Unpicking yesterday's treaties

Basel, Montreal, Rio, Kyoto, Rotterdam, Stockholm, Cartagena - these and other cities saw their names conferred on the global treaties which amounted to a great success for environmental diplomacy from the late 1980s onwards. They addressed chemicals, waste, climate change, the ozone layer, biosafety and other issues, and were vital to the prospects of safeguarding the planet's life support systems, the conservation of its ecosystems and the health of human beings from the pressures of growing populations and economic development. They seemed, for a while, like secure achievements which provided stepping-stones to a brighter - or at least less bleak - future.

But new realities have dawned, and nowhere more so than with the Kyoto Protocol. Devised to set the world on a path towards reducing its greenhouse gas emissions, it remains a dead letter thanks to the Bush administration's refusal to ratify and Russia's dithering over whether to do so.

But there are subtler ways in which the achievements of the recent past can be undone. November's meeting of parties to the Montreal Protocol on the ozone layer in Nairobi provided one example. The meeting broke up without agreement on the key agenda item, and the main culprit was again the US (see p 57 ).

The issue at stake was the pesticide methyl bromide, one of the most powerful ozone depleters still in commerce in the developed world. The chemical is due to be phased out in developed countries in 2005, but they are permitted to apply for "essential use" exemptions beyond then. Such exemptions may be granted only where there are no technically or economically feasible alternatives, and where unavailability of methyl bromide would cause "significant market disruption".

Several countries which sought essential use exemptions in the run-up to the Nairobi meeting failed to submit the information required under the Protocol, leaving the expert committee appointed to adjudicate on their applications unable to make clear recommendations. They also played the system, since nobody has been appointed to decide whether they face "significant market disruption" if denied continued use of methyl bromide.

The US led the pack, seeking clearance to use almost 10,000 tonnes of the pesticide in both 2005 and 2006 - above the level it is permitted to consume this year. Among its applications was one for 350 tonnes of the chemical to treat turf grass for golf courses. There were many others on which the expert committee could not take a positive decision for lack of a full justification, even though in some uses there are well established alternatives in the US and elsewhere. Some applications by the UK fell in the same category.

Despite the US delegation's protestations to the contrary, its behaviour could set in train a damaging unpicking of the Protocol - and that when the ozone layer has barely begun to show signs of recovery. If developed countries succeed in winning exemptions of this kind, then developing countries may see every reason to attempt to follow suit when their turn comes in a few years' time. Moreover, the international community may yet have to contend with reactionary developments in the US, where a Bill has already been tabled to allow the administration to bypass any rejection of its critical use applications under the Protocol.

The "ghost ships" affair (see pp 28-30 ) is another example of the USA's disinclination to play by the rules - in this case the Basel Convention. Amidst all the controversy over the hazards posed by the vessels and the Environment Agency's clumsy handling of the affair, a point that should not be overlooked is that the US refused repeated official requests that the ships not be sent to the UK because the transaction was not compliant with transfrontier waste shipment rules.

And why were the ships sent to the UK at all? The story from the US is that the Bush administration wanted the contract with the UK company as a precedent to finding cheaper ways of scrapping its redundant military vessels overseas. Moreover, so the story goes, there was more than a whiff of the pork barrel in the deal which saw two unused vessels thrown in for fitting out and later sale at a handsome profit. Without this sweetener, it seems, the ghost ships would not have come to the UK at all. And that was scarcely what the authors of the Basel Convention could have had in mind when they wrote that wastes should only be shipped abroad for recovery when they are required as a raw material by industries in the importing country.

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