The Kyoto Protocol - What the world agreed to do about climate change (at least for now!)

Article by Stuart Parkinson, SGR, from SGR Newletter 17, March 1998
 

The Kyoto Protocol is the latest attempt by the world’s governments to address the issue of human-induced climate change. Whilst most of you will have heard of it - if for no other reason than it has been SGR’s main campaign focus for the last six months - many of you might have missed the substance of the Protocol in amongst the ‘sound-bite’ media reports. So here, I shall attempt to summarise it and discuss some of the implications:
 
* Industrialised countries have been set legally binding targets for reducing emissions of six greenhouse gases (GHGs - carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, hydrofluorocarbons, per-fluorocarbons and sulphur hexafluoride) by the period 2008-2012. The aggregate cut required of all these countries is 5.2% relative to a base year of 1990 (although the three minor GHGs may have a base year up to 1995).
 
* The targets set are differentiated: the EU must cut by 8%, the USA by 7%, and Japan by 6%. Russia must stabilise emissions, while Australia can increase them by 8%. The EU may achieve its aggregate target through differentiated national emissions reductions.
 
* Developing countries have not been set targets.
 
* An international emissions trading system will be established allowing industrialised countries to buy and sell excess emissions credits amongst them-selves. Further, a ‘clean development mechanism’ will be established, under which industrialised countries may gain credit for financing emissions reductions projects in developing countries.
 
Since the Kyoto Protocol is intended to be a step towards preventing ‘dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system’ (UN FCCC, 1992), we should examine how well it will contribute to this. To keep CO2 concentrations below 450 ppmv (a 25% increase on present levels) requires a cut in global emissions by around 65% over the next century (IPCC, 1996). That is about 7% of the current emissions level per decade. For the other GHGs, similar cuts would also be needed. In those terms, Kyoto would seem to be a good start. Unfortunately other factors give us less reason for pleasure:
 
* The 5.2% cut agreed at Kyoto applies to only about 65% of the current global emissions (IEA, 1996).

* Current emissions from industrialised countries are 4.6% below those of 1990, hence the commitment is only to cut a further 0.6%.

* Currently, Russia’s emissions are about 23% lower than their 1990 base year (personal communication from Michael Grubb), hence their weak target (0%) could be exploited by emissions trading and other flexibility instruments.

* Developing countries, whose emissions are growing fast, currently have more pressing concerns than climate change.

* There is considerable resistance within the US Senate to ratifying the Protocol. The USA currently emits 24% of the world’s GHGs - if it does not ratify, the Protocol will be considerably weakened.

* Transnational Corporations could avoid emissions reductions by relocating their more polluting operations to countries without targets. This could have lead to such countries being more resistant to future Protocols.

* The Protocol allows for ‘emissions credits’ to be gained by the funding of emissions reduction programmes in countries without targets. There is significant risk that such measures may have knock-on effects which cancel out the benefits.

* There is no guarantee that 450 ppmv is a ‘safe’ level: the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has warned of many possible ‘surprises'’
 
Whilst we should not underestimate the scale of the task of dealing with climate change, there are reasons to be positive:
 
* Currently, GHGs emissions in indust-rialised countries are projected to increase to about 30% above 1990 levels by 2010 (IEA,1996); hence the Protocol does require significant action.

* Renewable energy technologies (e.g. biomass, solar, wind) are becoming more competitive with conventional forms of energy production.

* Ecological tax reform is being used more and more by EU countries, which is helping not just renewable energy technologies but also energy efficiency measures.

* Some members of the Global Climate Coalition, the most vocal and well funded lobby opposing action on climate change, are changing position. For example, both Shell and BP are now funding multi-million dollar investment programmes in renewable energy.

* The international Cities for Climate Protection campaign has been formed to encourage local government in charge of cities and towns to sign up for programmes to set reduction timetables for GHG reductions by 2010.
 
In summary, Kyoto is important because it is the first time that countries have agreed legally binding targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, whilst those opposed to action are starting to see that environmental protection can be economically viable. However, there is a long way to go, both to ensure that present targets are met and that future agreements are more substantive. SGR intends to continue to work and campaign on this vital issue.
 
References
 
IEA (1996) World Energy Outlook. International Energy Agency, Paris, France.

IPCC (1996) Climate change 1995: the Science of Climate Change - contribution of working group I
to the second assessment report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Houghton JT,
Meira Filho LG, Callander BA, Harris N, Kattenberg A, Maskell K (eds.). Cambridge University
Press, UK
 
UN FCCC (1992) Text of the 'UN Framework Convention on Climate Change'. UNEP/ WMO Information
Unit on Climate Change, Geneva, Switzerland