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CLIMATE CHANGE: Kyoto Protocol Is a Lifeline for Island Nations

Marwaan Macan-Markar

BANGKOK, Oct 11 2009 (IPS) - “It was a little bit scary,” says Dessima Williams, describing how the two weeks of United Nations climate change negotiations ended here on Oct. 9. “Our concerns need to be heard more.”

Her assessment as the head of the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS), a group of 43 island nations spread across the oceans, amplifies the fear of a rise in sea levels from global warming. For some island nations, such as the Maldives, a rise in the Indian Ocean could see it wiped off the planet.

It naturally sets the language expressed by this bloc apart from the other climate change negotiators who met in Bangkok to shape an agreement for approval at the upcoming U.N. climate change summit in Copenhagen. “We are at the very frontline of the damage being caused by climate change,” says Williams, the permanent representative from the Caribbean island of Grenada to the U.N. “We are raising the alarm because of our threats.”

“If you want to see the future, see our threats,” she asserted during an interview. “This is what we have been saying and will continue to say in Copenhagen.”

In fact, climate change negotiators who gathered in Bangkok got such a stark reality check soon after the talks began on Sep. 28, when the Pacific Island nation of Samoa, an AOSIS member, was struck by a tsunami on Sep. 30. This natural disaster killed 143 people and affected over 6,000 others in the communities flattened by the five-metre high wall of sea water.

Little wonder why AOSIS negotiators have responded with alarm at the move by the richer industrialised nations – and the major emitters of greenhouse gases (GhG) – to renege on their commitments to slash GhGs, which have contributed to global warming.

“The world’s threatened island states today expressed alarm at suggestions this week that the Copenhagen Climate Summit will not produce legally binding outcomes to build on the current international climate regime,” AOSIS said in a statement issued after the Bangkok talks ended.

That stems from the confusion created by the developed world’s negotiators about what the Kyoto Protocol means and what its fate will be. Negotiators from the European Union used the climate talks in Bangkok to call for a “new single architecture” that will include the Kyoto Protocol to emerge out of the U.N. summit in the Danish capital.

“We are talking about the Kyoto Protocol architecture with all its legally binding commitments,” Anders Turesson, chief climate change negotiator for Sweden, told journalists. “We need a home for Kyoto in a new single agreement.”

But climate change negotiators from the developing world and AOSIS argued during the negotiations and at press conferences that such moves would undermine the commitments made under this agreement, which came into force in 2005.

The protocol, which was added on to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC), was meant to give teeth to the international treaty to combat climate change. As a first step, it placed a burden on 37 industrialised nations and the EU to slash GhG emissions by five percent relative to 1990 levels between 2008 and 2012.

The current round of climate negotiations to be endorsed in Copenhagen in December is to work on a climate blueprint for the second emissions reduction period, from 2013 to 2020, under the protocol.

In the lead-up to the talks here, some of the richer countries had agreed to reduce their emissions by between 15 and 23 percent by 2020, a number far below what is needed by that year from the industrialised nations – cuts of 25 to 40 percent relative to 1990 levels. Norway is an exception, pledging during the meeting here to cut by 40 percent GhG emissions from 1990 levels.

But many of the industrialised countries have still to meet their 2012 targets. The United States, which leads the industrialised world in the amount of pollution per capita, at an estimated 20 tons of carbon dioxide per citizen, has remained an outsider to the protocol.

The lack of clear progress to secure commitments from the developed world to slash GhG emissions by 2020 under the Kyoto Protocol prompted John Ashe, the head of the Kyoto Protocol negotiating group, to deliver a caustic comment. “We will be the laughing stock come December 19 if the gap is not closed,” Ashe told negotiators, referring to the last day of the Copenhagen summit.

Yet it will be anything but a laughing matter for the small island states, whose negotiators admitted that they were seeking ambitious and binding emission cuts to keep the planet’s temperature from rising above 1.5 degrees Celsius from pre-industrial levels by 2050 to avoid natural disasters on their island nations.

AOSIS made this call in its opening statement during the negotiations here, echoing a view that had been expressed a week before at a Climate Change Summit at the U.N. headquarters in New York.

This limit is to save many AOSIS countries from disappearing, a prospect that the group says is likely if the climate change negotiators sticks to the previous target of limiting global warming to two degrees Celsius by 2050.

“This target to cut emissions under the Kyoto Protocol must be agreed to in Copenhagen,” says Williams. “This is about our survival – 1.5 degrees centigrade.”

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