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(Prepared for the CityVoice of Wellington, New Zealand)
New Zealand is one of 180 countries gathering in The Hague for 12 days. The issue is global climate change. Global warming and climate change are caused by the so-called greenhouse effect, whereby gases such as carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane trap the heat of the sun. The main "culprit" for the greenhouse effect is carbon dioxide or CO2, which is produced mainly by the burning of fossil fuels, mainly coal, natural gas and oil.
Human activity has tremendously increased the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere since the industrial revolution and especially the past 100 years. Scientists now almost unanimously agree that this is already causing unstoppable climate change.
What the talks are about is how we can reduce our emissions of greenhouse gases in order to prevent a run-away greenhouse effect with disastrous consequences for human and nature.
The consensus amongst all participants is that we should get as soon as possible to a "safe" level of emissions. If we don not take action, so tell us the climatologists, we face more and more extreme weather events, such as hurricanes and floods. Glaciers and polar ice caps will melt, the warmer oceans will expand and together this will cause a rising of the sea levels. The Pacific Island countries as well as countries with important and densely populated coastal flats are then in great trouble.
The Climate Action Network, uniting environmental NGOs (Non Governmental Organisations) from all over the world illustrate this dramatically by their "Fossil of the Day" display. It shows a Dutchman in traditional clothes and on wooden shoes of course, who is getting wet feet and almost drowning by the rising floods.
The Fossil of the Day" is awarded to that delegation that is seen as being the most obstructive to the climate negotiations. Last week New Zealand was high on the scoring list. But the head of our country delegation, Minister Pete Hodgson, told City Voice that this was because of a technicality that the NGOs had misinterpreted.
New Zealand is represented with a delegation of 28 people. Our previous minister for the Environment, Simon Upton is also here, for a different sort of climate change however. He is preparing for his move to live under the Eiffel Tower from January next year onward. He is moving to Paris because of his new position at the OECD (Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development). This big event is very suitable to meet many people at one place, he said.
Indeed, there are almost 2000 delegates from countries, 3400 delegates from observer organisations and 600 media people, your City Voice being the only New Zealand accredited media. Quite a crowd, especially this second week after the arrivals of the ministers. On Monday the plenary meeting was again attended by the Dutch Queen Beatrix. This shows the high level of importance that people attribute to the subject. The president of this sixth Conference of the Parties, the Dutch Minister for the Environment, Jan Pronk, is urging the negotiators to work hard for an ecologically credible outcome.
Outside of the heavily guarded conference centre the man and woman of the street put pressure in their way. On Saturday 4000 people, mostly youngsters, have built a dike against the floods that climate change will probably cause. The dike is 400 metre long and 1.5 metre high, closing off the conference venue and covered with banners and signs the show the worries of the people.
Yet not all seem to be worried. Some countries, such as the USA, Saudi Arabia, Japan and Australia seem eager to prevent any real action to be taken. Their economy appears to be more important than the environment.
In Kyoto, 1997, the world agreed on reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 5.2 per cent below the level of 1990. Only some 30 developing countries, however, have ratified the Kyoto agreement. This meeting aims at setting the rules. How are we going to reduce and how will the rules be implemented. Here’s where opinions vary and even clash. Some countries, among which New Zealand, want a one hundred per cent emissions trading solution. Others, such as the European Union want half of the emissions to be reduced at home by technological means: energy savings and so-called clean energy such as wind mills and solar power.
We asked minister Pete Hodgson whether he is optimistic. The reply was that the task is very daunting.
Jeanette Fitzsimons of the New Zealand Green Party said that trading with carbon emissions and "carbon sinks" can only be a temporary solution. Sinks are forests that bind carbon dioxide from the air and thereby reduce the CO2 concentration in the air. The permanent reduction must be found in more energy efficient ways of living, we understood. Asked about the chances of a successful conclusion, Ms. Fitzsimons is not too optimistic. The Kyoto agreement will enter into force when 55 percent of the countries who at the same time represent 5 percent of the CO2 emissions will have ratified the treaty.
Theoretically 57 per cent could be achieved without the USA, who is high up the scale of "fossil of the day". But some of the other countries are also pretty obstructive. Generally the feeling is that it is better to have a weak treaty than no agreement at all at the end of 12 days of hard work. No agreement would throw the world back by many years.
The conference president, minister Pronk, pushes where he can. The speakers pulprit in the plenary hall even has a sand bag from the dike sitting on its corner. A very visible and physical reminder. And each plenary session is started with a 15 second film flash showing the brutal effects of failure to reduce greenhouse gas emissions very soon: hurricanes and floods. The motto of the conference is: "Let's work it out!"
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