The summit resulted in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change ( UNFCCC) which forms the legal basis for global efforts to address climate change. Meetings of the Convention, known as Conferences of the Parties (COPs), have taken place every year since 1994.
Kyoto — a first step in cutting emissions
The Kyoto Protocol, signed in 1997 as an extension of the UNFCCC, is a first step in the long-term emissions reduction effort that is needed to prevent dangerous levels of climate change. The first commitment period of the protocol effectively runs out in 2012 and 'COP 15' will be expected to produce an ambitious successor.
Kyoto is significant because it set binding emission targets for the developed countries that ratified it. For example, the 15 countries who were members of the EU (EU-15) in 1997 have a joint target to cut emissions by 8 % compared to the Kyoto 'base year' (1). They must achieve this target during the period 2008–2012 (2).
Countries are expected to meet their Kyoto targets mainly by cutting emissions at home. However a range of other options are available to help them reach their target (see figure 1).
'Kyoto' has been quite controversial mainly because the United States did not ratify it and because developing nations like China and India, which have rapidly developing economies, have no targets under the protocol.
The EEA — one part of the puzzle
The EEA climate change team plays a role in the European effort, coordinating an accountancy job of enormous proportions. Data from around Europe on emissions of so-called greenhouse gases are collected, verified and then analysed in two key reports that feed into the Kyoto process.
This year, the numbers and the analysis they facilitate, have a particular significance in the context of the COP 15 meeting as they clearly show how the EU is doing with its own efforts to cut emissions of greenhouse gases. Countries that have not signed up or do not yet have targets will be especially interested in how well the EU is implementing the protocol.
The inventory report — counting gases
The first EEA greenhouse gas report comes out each spring and is called the 'inventory' report. Greenhouse gases in this context refer to a collection of the most serious climate changing gases including: carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide as well as fluorinated gases. The inventory report shows national trends: whether emissions are going up or down. Within each country it shows where the reductions or increases in emissions are coming from.
Each EU Member State must present an estimate of its emissions to the European Commission and the EEA. Consider the energy sector, which is responsible for more than 80 % of the total greenhouse gases emissions in the EU. Statistics on energy use, by type of fuel, are multiplied by 'emissions factors' and the energy emission is estimated by each country. Emissions from agriculture are estimated based on the area of cultivated soils, type of crop, use of fertiliser and the number of livestock (cattle, poultry, sheep, pigs, etc.) in the country.
Just as athletes are regularly tested to make sure they stay within the rules, there is regular monitoring. The data are added together to form an overall picture of emissions across Europe and sent to the European Commission, from where it is passed on as the official submission of the European Community to the UNFCCC.
Because data are first verified at a national level there is a one and half year delay. The latest report released in June 2008 is based on data from 2006. It shows that emissions from the EU-15 were 3 % below the 'base year'.
What do the numbers mean?
The concept of counting gases is quite abstract. As a result it is also difficult to figure out what a percentage cut or increase in emissions means. It may help to imagine the cuts as days of the year. The EU-15 Kyoto target translates into 29 days worth of emissions.
For each of the 5 years between 2008–2012, EU-15 emissions should be on average, 29 days less than 1990 levels. In this way, emission reductions must occur consistently over several years.
The latest EEA data show that 10 days worth of emissions were cut between 1990 and 2006. The EU-15 must cut 19 more days to meet the target.
Trends and projections
Immediately after the hand-over of the 'inventory' report, the EEA's climate change team begins its second major reporting exercise of the year culminating in the 'Trends and projections' report. The report is published in the winter just as the annual UN COP meeting is about to meet.
This report contains a deeper analysis of the emission trends outlined in the first report and pin points where the emissions and emission's reductions came from. Most importantly, the report looks ahead and evaluates projections of future greenhouse gas emissions as far as 2012 and beyond to 2020. This future perspective is invaluable in terms of seeing the extent of the problem ahead and developing policy to deal with it (3).
The latest Trends and projections report confirms that the EU-15 cut its emissions by 3 % between the 'base year' and 2006. A combination of approaches will be needed to fill the remaining gap, the report says.
Existing and planned 'domestic' efforts (happening on the ground in each country), Kyoto mechanisms, carbon sinks (such as planting trees to soak up gases) and trading carbon credits will all be used and could result in a potential emissions reduction of 11 % for the EU-15. However, countries must implement planned measures very soon or they will not impact in time to meet the target, the report says.
At a national level France, Greece, Sweden and the United Kingdom had already reached their Kyoto target in 2006. Austria, Belgium, Finland, Germany, Ireland, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and Portugal project that they will achieve their targets, but projections from Denmark, Italy and Spain indicate that they will not meet their emission reduction goals.
Looking ahead: beyond Kyoto
The buzz words, 'common but differentiated responsibility', first uttered at the Earth Summit in Rio, have popped up ever since in climate change circles. In simple language the phrase reflects the fact that developed nations have a greater responsibility for the greenhouse gases in our atmosphere. These countries have been more industrialised, have created more emissions and should have legal targets to cut emissions before developing nations.
It has proved very difficult to turn the concept into action acceptable to both industrialised and developing countries. Next December, a major task of the COP 15 will be to finally turn the rhetoric into a global emissions reduction effort. That means new targets for emissions reductions and most importantly the buy-in of America and major developing nations such as India and China.
We already know the EU's position on future emissions reduction efforts: a 20 % cut in emissions by 2020, growing to a 30 % cut if other developed nations sign up at Copenhagen. All EU-27 Member States will be included.
The EU's 2020 target is almost equivalent to removing emissions from all transport across Europe. Imagine every truck, bus car, train boat and aeroplane disappearing — in terms of emissions. It's ambitious, but it must be because the challenge is serious.
The most recent data show that global emissions of CO2 increased four times faster since 2000 than during the previous decade. This growth is above the worst case scenario reported by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in 2007. Less developed countries are now emitting more CO2 than developed countries. Natural sinks, such as the ocean, which soak up CO2, have decreased in efficiency over the past 50 years, meaning that our efforts to reduce emissions from human activities will have to be even more effective if we are to keep atmospheric levels of CO2 stable.
'The costs of inaction on climate change are immense both financially and morally. Poorer people will suffer first but the knock on effects will be felt by us all,' said Professor Jacqueline McGlade, executive director of the EEA.
'Climate change cuts across normal political and financial boundaries. It is no longer a matter for one or two ministers around national cabinet tables. It's a matter for heads of government and should be treated as such,' she said.