Primer on the Kyoto Protocol Part 1: We know the temperature is rising, now what? More of this Feature

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Primer on the Kyoto Protocol

Part 1: We know the temperature is rising, now what?

 More of this Feature

• Part 2: Scientific  Timeline

• Part 3: Negotiations  Timeline

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The Kyoto Protocol is a legally binding international agreement that will commit industrialized countries to reduce emissions of the six greenhouse gases: carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, hydrofluorocarbons, perfluorocarbons, and sulfur dioxide. Each of these gases has distinct properties, and the overall emissions reduction targets for the six gases are weighted by the relative heat-trapping effect of each gas.
The agreement specifies that both developed and developing countries must follow a number of steps including: designing and implementing climate change mitigation and adaptation measures; preparing national inventories of emissions removals by "carbon sinks"; implementation and cooperation in development and transfer of climate friendly technologies; and partnerships in research and observation of climate science, impacts and response strategies. Developing countries are not legally bound to emissions reductions targets yet because, historically, they have been responsible for only a small portion of the global greenhouse gas emissions.
Commitment Periods
Once adopted, the agreement will call for each country to remain within their assigned emissions quota over a five-year period, from 2008 to 2012, the first commitment period. Under the Kyoto Protocol, the overall emissions from industrialized countries would be reduced five percent below 1990 levels during this period, and negotiations on reduction commitments for subsequent periods must begin no later than 2005.
Emissions Reduction Targets
The target amounts for each country are listed as a percentage of their base-year emissions (1990 for most countries), ranging from a reduction of 8 percent for most European countries to a 10 percent increase for Iceland.
A provision in the agreement allows for a nation to meet its reduction quota by reducing emissions from power plants and automobiles; however, developed countries can also achieve their commitments by deducting the greenhouse gas emissions absorbed by carbon sinks (like forests) from their gross emissions in the commitment period. This provision includes emissions absorbed or emitted by certain land-use changes and forestry activities, such as reforestation.
The treaty becomes effective 90 days after ratification. The ratification procedure requires the signatures of 55 industrialized nations accounting for at least 55 percent of the global greenhouse gas emissions from industrialized countries in 1990. Although the United States signed the agreement on Nov. 12, 1998, approval by a two-thirds majority in the Senate was not achieved. Even without U.S. approval, the Kyoto Protocol seems to be nearing its 55 percent ratification quota.

* Czech Republic: Ratified November 2001

* Romania: Ratified March 2001

* European Union: Ratified May 2002

* Japan: Ratified June 2002

* Russia: Officially declared intention to ratify

* Poland: Officially declared intent to ratify

* Total: 55.5%

Into Thin Air: Kyoto Accord May Not Die (or Matter)

Published: December 4, 2003
Since it was negotiated in Japan in 1997, the Kyoto Protocol, the first treaty that would require countries to curb emissions linked to global warming, has lingered in an indeterminate state, between enactment and outright rejection.
On Tuesday its prospects were dealt what may have been a fatal blow when a top Russian official said his country would not ratify it. But some experts on climate and diplomacy say that the fate of the Kyoto treaty itself is rapidly becoming less important than the longer-term processes it set in motion.


Even without approval by the United States and Russia — first and fourth on lists of the world's largest emitters of heat-trapping "greenhouse" gases — the treaty has already changed the world in small but significant ways that will be hard to reverse, these experts say.

From Europe to Japan and the United States, just the prospect of the treaty has resulted in legislation and new government and industry policies curbing emissions.
The treaty's future impact is limited by deep flaws, many experts say, including its lack of any emissions limits on China and other big developing countries and its short time frame, with terms extending only to 2012. As a result, they add, new approaches must be developed now if atmospheric levels of the gases are to be stabilized.
The protocol has been approved by 120 countries but was rejected by President Bush in 2001. Without the United States, the only way to reach the threshold for enactment under the treaty's terms was with Russian participation. If enacted, it would give industrialized countries until 2012 to reduce their combined emissions of carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases more than 5 percent below 1990 levels.
The possibility remains that the statement on Tuesday by the Russian official, Andrei N. Illarionov, the top economic adviser to President Vladimir V. Putin, was just a negotiating ploy, aimed at extracting as many concessions as possible from the European Union and Japan, the treaty's main supporters.
On Wednesday a lower-level official, Mukhamed M. Tsikanov, a deputy economics minister, sounded a note of hope for the treaty, declaring, "There are no decisions about ratification apart from the fact that we are moving toward ratification." Mr. Putin, meanwhile, remained silent.
Regardless of which way Russia steps, the process of moving the world toward limiting releases of the gases after more than a century of relentless increases has clearly begun, said David B. Sandalow, a guest scholar at the Brookings Institution and an assistant secretary of state during the Clinton administration who worked on the treaty.
"The standard of success isn't whether the first treaty out of the box sails through," he said. "The standard is whether this puts the world on a path to solving a long-term problem. Other multilateral regimes dealing with huge complex problems, like the World Trade Organization, have taken 45 or 50 years to get established."
Mr. Sandalow and other experts noted that the European Union had already passed a law requiring a cap and credit-trading system for the gases starting in 2005. It will follow the pattern laid out in Kyoto no matter what happens to the treaty.
Even in the United States, where Mr. Bush and the Republican-controlled Congress strongly oppose the treaty, legislation that would require milder restrictions on emissions than those in the Kyoto treaty has gained some momentum.
Opponents of the treaty acknowledge that it has already made a difference, though they say it is a harmful one.
"Kyoto is dead and has been dead, but that doesn't mean that it hasn't done some real damage and won't continue to do some real damage," said Myron Ebell, a climate policy analyst for the Competitive Enterprise Institute, an industry-backed group that opposes regulatory solutions to environmental problems.
"If global warming turns out to be a problem, which I doubt, it won't be solved by making ourselves poorer through energy rationing," he said. "It will be solved through building resiliency and capability into society and through long-term technological innovation and transformation."
Critics of that view say the one feature of the Kyoto treaty that cannot be jettisoned is a ceiling on emissions. Without limits, they say, there will be no incentive for industry to innovate and find the cheapest, most effective ways to limit the human impact on the atmosphere, said David D. Doniger, the climate policy director of the Natural Resources Defense Council, a private environmental group.
"If the United States had invented the catalytic converter but not passed clean air laws," he said, "it would still be sitting on a shelf and we'd still be choking in smog."

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