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The Kyoto Protocol, Background

Historical notes on the Kyoto Protocol and its provisions

Since international environmental concerns and actions are constantly being developed it is difficult to paint an accurate picture in a static summary. What we have tried to do, therefore, is choose a sector of time (roughly from the end of 2000 to mid 2001) and describe the events surrounding the Kyoto Protocol up to that stage. This is called the Kyoto Background, portrayed below.
Separately, we have created another vehicle called Kyoto Progress, into which we add commentary on events and attitudes as time passes. This commentary can be accessed from our Energy Section (P 1) or see our Reference page on Kyoto Progress.

In response to concerns that had already been recognised on increasing concentrations of Greenhouse Gases, as early as 1992, more than 150 nations came together to sign the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) at The Earth Summit in Rio.
This included an agreement that the developed nations would reduce the greenhouse emissions to 1990 levels by the year 2000. This pledge was voluntary and non-binding!
Once the futility of this pledge was realised in the light of continuing increase in emissions and their measurable impact, parties to the treaty decided in 1995 to convene to establish a protocol that would be binding for the developed nations. This led to the meeting in Kyoto, Japan, December 1st to 11th, 1997 which produced the Kyoto Protocol.
Not surprisingly some issues remained unresolved and it was decided to establish a two-year action plan (named the Buenos Aires Action Plan) to deal with these issues with a deadline for completion about the end of 2000. A meeting took place in Buenos Aires, Argentina in November 1998 where the issues were discussed but not resolved and a further meeting was planned in The Hague, Netherlands, for November 13th to 24th, 2000 with the intention of reaching completion. (At the time of initiating this draft, November 2000, that meeting had just been completed).

  Provisions of the Kyoto Protocol:
  • Political Stuff:
    The Protocol was available for signature from March 16 1998 for one year but would not come into force until 55 nations had ratified it and these nations should include developed nations sufficient to account for 55% of the total carbon dioxide emissions.
    Note that while 'agreement' is a relatively easy step 'ratification' is not necessarily so and at best may be a drawn out process.
    America felt that without their ratification those criteria would probably be unattainable because they are responsible for a very large proportion of the world emissions (25% to 36% depending on the sources of information). However, following the abortive meeting in the Hague (November 2000) others have argued that a 'coalition' (including the European Union [24%] Russia [17%] and Japan [8.5%] and last but not least some smaller states to make up the 55%) could provide the necessary weight to bring the agreement into operation, isolating the US and possibly pressurising them into some more acceptable measures.
    Unfortunately, from the outset, the Protocol and its intentions were never going to adequately address the problems which certain scientists had defined and tried to quantify. Furthermore the whole basis is still open to argument (there are those who do not accept the underlying scientific arguments). Then there are the negative pressures brought about by self-interest, even though they may not be clearly articulated. It is not surprising then that at each stage of its review there are disagreements as to how it might be implemented (if at all) and there is an inevitable ratcheting down of the original targets.
  • Ratification:
    By June 2001 we are not aware that any developed nation has ratified the protocol although many have agreed to it. There are differences however, in national intentions on ratification. For example Europe (with 15 states) has stated it will ratify but it is now clear that the US is saying that it doesn't intend to. The EU's position is fragile because all states must agree to the ratification and if the US is to be isolated other nations must be persuaded to ratify as well (see the statistics above).
  • Emissions Reductions
    Annex A: lists six major greenhouse gases covered by the treaty. The six are subdivided into two sets of three, firstly Carbon Dioxide, Methane and Nitrous Oxide and secondly Hydro fluorocarbons, Per fluorocarbons and Sulphur Hexafluoride.
    Each developed nation is set a target to reduce their emissions by a given date relative to the emissions in 1990 (for the first three) and relative to 1990 or 1995 (for the second set of three).
  • Emissions Trading and Joint Implementation
    There are several means of trading and joint action where for example one nation may reduce their emissions beyond the required limit and then sell the surplus as a credit to another nation who has not met the target. Also one nation might fund a project, such as planting forests, in another country. However it is clear from a proviso in the treaty that no nation can satisfy its commitment solely by trading or joint implementation or even by creating carbon sinks. It is worth noting that a nation which reduces its carbon emissions beyond the target, may have done so by virtue of lack of prosperity rather than for any altruistic reasons.
    Generally, the more prosperous an economy is the more carbon emissions there are. To an extent this is often associated with car use encouraged by low prices of petrol and the indulgence in energy demanding home comforts. It is therefore unsurprising that the booming economy of the US has led it to look for every opportunity to avoid radical reductions in carbon emissions and seek 'loopholes' created by the Trading and Joint Implementation clauses of the Protocol as well as an over reliance on carbon sinking.
    Since the US is a major emitter of greenhouse gases (and they are expected to increase, maybe by more than a third by 2010) the alleged exploitation of the 'loopholes' does not go down well with the EU, the UK and other countries. The exclusive use of such measures is hardly in the true spirit of the Kyoto Protocol and the basic needs of the planet.
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Originated: November 2000,  Updated: 8 May, 2013