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Swiss square up for battle to save Kyoto Protocol

Philippe Roch believes the Kyoto protocol shows the way to ending global warming

(Keystone Archive)

An international conference on climate change is underway in Bonn, with the sole aim of salvaging the Kyoto Protocol on reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Switzerland has pledged to do all it can to drag the protocol back from the brink but admits it is not optimistic.

The head of the Swiss delegation, Philippe Roch, says his two aims are to extricate the protocol from its current impasse and, in collaboration with other countries, to play a mediating role in searching for a compromise.

Since the Bush administration announced it would not implement the treaty because of the harm it would do to the US economy, a number of other countries - including Japan, Russia, Australia and Canada - have placed the protocol in jeopardy by demanding concessions.

Roch, the head of the Federal Office for the Environment, says Switzerland regards Kyoto as the "only way of dealing with the question of global warming at an international level", and he insists that any compromise solution will have to maintain its "environmental integrity".

"We don't want to accept anything that would empty the protocol of its substance," he told swissinfo. Roch insists that implementation of the protocol must result in a reduction in carbon dioxide emissions.

The 1997 protocol obliges industrialised countries to reduce their emissions of greenhouse gases by an average of just over five per cent from 1990 levels by 2012. Switzerland's law on carbon dioxide emissions, which came into effect in early 2000, envisages a fall of around 10 per cent by 2010.

The Bonn meeting follows a failed attempt in The Hague last November to thrash out the details of how the protocol should be implemented.

"The situation is not much better than in The Hague. Time is short. The positions are still far apart. I'm not optimistic," Roch says.

The contentious issues that caused The Hague negotiations to collapse are up for discussion again in Bonn. These include: how to reward developing countries for using clean sources of energy; the mechanism to monitor compliance with the treaty; and the extent to which "sinks" - forests and agricultural land which absorbs carbon dioxide from the atmosphere - can be used to offset emissions reductions.

On this last issue, Switzerland insists that only new sinks - and not existing woodland - should be taken into account, and that countries should not use sinks as a way of avoiding having to take measures to reduce emissions.

The Dutch environment minister, Jan Pronk, who will be chairing the conference, has said that if a solution is not found in Bonn, then the Kyoto Protocol will become a "dead letter". Roch points out that there is one more chance to rescue the agreement from the jaws of oblivion - a conference in Marrakesh at the end of October.

"If we cannot find a way out in Marrakesh, that would probably entail new negotiations on the basis of the [UN climate change] convention itself, and not on the protocol," Roch says.

"But that would mean four years of lost work, so we should really act rapidly if we want to mitigate the problem of climate change," he explained to swissinfo.

To enter into force, the treaty must be ratified by at least 55 of the signatory countries, responsible for at least 55 per cent of the industrialised world's carbon dioxide emissions in 1990. With the US accounting for nearly 40 per cent of that figure, the failure by any other big polluter - Japan or Russia, for example - could prove fatal.

Switzerland is clear that, even if the Kyoto Protocol collapses, it will stick to the targets it has set for the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions.

That position has the backing of Swiss industry, which recently pledged to take measures to meet the targets by itself. If it becomes apparent that those goals are not going to be reached, the government has the option of putting in place a "carbon tax".

"I'm hopeful we can reach the targets without having to introduce a tax," Roch says.

by Roy Probert


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