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It's a race against time. The Kyoto Protocol, adopted by 174 countries in December 1997, has set the first precise targets in terms of levels and dates. Between 2008 and 2012, Europe is to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 8%, the United States by 7% and Japan by 6%.
Despite this progress, the Kyoto results fall well short of what was proposed by the Europeans who were prepared - provided the other industrialised nations followed suit - to cut emissions by 15%. The arduous negotiations leading to this Protocol also resulted in a legal framework which will not only be complicated to apply in practice but also leaves many uncertainties.
A historic first
"It is the first time there has been a unanimous international agreement on climate change and that this problem has been recognised as a vital environmental issue on a global scale," points out Sylvie Faucheux, of the Centre d'Economie et d'Ethique pour l'Environnement et le Développement(1). "It is also no doubt the first time that the international community has set itself goals which imply a radical change in the way we organise our industrial activities and our services, our means of transport and our energy consumption."
That is the challenge facing the post-Kyoto European strategy. The undertaking given by the EU countries to reduce emissions within just over a decade is now legally and jointly binding. Observance of the obligations of the individual Member States (Article 4 of the Protocol) will be recorded at the European level, it being possible to offset the results achieved by one country against those of another. This means that the whole question of the reduction of emissions and the related socio-economic and political constraints must be approached in the framework of wide-ranging Community consultation. For this, the parties involved - governments, regional and local authorities, companies, consumers, citizens - must remain committed to their choices and their decisions.
Challenges for individuals and society
Over recent years, European research has become increasingly interested in the human dimensions of environmental change. The social, socio-economic and political problems posed by reducing greenhouse gas emissions now occupy an important place in this research policy. In 1997, several research/policy interface workshops were set up by the EU's Environment & Climate programme in order to assess the scale of the challenge, explore the various political responses to the problems posed, assess their impact and contribute to the formulation of the EU's stance at Kyoto. These brought together experts on climate, technological change, economics and the human sciences in a debate with political and industrial decision-makers, the social partners and non-governmental organisations.
In 1998, new workshops of this kind were also set up to analyse European policy options in implementing Kyoto. An initial research group looked at the concerns of those involved from various sectors and social groups. "It is essential for the interested parties to be involved in realistically assessing and analysing the socio-economic effects, the risks run by the various groups, and their motivations," explains Sylvie Faucheux.
Two other workshops looked at criteria and methods for judging the degree of fairness and effectiveness of alternative climate policies, together with the implementation of the "emission trading" regimes introduced by the flexibility instruments created at Kyoto.
Energy research is at the heart of the problem
"The Union is at present responsible for approximately 16% of global CO2 emissions linked to energy, while representing just 6% of the world's population," points out the European Commission(2). Energy policy and the underlying research are central to the debate on climate change. "New undertakings to reduce emissions must lead to a serious discussion to find out how to go beyond what has been achieved in energy savings over recent years."
Two sectors are in the firing line: if no effort is made to cut emissions, CO2 emissions resulting from the growth of transport in the EU will increase by almost 40% by the year 2010, and the increase in emissions due to electricity and heat production will reach 12%. So it is on these two fronts that a post-Kyoto strategy must concentrate its efforts.
The technological stakes
Technology is crucially important in these fields. Over recent years, a great deal of European research, actively supported by the JOULE-THERMIE programme, has been devoted to the clean car of the future, (see box), as well as to the development of intermodal transport systems.
In the field of electricity and heat production, considerable progress has been made in advanced technologies which use clean and efficient fossil fuels - natural gas, coal or brown coal. The dissemination of these innovations, in particular the parallel development of combined heat and electricity production, is a key area of activity for achieving the Kyoto objectives - not only in Europe, but also worldwide.
The JOULE-THERMIE programme also attaches great importance to highlighting technologies arising out of European research and demonstration projects for the harnessing of renewable energies -such as biomass, wind power, photovoltaic energy. Biomass, in particular, has the additional advantage of capturing the CO2 present in the air, and is a priority source of energy as part of a policy to strengthen the "carbon pools".
In terms of CO2 emissions, the scenarios drawn up at the European level have an ambitious but realistic objective: to increase the share of renewable energies from 6% to 12% by the year 2010. Such progress can only be achieved by means of a committed policy which makes it possible to include these non-polluting energy sources in the major electricity distribution networks.
"Technologies to reduce greenhouse gases will only have an effect if they are backed up by policies designed to support innovation and to open up markets by incentives in the areas of investment financing, taxation and emission trading," stresses Pierre Valette, manager of support for RTD-Energy strategy at DG XII(3). "A pragmatic response to the Kyoto objectives must also include increased coordination between Community policies on research, energy, transport and the environment."
Double-pronged approach to combat greenhouse effect
The compromise negotiated at the Kyoto Conference caused pandemonium among climatologists and Earth science experts. Starting from the principle that the objective is to arrive at a fixed and quantified global reduction, two complex mechanisms are provided in order to reduce greenhouse emissions.
New method of calculation
In order to implement such a system it is necessary to set up a new method of calculating CO2 emissions which is both rigorous and fair. Yet considerable uncertainty continues to surround any such system. "The majority view among the scientific community was that the threat of global warming had to be attacked at source, by means of a clear and transparent policy to reduce emissions," comments Anver Ghazi, manager of research on global change with the EU's Environment & Climate programme. "Natural carbon pools are going to be taken into account, but the lack of figures in this area poses an enormous scientific challenge."
The land ecosystem alone is estimated to have the potential to absorb almost 25% of the CO2 emissions caused by human activity. Yet this evaluation only takes into account a tiny fraction (about one thirtieth) of the vast and continuous carbon fluxes between the ecosystem and the atmosphere, essentially by means of the alternating photosynthesis and respiration of the plant world - and of the forests in particular. The margin of error regarding the real capacity of forests to absorb greenhouse gases is therefore very high.
"The main problem is that the land biosphere's ability to capture carbon is limited and there is no permanent absorption," writes Claus Brüning, scientific officer with the Environment & Climate programme. "Sooner or later, the rate of absorption will reach saturation level and, within a matter of decades, the carbon will be once again released into the atmosphere. The strategy of increasing the land pools is therefore no more than a stop-gap political solution which threatens to burden future generations with an even more critical problem."
What about the primeval forests?
Mechanisms based exclusively on the three criteria of afforestation / reforestation / deforestation also ignore the very major carbon pools constituted by primeval forests, the stocks of which, having been built up over the course of centuries, would take a very long time to be replenished. The felling of long-lived forests - such as for high-quality construction woods - could be compensated for by reforestation/afforestation with fast-growing species, for paper pulp production for example. But the ultimate result would be a net destocking of carbon.
Furthermore, not all forests play the same role. "The bio-geochemical processes involved in carbon exchanges between the atmosphere and the land biosphere are complex, extremely variable in space and time, and are not yet fully understood," continues Claus Brüning. This applies in particular to interactions between plants and the soil in which they are rooted, because it is in fact below soil level that plants store carbon in the most stable and long-lasting manner. Reforestation/afforestation can result in a negative CO2 result when young plantations draw their carbon requirements from the soil, becoming a source of carbon emissions rather than carbon pools.
The parameters defined in Kyoto to include the pool concept therefore need to be revised and supplemented. In February 1998, the European Commission set up a scientific study group to assess the current state of knowledge in the field of land carbon pools. Presented under the International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme (IGBP), the group's conclusions are generally shared by the international scientific community.
(1) The C3ED (Université de Versailles St-Quentin-en-Yvelines, France) was charged by DG XII with coordinating a series of research/policy interface seminars analysing the tasks for research and the implications of climate change for the socio-economic players.