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Jan Pronk in Marrakech: "Don't change the Bonn agreement - apply it"

Monday, 29 October, 2001, 16:31 GMT Climate roadshow rumbles on

By Alex Kirby BBC News Online environment correspondent

Negotiators from more than 150 countries have begun another round of talks on climate change.

The talks involve the signatories to the Kyoto Protocol, the climate treaty agreed in outline in Bonn last July.

This round, in Marrakech in Morocco, has to translate Bonn's political agreement into a legal instrument.

The negotiators hope to pave the way for the protocol's ratification next year.

The Bonn agreement commits signatories to reduce their emissions of six of the greenhouse gases believed to be intensifying the climate's natural variability.

By between 2008 and 2012, they will have to cut emissions by around 2% on 1990 levels. An earlier draft demanded cuts averaging 5.2%, but it was modified in the face of strong US opposition.

The US later repudiated the treaty entirely, saying it would harm its economy.

Modest start

Many climate scientists say the world must cut emissions of the main gas caused by human activities, carbon dioxide, by at least 60% on present levels by mid-century.

Critics say Kyoto is a waste of money and will make very little difference. Its defenders say it is a first step opening the way to far more ambitious agreements.

The Marrakech meeting, known as COP7 (the seventh conference of the parties) has to write the rule book for Kyoto, in the hope that enough signatories will ratify it, at next year's World Summit on Sustainable Development, for it to enter into force.

That means it must have been ratified by 55 countries, responsible for 55% of emissions in 1990. But several countries will wait to see what Marrakech agrees before deciding whether or not to ratify Kyoto.

WWF, the global environment network, is concerned that Marrakech "resists attempts by Australia, Canada, Russia and Japan" to reopen debate on issues agreed in Bonn.

No going back

Jan Pronk, the Dutch environment minister who chaired the Bonn meeting, told delegates in Marrakech: "Do not reopen the political compromises we've reached. Apply them."

Among the key issues are:

accounting for, reporting and verifying countries' emissions enforcing compliance with the rules, and fixing penalties for breaking them deciding how much pollution can be absorbed by forests and soils the rules for buying and selling unused emission rights how to channel money to developing countries to help them to cope with changing climate and to install energy-efficient technology.

The US is sending a small delegation to Marrakech. As a signatory to the UN climate change convention, the Kyoto Protocol's parent body, it is entitled to do so.

Some of the protocol's defenders still hope Washington will endorse it.

Tony Juniper of Friends of the Earth said: "The world has rightly shown its solidarity with the people of the US after the appalling crimes of 11 September.

"Tony Blair must now use his influence with President Bush to persuade him to show his solidarity with the rest of the world by tackling climate change."

But Philip Stott, professor of biogeography at the University of London, UK, a longstanding climate change sceptic, sounded a different note.

"Let's hope all those eager delegates who will be at COP7 actually take time to study the temperature history of where they're visiting - there's no 'global warming' at all in Morocco", he said.

Friday, 8 September, 2000, 15:00 GMT 16:00 UK Alternatives to oil

Renewable energy could become more important by BBC News Online's Environment Correspondent Alex Kirby

The industrialised world stands aghast at the prospect of rising oil prices.

Paying more for oil means increases in the price of almost everything that drives the rich economies.

The possibility that oil prices could continue to rise appals the Northern countries, who see no other way to fuel their growth.

But they have little room for manoeuvre, because they cannot determine the prices. In the grip of a crisis, it is hard to argue that there may be a silver lining.

But the benefit of the present oil price hikes could be to focus attention on the possibility of a world far less dependent on oil.

Environmental groups have for years been arguing that we shall all have to live radically different lives when the oil reserves are finally exhausted.

The truth is that they probably never will be. Oil will simply become too expensive to compete with other fuels.

Amory Lovins, of the Rocky Mountain Institute, is fond of reminding audiences: "The stone age didn't end because the stone ran out, and the oil age will be just the same."

The Age of Coal

Before oil's supremacy, coal was king.

