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Has the Kyoto protocol worked?

David Adam

The world is on track to meet its Kyoto targets for greenhouse gases. But the drop has little to do with climate policies.

Agreed in 1997, the Kyoto protocol aimed to cut emissions of greenhouse gases across the developed world by about 5 per cent compared with 1990. It came into force in 2005, following ratification by Russia, which means the deadline for the legally binding cuts to be made is 2008-12. It was based on the “common but differentiated responsibility” approach to global warming, with countries most able to make cuts asked to do so. Many countries were allowed to incre ase pollution, including all those in the developing world. Most controversially, Kyoto introduced mechanisms such as carbon trading to help countries meet their targets in “flexible” ways — often in other countries — rather than by making cuts at home.

Figures released by the U.N. last month suggest the world is on track to meet its Kyoto targets for greenhouse gases — carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, sulphur hexafluoride, hydrofluorocarbons and perfluorocarbons. Emissions by the 40 industrialised nations that agreed binding cuts in pollution are down 5 per cent on 1990 levels. But the drop has little to do with climate policies: the bulk of the decline is down to the collapse of the Soviet Union and the subsequent economic decline in eastern Europe in the 1990s. Without these so-called “economies in transition,” greenhouse gas emissions have grown by almost 10 per cent since 1990.

Yvo de Boer, executive secretary of the U.N. climate secretariat, said the figures showed emissions were rising once again in eastern Europe. “The biggest recent increase in emissions of industrialised countries has come from economies in transition, which have seen a rise of 7.4 per cent in greenhouse gas emissions within the 2000 to 2006 time frame,” he said.

Among industrialised nations, 16 are on target to meet their Kyoto obligations, including France, the U.K., Greece and Hungary, the U.N. said. Some 20 countries are off-course, including Canada, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Japan, New Zealand and Spain. Nations that miss their Kyoto target in 2012 will incur a penalty of an additional third added to whatever cut they agree under a new treaty in Copenhagen.

Has Kyoto worked? “In terms of emission reductions achieved, the answer would be no,”De Boer said. “A 5 per cent cut is a pretty small step on what will be a long and arduous journey. On the other hand, Kyoto has had great success in putting an architecture in place. Monitoring and verification systems, carbon markets, technology transfer and funds for adaptation have all been mobilised by Kyoto,” he said. “I think this is a fabulous architecture that we can build on on the road to Copenhagen.”

There are seven key issues on the road to Copenhagen.

Global vision

The world has yet to formally agree a goal in the battle against global warming. This could be a maximum temperature rise, such as 2{+0}C, or concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. More likely, it will be a vaguer ‘direction of travel’ such as the G8 pledge to halve global emissions by 2050.

Mitigation

The key issue - who will cut their carbon by how much and by when. To be meaningful, targets must be short-term, perhaps something like 25-40 per cent by 2020 for the developed world. Developing countries, such as China, could be allowed to increase pollution, as long as they reduce the rate of increase, and agree to take on proper reductions within 15 years or so.

Adaptation

How much rich countries will pay poorer ones to cope with floods and droughts. And how the developed world can make sure the promised money is paid.

Technology

How developing countries will access affordable clean technology to reduce emissions, such as carbon capture and solar power, developed by companies in industrialised countries.

Finance

How developed countries will provide funds for adaptation and mitigation in the developing world, and how those funds will be managed.

Forests

How developing countries with tropical forests can be paid to keep them intact — deforestation causes about a fifth of all greenhouse gas emissions.

Carbon trading and offsets

How systems such as the UN clean development mechanism and the European emissions trading scheme set up under Kyoto can be strengthened and expanded. — © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2008

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