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UNFCCC and The Kyoto Protocol

clouds in a blue skyThe Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was established in 1988 by the United nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the World Meteorological Organization (WMO). Its role is to assess a range of information relevant for the understanding of the risk of human-induced climate change.

The UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (FCCC) is one of a series of international agreements and treaties on global environmental issues that were adopted at the 1992 Earth Summit at Rio. It provides the overall policy framework for addressing the climate change issue and so forms the foundation of global efforts to combat global warming.

The ultimate goal of the FCCC is...

‘stabilization of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic human induced interference with the climate system. Such a level should be achieved within a time-frame sufficient to allow ecosystems to adapt naturally to climate change, to ensure that food production is not threatened and to enable economic development to proceed in a sustainable manner’

The FCCC does not yet specify what the stabilization level should be, with another 10 years probably needed before the uncertainties can be largely removed and an ideal target GHG level decided upon.

The treaty promotes action against global warming in spite of the current uncertainty on the basis that its better to be precautionary than wait until irreversible damage is done.

The FCCC entered into force in March 1994 following ratification by 50 of its signatory parties. In 1995 the FCCC set out some guiding principles and general commitments for the international response to climate change This was the first Conference of the Parties (COP)


The Kyoto Protocol

The Kyoto protocol was drawn up to set specific targets for reductions in greenhouse gas concentrations in the global atmosphere. Emission restrictions were made for the rich countries of annex 1 - the biggest greenhouse gas producers, and also the countries most able to cut emissions. Targets range from an 8 per cent cut for the EU to a 10per cent increase for Iceland, depending on the individual country.

Annexe 1 also includes several 'transition countries', like the Russian federation, whose economies still need some development and are allowed 'a certain degree of flexibility'. The emission reduction targets for these countries were laid out in Annexe B. To become legally binding the protocol had to be ratified by at least 55 countries which between them account for at least 55 percent of the total 1990 GHG emissions of developed countries.

Details of the Kyoto Protocol

A theme which runs through much of the Kyoto protocol is for countries to cooperate. Sharing both advances in GHG technology and science. The greatest achievement of the protocol so far is to get so many countries together and talking on a central issue.

A cautionary note in the protocol is to be careful of the wider impacts GHG reduction schemes may have. Some may be too costly to maintain for the benefit they provide, others may cause an unreasonable degree of disruption to the populace, industry etc.

Article 3.4 caused a great deal of argument as it did not specify what could be constituted as a valid sink or source and what 'additional activities' meant. The US took this article to mean that it could count forests which already existed in its sinks, other countries argued that this was not fair and would allow countries like the US to do relatively little.

Joint Implementation

This is one of the so called 'flexibility mechanisms' designed to help rich (annexe 1) countries meet their Kyoto commitment using methods other than directly via cuts in their own emissions. The flexibility mechanisms have caused some of the biggest arguments about the Kyoto protocol, but it is generally agreed that without them the size of the agreed reduction targets would have had to be much smaller.
Annexe 1 Countries can transfer 'emissions units' between them and implement joint initiatives to curb GHG emissions.

This kind of joint implementation could involve a coordinated forest management scheme. However, there is concern that some of the richer countries may use the JI to bypass cutting their own domestic emissions by claiming the 'emissions credits' from schemes they implement in 'transition' annexe 1 countries like Russia.

GHG Equity

GHG emission is extremely skewed geographically. We in the rich west produce many times more GHG per person than people in developing countries. Though our rich countries have only about 20% of the world's population, we use about 80 percent of the worlds resources. The ominous thing is that our high standard of living - along with its high GHG emissions, is what many people in developing countries strife for. Part of Kyoto aims to tackle this big potential increase in GHG emissions by helping developing countries to avoid the polluting mistakes the rich countries have made and become developed with out the usual balooning in GHG emission - sustainable development'.

The Clean Development Mechanism

The clean development mechanism allows governments or private entities in rich countries to set up emission reduction projects in developing countries. They get credit for these reductions as 'certified emission reductions (CER's). This system is different from the Joint Implementation as it promotes sustainable development on developing countries.

Emissions Trading

A key feature of the protocol is the agreement on the use of some form of emissions trading. If introduced the trading system should allow the holder of a 'credit' the emission of a specified amount of GHG. A tradeable carbon credit unit called AAU's (Assigned Amount Units) has been proposed which would represent one tonne of CO2 emissions.The advantages of this trading are that it drives countries to better efficiency in their own greenhouse gas emissions. However, this is probably the most contentious of all the' flexibility mechanisms'.

There is a worry that some rich countries will simply 'buy off' the GHG they produce and not take any action themselves. The idea of a 'cap on the amount of trading has been suggested, but has produced even more argument'. Taken a step further, per capita emissions have been discussed as a Utopian way to be fair to all.. Maybe one day. But these credits will only have value for reductions made in the commitment period 2008-2012. Despite this some traders are already speculating in 'carbon credits' and its worth all businesses being aware of where they would stand in a world of 'carbon credits'. Farmers for instance may be sitting on 'pots of carbon gold' in the form of the potential of their land as a carbon sink.

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