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Martin Laplante

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Wed, 19 Nov 2008

UNFCCC Confuses Journalists on Direction of Greenhouse Gases

I am a great believer in the mission of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). These are the people who monitor compliance with the Kyoto Protocol. Unfortunately right at the moment I am disappointed that their communications people are playing peekaboo with the facts in what I can only assume is a deliberate attempt to lead the public to a particular conclusion. I am also disappointed in most journalists who simply reported uncritically what was in the press release without a deeper examination of the data being released.

There were a number of different headlines concerning the release of the latest batch of measured emissions of GHG levels of major countries. Some said greenhouse gase emissions are down, some said they are up, some said the rate of growth is decreasing, and a few talked about up then down or down then up.

The UNFCCC press release said "emissions of 40 industrialized countries that have greenhouse gas reporting obligations under the Convention remained in 2006 below the 1990 level by about 5%, but rose by 2.3 percent in the time-frame 2000 to 2006." The headline said "Rising industrialized countries emissions underscore urgent need for political action on climate change at Poznan meeting". This is what it did not say: GHG emissions of Kyoto signatories were down in 2006 relative to the previous year, for the first time in a long time. Here is the conclusion that they did not draw: there have been changes in industrialized countries that indicate that this downward trend will continue. This is the news. The rest is historical trivia.

Here are the facts, and some of my interpretations. I don't like these facts any more than the UNFCCC does. The Kyoto Protocol target, that GHG emissions be 5% below 1990 levels has essentially been reached. In truth, it was reached in 1992, and total emissions have been generally unchanged since then. They did go up from 2000 to 2005, and then levelled off. The drop in 1992 was caused by "Economies in Transition" (EIT), essentially former communist countries whose economies collapsed. EIT's continuing decline in the 90s was matched by the continuing increase in GHG emissions in richer countries. Since 2000, EIT emissions have been growing again. But lo and behold, the emissions of western countries stopped growing and started declining.

What this means is that, as feared, all that international emissions trading will do at this point is transfer money from polluting countries to non-polluting countries without any actual effect on the total emissions and without investing the money in GHG reduction capability. Actually quite the contrary - EIT countries will use the money to emit more. The objective is already reached, all that remains is to shuffle paper around after the fact.

Clearly, to me, the UNFCC is trying to influence world public opinion in order to support its agenda at the Poznan meeting. But choosing 2000, an arbitrary reference point, in order to make the situation seem worse than it is, is unconscionable. Many economies have invested heavily in GHG reductions, and in a time of economic uncertainty now would be a good time to give them some positive feedback that those investments are paying off and that it's worth continuing. But quite apart from whether their spin on the figures is good or bad for their objectives, a UN agency responsible fora data and monitoring the implementation of the commitments of the signatories should not be in the business of trying to influence the political process of its member countries.

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