It was the bedrock of the industrial revolution in Europe and North America, and it still has a role to play.

There are enormous reserves of coal available, but it does give off large quantities of the gases which are causing climate change, especially carbon dioxide (CO2) and sulphur dioxide (SO2).

Technology can help, up to a point, with improvements like fluidised bed technology, which burns coal much more efficiently and results in much less pollution.

But it seems highly unlikely that coal will ever recover its once-dominant position.

Nuclear puzzle

Some people still pin their hopes on nuclear power, which makes far less of a contribution to global warming (though it is not entirely neutral).

But in half a century the world's nuclear industry has had at least three serious accidents. Windscale (UK, 1957), Three Mile Island (US, 1979) and Chernobyl (USSR, 1986) are names etched into the global memory, synonyms for horrific brushes with catastrophe.

Many people therefore reject new nuclear plants in the belief that more accidents are inevitable.

And apart from that, the industry still shows no sign of being able to get rid of its waste in safety.

Renewable fuels

A third category of fuel comes under the heading of renewables.

Some are tried and tested, like hydro-electric power, and many countries, for instance Norway, are already exploiting them to the full.

Wind and wave power have promise, as does biomass - crops like willow which grow quickly and are increasingly being used for fuel. Transport fuel based on renewable oilseed crops such as soybeans and rapeseed also has potential.

Solar power is coming on by leaps and bounds. There are already photo-voltaic cells which will provide power on a cloudy British winter's day, or even by moonlight.

They are expensive, but a lot cheaper than similar cells were a few years ago.

For vehicles, many motor manufacturers believe the future lies in fuel cells, which will power cars as effectively as now, but without relying on oil.

They foresee a change from an oil-based economy to one based on hydrogen.


And there is what its supporters are fond of calling "the fifth fuel" - energy conservation.

Most of us still waste fuel on a prodigious scale, and the savings we could make by greater efficiency, and by just switching off, are immense.

The environment minister of an eastern European country told me in the early 1990s: "In the Soviet days, we did have thermostats in our homes and factories. When we got too hot, we just opened the windows."

Rising oil prices are the perfect excuse for second thoughts.

Forest fires release carbon: But they have become less frequent in the US

Wednesday, 7 November, 2001, 19:13 GMT Forests 'only temporary carbon absorbers'

By Alex Kirby BBC News Online environment correspondent

Scientists say the world should not expect forests, grasslands and soils to soak up carbon dioxide (CO2) far into the future.

They say this is because these "carbon sinks" are themselves the product of temporary changes in land use.

They believe the entire land-based carbon sink could ultimately disappear.

The findings are important for a world keen to find natural methods of absorbing CO2.

The study, reported in the journal Nature, is especially relevant for the meeting in the Moroccan city of Marrakech of signatories to the Kyoto Protocol, the international treaty on tackling climate change.

Government ministers have taken charge of the negotiations at the meeting, of about 160 countries, which is due to end on 9 November with agreement on the protocol's detailed working.

Recent sink

Sinks soak up some of the CO2 emitted into the atmosphere by human activities (many climatologists believe CO2 and other gases are intensifying the climate's natural variability).

But exactly how much carbon they absorb is unknown. Scientists believe the land and the oceans together absorb about half the CO2 given off by the burning of fossil fuels.

The 30 authors of the Nature report say: "Atmospheric CO2 and oxygen data confirm that the terrestrial biosphere was largely neutral with respect to net carbon exchange during the 1980s, but became a net carbon sink in the 1990s.

"This recent sink can be largely attributed to northern extra-tropical areas, and is roughly split between America and Eurasia.

"Tropical land areas, however, were approximately in balance with respect to carbon exchange, implying a carbon sink that offset emissions due to tropical deforestation."

In North America, China and Europe, the authors say, the key factors were probably the regrowth of forests, often after farmland was abandoned in the 1980s and 1990s. A reduction in the frequency of fires also contributed.

