In 1992, the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, known as the “Earth Summit,” was held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. At that meeting, more than 150 countries signed a treaty called the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Changethe worldwide rise in temperatures that has been blamed for severe weather in many parts of the world. (UNFCCC) in which they agreed to work together to stabilize harmful greenhouse gas emissions. The agreement was non-binding, but it represented the broad acceptance of a goal. Specific targets were not established, with the understanding that future negotiations would produce implementing protocols. The treaty was notable for drawing a clear distinction between developed and developing countries, each of which would have different sets of obligations.1
Beginning in 1995, annual Conferences of the Parties (COPs) were held among signatory nations to develop the implementing protocols. The first meeting, called COP-1, resulted in the “Berlin Mandate,” a set of principles that set the stage for future negotiations. The mandate recognized the need for binding commitments with “common but differentiated responsibilities” for developed and developing countries.2 It was assumed that developing countries would be exempted from many obligations.
The details of treaty commitments began to take shape in the protocol drafted in Kyoto, Japan in 1997 (COP-3). The foundation of the Protocol was an agreement that signatory nations would cut emissions of greenhouse cases, including carbon dioxide, by an average of five percent below 1990 levels by 2012. Each country was assigned an individual target for cuts based on its share of global pollution. Additional details of how the Protocol would operate in practice were hammered out over the course of the next three COPs, and the Protocol officially entered into force in 2005. 3
In total, 192 countries have ratified the Kyoto Protocol, representing 64 percent of global greenhouse emissions. The United States and Australia have been conspicuous in refusing to ratify the accord.4 The United States under President George H.W. Bush was one of the early supporters of the UNFCCC in 1992. But by the time of the Kyoto meeting, mounting opposition within Congress had reinforced reservations within the executive branch about how the treaty would be implemented.
As a result, the United States remains a party to the Protocol, having signed it. Because the U.S. has not ratified the Protocol, Kyoto’s commitments are not binding on the United States, which remains the world’s largest source of greenhouse emissions. In the eyes of many, the Protocol’s effectiveness has been seriously undermined by the lack of American participation.
We will consider several key points of contention that emerged regarding the Protocol, some of which have been addressed by the UNFCCC and some which have not.
Graph, U.S. Sources of Carbon Dioxide Emissions, Source: http://www.epa.go/climatechange/emissions/co2_human.html
Natural Carbon SequestrationA process by which harmful byproducts of the burning of fossil fuels are safely stored underground. and Carbon Sinks
Much of the debate on the Protocol naturally focused on the methods by which countries might meet their emissions reduction targets. During COP-6, held at the Hague in the Netherlands in 2000, the United States put forth a proposal that countries be given credit for the positive effects of natural carbon sinks within their borders. Carbon sinks, such as oceans and forests, absorb or sequester carbon dioxide through natural processes removing it from the atmosphere.5
The European Union, among others, objected to this proposal because the acceptance of carbon sinks would allow forest-rich countries like the United States to meet a substantial portion of their emissions requirements without instituting any actual reforms. Many scientists believe that allowing such business as usual practices to count as progress will not help solve the problem of climate changethe worldwide rise in temperatures that has been blamed for severe weather in many parts of the world.. Despite these concerns, the use of carbon sinks was permitted in the final version of the Protoco.6 Although the United States has still yet to ratify the Protocol, the inclusion of natural carbon sequestrationA process by which harmful byproducts of the burning of fossil fuels are safely stored underground. as an available option makes the prospect of eventual ratification more likely.
Joint Implementation and the Clean Development Mechanism
Other proposals for alternative ways of meeting emissions targets that emerged during the negotiation of the Protocol were the Joint Implementation (JI) mechanism and the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM). In each case, a developed nation would invest in an emissions reduction project in another country. Even though the emissions reductions would not be achieved within its own borders, the investing country would receive credit for its action to help meet its own reduction target. Emissions credits would be transferred between the two partners (see box on “The European Union’s Emission Trading SchemeA market for carbon trading established by the European Union in late 2005 as a means of meeting commitments made through the Kyoto Protocol”). The recipient country could either be another developed country, as in the case of JI, or a developing country, the requirement for CDM.7
Why would an investing country be interested in taking advantage of JI or CDM? Reducing emissions is a costly proposition and can require significant restructuring for many industries. In addition to the capital costs it requires, such restructuring can damage a nation’s overall economy. The United States, for example, would have had to make twenty to thirty percent in real emissions cuts by 2012 to meet its target of a seven percent reduction below 1990 levels. Achieving deep cuts in this range would cost between $67 billion and $400 billion.8 It would also likely apply a brake to the growth of the U.S. economy. Before it refused to ratify the Protocol, the United States was a major backer of the JI and CDM options during negotiations because it wanted to avoid such a brake.
