United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC)

Background on Kyoto Protocol

Negotiating the Protocol

The adoption of the Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in 1992 was a major step forward in tackling the problem of global warming. Yet as  greenhouse gas (GHG) emission levels continued to rise around the world, it became increasingly evident that only a firm and binding commitment by developed countries to reduce emissions could send a signal strong enough to convince businesses, communities and individuals to act on climate change. Member countries of the UNFCCC therefore began negotiations on a Protocol – an international agreement linked to the existing Treaty, but standing on its own.

After two and a half years of intense negotiations, the Kyoto Protocol was adopted at the third Conference of the Parties to the UNFCCC (COP 3) in Kyoto, Japan, on 11 December 1997. The Protocol shares the objective and institutions of the Convention. The major distinction between the two, however, is that while the Convention encouraged developed countries to stabilize GHG emissions, the Protocol commits them to do so. The detailed rules for its implementation were adopted at COP 7 in Marrakesh in 2001, and are called the “Marrakesh Accords.”

Because it will affect virtually all major sectors of the economy, the Kyoto Protocol is considered to be the most far-reaching agreement on environment and sustainable development ever adopted. However, any treaty not only has to be effective in tackling a complicated worldwide problem, it must also be politically acceptable. Most of the world’s countries eventually agreed to the Protocol, but some nations, including the United States and Australia, chose not to ratify it. Following ratification by Russia, the Kyoto Protocol entered into force on 16 February 2005.

Fair targets and flexible ways of meeting them

The Protocol requires developed countries to reduce their GHG emissions below levels specified for each of them in the Treaty. These targets must be met within a five-year time frame between 2008 and 2012, and add up to a total cut in GHG emissions of at least 5% against the baseline of 1990. Review and enforcement of these commitments are carried out by United Nations-based bodies. The Protocol places a heavier burden on developed nations under the principle of “common but differentiated responsibilities.” This has two main reasons. Firstly, those countries can more easily pay the cost of cutting emissions. Secondly, developed countries have historically contributed more to the problem by emitting larger amounts of GHGs per person than in developing countries.

In order to give Parties a certain degree of flexibility in meeting their emission reduction targets, the Protocol developed three innovative mechanisms - known as Emissions Trading, Joint Implementation and the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM). These so-called ”market-based mechanisms” allow developed Parties to earn and trade emissions credits through projects implemented either in other developed countries or in developing countries, which they  can use towards meeting their commitments. These mechanisms help identify lowest-cost opportunities for reducing emissions and attract private sector participation in emission reduction efforts. Developing nations benefit in terms of technology transfer and investment brought about through collaboration with industrialized nations under the CDM.

Compelling scientific evidence

Some scientists have doubted the scientific basis of the Kyoto Protocol, claiming that there is not a clear connection between increases in GHG emissions and climate change. The Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), launched in the course of 2007, put an end to that discussion. Prepared by scientists from all over the world, it placed the reality of human-induced climate change beyond any doubt. It is politically significant that governments endorsed the IPCC’s Fourth Assessment Report by consensus, making it a solid foundation for sound political decision-making.

The road ahead

The Kyoto Protocol is generally seen as an important first step towards a truly global emission reduction regime that will stabilize GHG concentrations at a level which will avoid dangerous climate change. As a result of the Protocol, governments have already put, and are continuing to put legislation and policies in place to meet their commitments; a carbon market has been created; and more and more businesses are making the investment decisions needed for a climate-friendly future. The Protocol provides the essential architecture for any new international agreement or set of agreements on climate change. The first commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol expires in 2012. By then, a new international framework needs to have been negotiated and ratified which can deliver the stringent emission reductions the IPCC tells us are needed.

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