Regional differences

Other factors probably include changes in foliage, plant litter and soil microbes. These in turn are affected by changes in photosynthesis, respiration, fire and insect outbreaks, influenced by climate fluctuations such as El Nino.

Growing trees absorb net quantities of CO2, and the higher levels of CO2 and nitrogen in the atmosphere are themselves stimulating tree and plant growth.

But the researchers expect these effects to reach saturation point and cease to have an effect.

They found big regional variations in the strength of sinks. Much of Siberia, for example, has warmed by about 0.5 degrees Celsius a decade since the 1960s.

An increase in wildfires and insect damage appears to have changed it from a sink into a temporary source of CO2.

World without sinks

In a possible pointer to future changes, the authors say: "Globally, there appears to be a net release of carbon to the atmosphere during warm and dry years, and a net uptake during cooler years."

The lead author is Professor David Schimel, of the Max Planck Institute for Biogeochemistry in Jena, Germany.

He said: "Although carbon sinks have a role to play in absorbing excess CO2, it is possible that the net global terrestrial carbon sink may disappear altogether in the future."

Wednesday, 23 May, 2001, 21:37 GMT 22:37 UK Tree planting warning over global warming

Trees may not live up to expectations for storing carbon dioxide By BBC News Online's environment correspondent Alex Kirby

Hopes of using forests to tackle global warming - by storing excess carbon - have received a setback.

Researchers in the US are shedding doubt on how effective trees are in absorbing carbon dioxide (CO2) and then releasing oxygen back into the atmosphere.

And they say they have identified factors that limit the ability of these natural "sinks" to soak up CO2.

Their findings could have huge implications for attempts to tackle climate change. The US and its supporters currently believe sinks can reduce CO2 levels significantly.

The researchers, whose work is reported in the journal Nature, looked at the growth rate of a plantation of loblolly pines on an experimental plot belonging to Duke University, North Carolina, US.

They found that trees growing in air enriched to contain about 0.06% CO2, considerably more than the current 0.036%, increased their growth rate for only three years, before resuming their normal rate.

Nitrogen's importance

What the researchers found limited the trees' capacity to respond to carbon fertilisation was a shortage of other nutrients, especially nitrogen. The availability of water was also important.

When they made nitrogen available, the results were impressive.

They write: "In two forest experiments on maturing pines exposed to elevated atmospheric CO2, the CO2-induced biomass carbon increment without added nutrients was undetectable at a nutritionally poor site, and the stimulation at a nutritionally moderate site was transient, stabilising at a marginal gain after three years.

"However, a large synergistic gain from higher CO2 and nutrients was detected with nutrients added.

"This gain was even larger at the poor site (threefold higher than the expected additive effect) than at the moderate site (twofold higher)."

Foliage uptake

Another group of researchers examined the same forest plots to see how effective the leaf-litter layer and soil were at absorbing CO2.

They found that nearly half the carbon uptake went into short-lived parts of the trees, mainly foliage.

The total amount of litter did increase in a carbon-enriched atmosphere, but the rate at which it broke down also increased. And the carbon then went back into the atmosphere rather than into the soil.

They say: "We report a significant accumulation of carbon in the litter layer of experimental forest plots after three years of growth at increased CO2 concentrations.

"But fast turnover times of organic carbon in the litter layer (of about three years) appear to constrain the potential size of this carbon sink.

Reliance on sinks

"Given the observation that carbon accumulation in the deeper mineral soil layers was absent, we suggest that significant, long-term net carbon sequestration in forest soils is unlikely."

The November 2000 international climate talks in the Dutch capital, The Hague, were meant to finalise the workings of the global climate treaty, the Kyoto Protocol. But they ended in failure, with the role of carbon sinks one of the main sticking points.

The US and the other members of the so-called Umbrella Group (Japan, Switzerland, Canada, Australia, Norway, New Zealand and Russia) wanted to rely considerably on sinks in meeting their Kyoto targets for reducing emissions of greenhouse gases that may be warming the global climate.

