development Mechanism and its Joint Implementation and emissions trading systems, rules for obtaining credit for improving "sinks" (by planting new trees to absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, for example, thus offsetting emissions), a regime for monitoring compliance with commitments, and accounting methods for national emissions and emissions reductions.
Key Convention-related issues include technology transfer, capacity building, financial assistance, and the special concerns of developing countries that are particularly vulnerable to climate change or to the economic consequences of emissions reductions by developed countries. The various Protocol and Convention issues are strongly interlinked and will only be resolved as part of a package deal.
The Hague meeting is officially called the Sixth Session of the Conference of the Parties to the Convention, or COP 6. It is expected to draw well over 5,000 participants and a large number of ministers. Dutch Environment Minister Jan Pronk has been designated the conference President.
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A closer look at the "crunch" issues for The Hague
The climate change talks cover a range of issues that is as broad as it is complex. Most of the issues are both technical and political and are linked to one another. There is no one correct way to prioritise them, but the following list offers a reasonable approach to grouping the main questions. Agreement on all the issues will be necessary for COP 6 to be considered a success.
1 - The "flexibility" mechanisms. The Protocol establishes three innovative mechanisms - the clean development mechanism, joint implementation, and emissions trading - that developed countries may use to lower the costs of meeting their national emissions targets. Their usefulness is based on the fact that, as far as the global climate and atmosphere are concerned, it does not matter where emissions originate. Because it can be cheaper to reduce a ton of greenhouse gas emissions in countries that are, for example, less energy efficient, the mechanisms can help ensure that the overall Kyoto target is achieved as inexpensively as possible.
The Protocol text authorizing these mechanisms is brief and leaves it to the current negotiations to determine how they should operate in practice. The Hague meeting must decide the roles of various institutions and craft the accounting rules for allocating credits. In the case of the two project-based mechanisms - the CDM and JI - it must also elaborate criteria for project eligibility and baselines for measuring each project's contribution to reducing net emissions.
A difficult sticking point is whether or not there should be a ceiling on how much credit a government can obtain through the mechanisms. The Protocol states that the use of the mechanisms is to be "supplemental" to domestic action. Some governments argue that there should therefore be a quantified ceiling on how many credits can be obtained from the mechanisms; others
disagree. The three mechanisms are:
2 - "Sinks". Sinks, or LULUCF in the jargon (land use, land use change, and forestry), introduce the technically complex and politically charged question of how much credit countries can receive against their emissions targets for promoting activities, such as reforestation or ending deforestation, that strengthen carbon sinks.
New and growing plants are called sinks because they remove carbon from the air, thus reducing a country's "net emissions" (total emissions minus removals). In most developed countries, on balance, land and forests do act as sinks. However, in many countries around the world, deforestation and changes in land-use release large amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere.
For some countries, growing new forests could be cheaper than reducing industrial emissions. Because it can be difficult to estimate just how much carbon a given tree or forest absorbs, rigorous accounting systems are needed for determining base lines and measuring changes. Also needed are clear definitions of what counts as a sink since it can be difficult to distinguish between the natural uptake of carbon by the biosphere and uptake caused by purposeful human activity or climate change policies. Decisions are also needed on whether or not to give credit for non-forestry sinks, such as agriculture and soils. Other issues include ensuring that climate-driven activities do not have negative impacts on biodiversity or socio-economic conditions, and that stored carbon that is credited is not later released into the atmosphere (for example during a forest fire).
3 - North-South cooperation. While only developed countries have targets and timetables for cutting emissions, developing countries can have a role to play in promoting sustainable development and thereby lowering the emissions-intensity of their economic growth. Strengthening their ability to do so will require an agreement on financial and technological cooperation. This should include a framework for capacity building, the necessary funding from developed countries, and practical steps for promoting the transfer of climate-friendly technologies to developing countries.
4 - Adverse impacts of climate change and of response measures on vulnerable countries. Under the Convention, the international community has accepted its responsibility to assist the least developed countries, small island states, and other vulnerable regions to adapt to the impacts of climate change and of policies to reduce emissions. Some of these states have called for various funds or programmes on adaptation, climate-related disasters, and research and observation. Other states are urging action to assist or compensate governments - notably the oil-exporting developing countries - that may be affected by efforts to meet the Kyoto targets. These issues will need to be a part of the overall package at COP 6.
5 - A compliance regime. To be credible, the Kyoto Protocol must have rules for determining compliance and measures for responding to cases of non-compliance. The key question is what the consequences of non-compliance should be. Alternative proposals call for payments into a compliance fund, extra reductions to be made in future periods, restrictions on the use of the mechanisms in future periods, financial penalties and the formulation of action plans. Other items for discussion include whether non-compliance applies only to Protocol commitments or to Convention commitments that are "referred to" in the Protocol, the balance of representation from different regions on the compliance committee, and membership in the expert review groups.