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Journal NATURE inists UN talks must agree emissions limits

24 Nov 2005

An editorial is this weeks edition of Nature, one of the world's most reputable scientific journals, calls for any agreement coming from the UN climate talks which start next week in Montreal to include mandatory limits on damaging carbon emissions.

The heat is on
Nature 438, 396 (24 November 2005)

A successor to the Kyoto Protocol on climate change must involve mandatory emissions caps.

Talks about a climate accord to succeed the Kyoto Protocol when it expires in 2012 begin in earnest next week in Montreal. They will take place amid concerns that nations who backed the protocol are retreating from its central principle: the imposition of mandatory caps on greenhouse-gas emissions.

No national leader still in office is more strongly associated with the Kyoto agreement than Britain's prime minister, Tony Blair, and his recent pronouncements on Kyoto II have worried supporters of mandatory caps. In a series of speeches earlier this month, Blair made no mention of targets and echoed US President George W. Bush by stressing the role of technology development in cutting emissions. Blair also said that something "better and more sensitive" than the initial agreement was needed to convince major developing nations such as India and China, which do not have to limit emissions under the current protocol, to sign up to a new version.

That seems fair enough. But if European leaders such as Blair fail to insist on targets as part of Kyoto II, there is a danger that the entire exercise could become meaningless. Technology, in the shape of cleaner fossil-fuel power stations, renewable energy sources and perhaps nuclear power, ought to form an important element of nations' climate-change strategies. But these technologies need to be nurtured through financial incentives produced by mandatory caps and carbon-trading arrangements.

Following criticism of his initial remarks, Blair has been talking up targets again, stating that "targets, sensitively and intelligently applied over the right timeframe" are needed after 2012. But it will take remarkable ingenuity to bridge the chasm between developed countries, such as the United States and Australia, that have done little to cut their own emissions, and developing ones, such as China and India, that want rich nations to act before they do.

That said, there are already ideas in circulation about how to bring on board all these parties, including the United States, where a new administration elected in 2008 may take a more constructive approach. Specific industrial sectors might, for example, be asked to accept targets. China might agree to set targets on its energy-intensive cement industry, which has substantial greenhouse-gas emissions, in return for more technical support from overseas companies, who would earn credits that they could trade off against the emissions commitments at home. Similar schemes already operate on a small scale under the Kyoto Protocol.

Other sectors could be regulated on an international basis. Governments might agree to establish national targets on vehicle fuel emissions and efficiency, for example. This would offer nations the chance to sign up to agreements in sectors in which they know they can improve without losing their competitive advantage.

The last thing the process needs is for nations already committed to emissions targets under Kyoto to turn their backs on them now.

Working out how these ideas can be combined with the existing carbon-trading system will be an immense challenge. The last thing the process needs is for nations already committed to emissions targets under the original Kyoto protocol to turn their backs on them now. It was relatively painless for some nations - notably Britain and Germany - to meet tight Kyoto targets, because local events had sharply reduced emissions shortly after 1990, the baseline date against which the protocol's targets were set.
Now new circumstances, including greater electricity demand in southern Europe and steady economic growth, are making it harder for the European Union to stay within the Kyoto caps. Its leaders must redouble their efforts to restrict emissions and to vigorously pursue as strong a successor agreement as is practicable.

Nature ISSN: 0028-0836EISSN: 1476-4679

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