The European Union and others opposed this, arguing that open-ended use of sinks to absorb CO2 could allow countries to avoid making any actual emission cuts at all.

In terms of international diplomacy that argument appears academic, because of President Bush's insistence that the US will not implement the protocol anyway.

But for the scientists and policymakers who are seeking practical ways of limiting what they see as the human contribution to climate change, it remains important. If sinks can help to absorb worthwhile amounts of carbon, many people will be very relieved. On this evidence, it is far from certain that they can.

Thursday, 8 November, 2001, 02:39 GMT Ministers clear Kyoto hurdle

Some scientists say greenhouse gases are at critical levels Environment ministers at the conference on climate change in Marrakech, Morocco, have moved a step closer to bringing into force a key treaty to tackle global warming.

The United Nations conference is attempting to draft the legal language to give effect to the Kyoto Protocol, which was signed in the Japanese city in 1997. This should pave the way for the protocol's ratification next year.

Delegates from the European Union and developing countries say they are upbeat on the key issue of compliance - namely the commitment by countries to stick to pollution targets and the penalty system for those that break the limits.

Kyoto would commit signatories to a cut in their emissions of greenhouse gases - believed by many scientists to be warming the planet - by around 2% on 1990 levels.

European Union Environment Commissioner Margot Wallstrom said the progress already made augured well for a full agreement to emerge by the end of the conference on Friday.

"The atmosphere seems to be good now that we have solved some of the problems," she said.

But the head of the EU delegation, Belgian Energy Minister Olivier Deleuze, warned against over-optimism, saying the deal was not yet in plance.

Binding sanctions

One of the major talking points in Marrakech has surrounded the issue of whether countries that emit more greenhouse gases than allowed under the protocol should face binding sanctions.

But this issue seems to have been resolved.

"Binding consequences are definitely there," Jennifer Morgan of the World Wide Fund for Nature said. "Countries now know if they miss their targets there will be consequences."

UN scientists say human-induced climate change could entail disastrous consequences, such as floods and droughts, with current climate models forecasting a global warming of up to 5.8 degrees Celsius by 2100.

Climate science

Not all researchers, however, agree with the UN assessment on climate change. They question the scientific underpinnings of much of the modelling work.

And, they argue, even if human-induced climate change is a real phenomenon, Kyoto is an expensive technical fix that may not even work.

The US, under the direction of President George W Bush, has already repudiated the treaty entirely, saying it would harm its economy.

US representative Paula Dobriansky said climate change warranted "serious attention and real commitment" but reaffirmed President Bush's position against signing the treaty.

"Our corrective, long-term objective must be to truly create a global approach that stitches together actions by all countries into a tapestry of national action and international cooperation," she said.

To enter into force, Kyoto must be ratified by 55 countries, responsible for 55% of emissions in 1990. This means that without the US - the world's biggest emitter of greenhouse gases - all the other big developed countries must be onside for the whole process to be carried through.

Russia has a key role to play in global warming talks

Friday, 9 November, 2001, 10:06 GMT Russia puts heat on climate treaty

By the BBC's Elizabeth Blunt in Marrakech

Delegates to a UN meeting on climate change in the Moroccan city of Marrakech are pressing on with their discussions to finalise the details of the Kyoto Protocol.

This is the international treaty under which industrialised countries would commit themselves to legally-binding cuts in their emissions of the gases which are believed by many scientists to be warming the planet.

But one country which could yet block agreement is Russia, which is playing a key role now that the United States is no longer part of the negotiations.

The moment President Bush decided the United States would stay outside the protocol, Russia stepped into the spotlight.

After the US, it is listed as the next biggest producer of greenhouse gases in the industrialised world. If neither Russia nor the United States take part, the whole plan will collapse.

Substantial concessions were already made to Russia in the last round of talks in Bonn in July.

Forest sinks

Russia was allowed to argue that its vast forests soaked up at least 17 million metric tonnes of carbon a year, thus sparing it the need to reduce its use of coal and oil by that amount.