As with carbon sinks, the worry was that countries would be able to meet their obligations without implementing any actual domestic reforms. The final language of the Protocol permitted the use of joint implementation and clean development mechanisms. But it stipulated that these schemes “shall be supplemental to domestic actions.” This proviso was included “to make it clear that a nation cannot entirely fulfill its responsibility to reduce domestic emissions by relying primarily on emissions trading or joint implementation…domestic action must constitute a significant element” of overall efforts.9
Scope of Ambition
While carbon sinks and joint action problems were eventually resolved in COPs subsequent to Kyoto, the United States remains reluctant to ratify the Protocol. One U.S. concern is the scope of the Protocol’s ambition. American negotiators argued that Kyoto was “too modest in its scope and at the same time unrealistically ambitious in its timetable for the United States.”10 Put another way, the U.S. position was that the short-term cuts sought for the 2008-2012 period were too deep and potentially destructive to the economy.
As if this were not bad enough in the U.S. view, long-term targets after 2012 were left ambiguous. Even if the United States were to accept the obligations for 2012, there would be no guarantee that this investment would lead to a worthwhile outcome since no post-2012 strategy had been formulated.
The first part of this criticism, regarding the ambition of short-term targets, has proven to be largely unfounded. Both the United Kingdom and Germany, for example, were able to reduce emissions below levels required in the 2005-7 period with relative ease. This has led some to argue that short-term goals actually are not ambitious enough to inspire radical change in the international business community.11 The second element of this criticism, the lack of a post-2012 strategy, has been preliminarily addressed at a June 2009 conference in Bonn, Germany.
A 2009 conference in Copenhagen attempted to cement the post Kyoto framework. The summit was criticized for failing to produce a treaty to curb global warmingthe worldwide rise in temperatures that has been blamed for severe weather in many parts of the world., but analysts claim that it did succeed in generating a significant amount of emission-reducing commitments from countries, such as China and India. Specifically, current analyses show that the Copenhagen summit has generated more pledged emissions reduction than the Kyoto Protocol.12
Because of the inaction of the U.S. federal government, many states and localities in the United States have taken independent action to implement carbon regulation and trading schemes. Most notably, in August 2006, the state of California under Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger set ambitious targets that would roll back the state’s greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2020. Several other states, including Massachusetts, Oregon and Connecticut among others have since followed suit.13
COP-16, a gathering of parties to the Kyoto protocol, was held in Cancun, Mexico from November 29 to December 10, 2010. While only considered a modest success, the meeting reaffirmed the goal to keep global temperatures from rising more than two degrees from current levels. Another agreement, the “Green Climate Front,” was made as well, pledging to raise $100 million dollars to help developing countries reduce emissions. It is unclear how this money will be raised.
At COP-17 held in Durban, South African from November 28 to December 9, 20111, attendees adopted the Durban Platform, a roadmap to a legal agreement. Emissions reductions are to be carried out by all countries, not just developed ones. Negotiations are supposed to be completed by 2015. Attendees also agreed to a second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol from 2013 to preserve the Kyoto architecture. Furthermore, the conference launched a work program to address the gap between existing emission reduction pledges and the global goals.14 COP-18 will be held in Doha, Qatar from November 26 to December 7, 2012.
Establishing the right balance between what is necessary and what is realistic will be a subject of continuing dialogue as the parties to the Kyoto Protocol continue the process of implementation. But many praise Kyoto for at least creating a “legal framework for more significant future reductions” and a forum through which the problem of climate changethe worldwide rise in temperatures that has been blamed for severe weather in many parts of the world. can be confronted.15
Role of Developing Countries
Perhaps the biggest U.S. complaint about the Protocol was the fact that developing countries were largely exempted from emissions cuts. On the one hand, “It would be morally wrong and politically futile to expect countries struggling to achieve basic levels of development to abandon their aspirations to grow and improve their aspirations to grow and improve their people’s living standards.”16 Industrialization and development require significant inputs of energy. It would be foolish to make it that much more difficult to climb the development ladder by imposing strict emissions standards on poor countries.
At the same time, carbon dioxide emissions from emerging economies with huge populations, such as China and India, will likely exceed those of the developed world by 2025. Pollution from China alone will eventually begin to eclipse that of many developing countries. Emissions from its coal usage “will probably exceed that for all industrialized countries combined over the next 25 years, surpassing by five times the reduction in such emissions that the Kyoto Protocol seeks.”17
The exclusion of developing countries from rigorous obligations is probably the main reason the United States has dismissed the idea of ratification beyond the claimed potential impact on the U.S. economy. With the recent agreement at Durban in 2011 to begin negotiations on a new accord that would require all emitters, not just developed countries, to reduce emissions, the U.S. may begin to re-think its position.
To read more about Europe’s efforts to implement a carbon trading system, see Appendix I, “The European Union’s Emission Trading SchemeA market for carbon trading established by the European Union in late 2005 as a means of meeting commitments made through the Kyoto Protocol.”
Climate changethe worldwide rise in temperatures that has been blamed for severe weather in many parts of the world. and the Kyoto Protocol are also covered in the Issue in Depth on “Environment.”
See also new analyses on “Russia Joining the Kyoto Protocol,” and “The 2005 Montreal Climate Changethe worldwide rise in temperatures that has been blamed for severe weather in many parts of the world. Conference” and “Copenhagen Climate Changethe worldwide rise in temperatures that has been blamed for severe weather in many parts of the world. Conference: Negative Reviews for a Weak Post-2012 Agreement.”
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