A matter of convention

OUR PLANET 9.3 - Climate Change

A matter of convention


examines the philosophy behind the Convention
on Climate Change and the role that the Kyoto
Conference will play in reaching its goal


The world is watching the industrialized countries closely for signs that they will demonstrate moral leadership at December's Kyoto climate summit. Will they make a legally binding pledge to cut their greenhouse-gas emissions significantly below 1990 levels during the first decade of the 21st century? What will be the groundrules for making and measuring these reductions? What measures will governments put into place to motivate the private sector and public opinion to become more climate-friendly? These countries are expected to take the lead in combating climate change and its adverse impacts because, as stressed by the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change itself, the largest share of historical and current emissions originates in developed countries. They therefore accepted a non-binding commitment to aim at returning their emissions to 1990 levels by the year 2000.

A step at a time

Most will not achieve this aim, and it was agreed in 1995 to launch new talks for stronger developed country commitments for the early years of the 21st century. In Kyoto they are expected to make a legally binding pledge to cut their emissions to below 1990 levels by the year 2010. Only after these cuts begin to be made will additional commitments by developing countries be reasonably considered.

The Climate Change Convention was conceived in just this spirit, as a continuing process for adding new commitments and strengthening actions step by step. Clearly, the Kyoto agreement will not by itself secure the Convention's long-term objective of stabilizing atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases at a safe level. This (unspecified) level should permit ecosystems to adapt naturally while ensuring that food production and sustainable development are not undermined.

Proof unnecessary

The need for new commitments and a decision about just what constitutes a safe level are based in large part on science. Opponents of reducing emissions often argue that the science is too uncertain to justify early action. But many environmental problems, such as damage to the ozone layer and pollution of the oceans, could not be confronted if final proof of cause and effect were required. In response, the international community has come to accept the 'precautionary principle' under which activities that threaten serious or irreversible damage can be restricted or even prohibited before there is absolute scientific certainty about the effects.

The Kyoto negotiators are drawing on the best current scientific, technological and economic understanding of climate change. The cuts they agree are likely to be modest and to be largely achieved through 'no-regrets' solutions that offer both economic and environmental benefits, such as reducing market-distorting subsidies and urban smog. As scientific understanding of climate change improves - as it will - governments can decide later to accelerate or roll back these efforts, as appropriate.

Team spirit

The Convention is based on a cooperative rather than a confrontational approach - it assumes that countries can successfully tackle problems such as climate change only if they work together as a team. This cooperation is based on the principle of 'common but differentiated' commitments and the recognition of the differing capacities of developed and developing countries. This includes the recognition that a rise in developing country emissions must be expected as their economies develop. Cooperation must include the sharing of technology, especially in the energy, transport industry, agriculture, forestry and waste-management sectors, which together produce nearly all greenhouse-gas emissions attributable to human activity. We must find cleaner sources of energy, cleaner motor vehicles, industrial processes that are more efficient and a more productive agriculture for the same amount of resources invested. Such technologies must be made widely available; they must somehow be shared by richer and more scientifically advanced countries with poorer countries that have great need of them.

Just beginning

This philosophy of continuous revision, reliance on science and international cooperation will continue to shape the international response to climate change in the years after Kyoto. An agreement in Kyoto will move us towards this goal, but it will not take us all the way there. By establishing a framework of general principles and institutions, and by setting up a process through which governments can meet regularly, the Convention serves as a yardstick for assessing achievements and new actions. In facing up to man-made climate change, we are going to have to think in terms of decades and centuries. The job is just beginning

Michael Zammit Cutajar is Executive Secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.

Complementary articles in other issues:
Issue on Climate & Action 1998

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