But now the Russian delegation is asking for further concessions, and threatening not to ratify the agreement unless the allowance for its forests is almost doubled.

In his formal statement, the Russian representative talked grandly of using national potential and creating incentives for sustainable development. But other delegates are calling it blackmail.

The spokesman for the developing countries said that Russia's demands were definitely far too high. But it looks as if Russia will get an increase in the allowance that it can claim for its forests, just in the interests of keeping it inside the agreement.

The problem is that every extra tonne of carbon on the allowance allows the burning of an equivalent amount of coal and oil, and that giving way to Russia could open the floodgates to claims from other countries.

Thursday, 8 November, 2001, 21:42 GMT Climate treaty's 'minimal' impact Most of the reductions had been assigned to the US By BBC science correspondent Richard Black

As the United Nations climate conference in Marrakesh draws to a close, a new analysis just published in the journal Science concludes that the impact of the re-modelled Kyoto Protocol on greenhouse gas emissions will be minimal.

Over the four years of its existence, the original Kyoto Protocol has been changed in many ways - not least by US President George Bush's decision earlier this year to withdraw.

Other major modifications came at the Bonn meeting in July, which allowed countries to meet their individual targets largely by planting forests to absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, rather than reducing their emissions.

Under the original Protocol, governments of industrialised nations agreed that by the year 2012, their net emissions of greenhouse gases will be on average around 5% lower than they were in 1990.

New analysis

But the new analysis by William Nordhaus, an economics professor at Yale University in the United States and a former presidential advisor, says the actual impact will be much lower.

"Roughly speaking, three-quarters of the emissions reductions under the Kyoto Protocol as originally designed were assigned to the United States. So without the United States, I estimate that emissions reductions under Kyoto-Bonn will be about 1.5% lower than a no-control scenario," he says.

Other scientists believe Professor Nordhaus's figures to be accurate, without sharing his conclusion that unless the US comes back on board, the treaty is a worthless exercise.

Many scientists, environmentalists and politicians believe that the real value of Kyoto lies not in its immediate impact on greenhouse gas levels, but in that it sets a precedent for concerted global action on climate change.

Several important countries, notably those of the European Union, have indicated they will seek to ratify the protocol early next year.

This will allow the United Nations process to move onto the next stage - agreeing on future targets for deeper emissions cuts, and bringing developing countries into the arena.

Wednesday, 16 January, 2002, 23:04 GMT Germany boosts wind power

Germany is planning to 5,000 turbines off the coast By the BBC's Patrick Bartlett in Frankfurt

Germany - the world's leading producer of wind power - says it has expanded its capacity by 44% in the past year.

Industry figures show Germany now has more than 11,000 wind turbines - the dramatic expansion follows the German government's decision to phase out nuclear power.

And in a pioneering move, German companies are planning to build huge wind parks far out to sea.

The European wind power industry estimates, that given the right legal and financial support, wind projects could provide energy for 50m people in Europe in less than 10 years time.

That would represent a major contribution to meeting the EU's Kyoto climate targets on reducing greenhouse gases.

Growing industry

Germany, by far the world's largest wind power market, is showing the way - last year it accounted for roughly half of all wind turbines built worldwide.

Having decided to phase out nuclear power, the German government is promoting wind energy like never before.

Though wind power now accounts for just 3.5% of Germany's energy consumption, that is expected to grow rapidly.

Turbine construction has been encouraged by a German law guaranteeing a minimum price for energy produced by wind power.

Off-shore turbines

The authorities are now considering plans for what could be a revolution in renewable energy - a plan to build up to 5,000 wind turbines off Germany's north coast.

Some would be located in open sea up to 45 kilometres offshore, a feat never before attempted. Since the wind is stronger at sea, the energy potential is highly attractive.

Giant wind turbines, double the size of conventional ones, are being developed for offshore use.

A pilot project has already been authorised and is expected to be operational next year, but as well as the technological challenges, the project will have to overcome concerns about shipping safety and its impact on the sea environment.