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Kyoto Protocol

Author: Dr Guy Midgely ~ South African Botanical Institute (SANBI)

( Article Type: Explanation )

The Kyoto Protocol is an internationally negotiated framework for regulating greenhouse gas emissions of signatory countries that aims to limit the potential negative impacts of global warming and associated climate change (is manifested at global, regional and local scales). The Protocol serves the aims of the Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) adopted at the United Nations in May 1992, and opened for signature at Rio de Janeiro in June of that year. The UNFCCC came into force on 21 March 1994, and has already been ratified by 189 states, making it an almost universally supported Convention (only six states remain non- Parties). Of these 189 states, 156 are parties to the Kyoto Protocol and a further five, including the USA and Australia, have signed but not ratified the Protocol, and remain non-Parties.

The main aim of the Kyoto Protocol, stated in its Article 2, is to ‘. . . achieve stabilisation of the greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system’. Greenhouse gases specified by the Protocol are carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4), nitrous oxide (N2O), hydrofluorocarbons (termed HFCs), perfluorocarbons (PFCs), and sulfur hexafluoride (SF6). The first three gases occur naturally and are part of global biochemical cycles, while the last three are synthetic and used for industrial purposes. The three naturally occurring gases account for roughly 50%, 18% and 6% of the overall warming impact, and their rising levels are caused by fossil fuel use (mainly), deforestation and cement production (increasing CO2), while causes of increasing methane and nitrous oxide levels are far less well understood but likely involve humandriven changes in land cover.

The Protocol originated in December 1997, when representatives of more than 160 countries met in Kyoto, Japan, in order to negotiate legally binding emission limits for developed nations that aim to mitigate (prevent or avoid) the effects of climate change. In order to enter into force, the Protocol had to be ratified by at least 55 countries representing 55% of global carbon emissions. The USA, responsible for almost 25% of global carbon dioxide emissions, withdrew from the Kyoto Protocol in March 2001, plunging its future into doubt. In July 2001, the EU, Japan, Canada, Russia, and 170 other nations reaffirmed their commitment to the Protocol, and the Marrakech Accords developed at the 7th Conference of the Parties (COP) to the UNFCCC made arrangements to increase the potential of flexible mechanisms for achieving compliance by Annex 1 nations. Russia, responsible for 9% of global greenhouse gas emissions from 1950–90, finally ratified the Kyoto Protocol in November 2004, bringing it into force on 16 February 2005.

The Protocol sets emissions targets for each of the participating developed countries – so-called Annex I countries (including those that have not ratified the convention) – in relation to their greenhouse gas emissions in 1990. Targets range from an 8% reduction for EU states, 7% reduction for USA, to an 8% increase for Australia and 10% increase for Iceland. Non-Annex I (developing) countries have no targets set by the Protocol, but all parties are encouraged to develop and implement both climate change mitigation and adaptation programmes. Adaptation to climate change impacts is increasingly stressed under both the UNFCCC and Kyoto Protocol, as science suggests that very significant cuts in emissions are needed to achieve CO2 stabilisation in the atmosphere at 550 ppm (double the value of pre-industrial levels), and some level of global warming and climate change is probably unavoidable.

Emissions targets for Annex I countries must be achieved on average over the so-called ‘first commitment period’, running from 2008 to 2012, in order for them to be in compliance with the Protocol. If compliance is not achieved in the first commitment period, the target deficit plus a penalty of 30% must be made up in the second commitment period. The Protocol allows for flexibility in meeting targets by Annex I countries, such as providing credits for carbon storage in carbon ‘sinks’ (also termed ‘sequestration’) through land aforestation or reforestation, allowing international emissions trading (e.g. through the use of carbon markets), putting in place a Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) to allow greenhouse gas-reducing technologies to be introduced in developing countries, allowing countries to meet emissions targets jointly.

Currently, Kyoto Protocol negotiations centre on a range of issues, but chiefly on compliance by Annex I states, arrangements for the improved implementation of the CDM, and the many financial mechanisms. However, increasing attention is focusing on the shape of the Kyoto regime post-2012, and specifically on broader participation in emissions reductions (mitigation) arrangements. South Africa’s position is to favour a ‘twin-track’ approach, involving more stringent emissions targets for Annex I countries (bolstering Kyoto), and support for developing countries to allow them to do their fair share in mitigation and adaptation. It is clear, however, that leading companies and regional initiatives, including many in the USA, are rapidly implementing the spirit of Kyoto and achieving emission reductions while increasing efficiencies and profits, providing hope that this form of innovation will accelerate the achievement of the goals of the UNFCCC and the Kyoto Protocol.

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