The Kyoto Protocol

In 1992, most countries signed the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), which is considered a major step forward in addressing the problem of global warming. Article 2 of the UNFCCC states:

The ultimate objective of this Convention and any related legal instruments that the Conference of the Parties may adopt is to achieve, in accordance with the relevant provisions of the Convention, stabilisation of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic [human-caused] 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.

What constitutes "dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system" is a value judgment. Experts disagree as to how high greenhouse gas concentrations can rise—and how long they can remain there—without creating the risk of runaway global warming.

Even though most of the world agreed to the UNFCCC, it became increasingly obvious to member countries that only a binding commitment by developed countries to reduce their emissions would send a signal strong enough to persuade businesses and individuals to take the issue seriously. As a result, member countries of the UNFCCC began negotiations on what we now call the Kyoto Protocol.

After lengthy negotiations, delegates at the Third Conference of the Parties (COP) approved the Kyoto Protocol at their meeting in Kyoto, Japan, in 1997. The COP is the supreme body of the UNFCCC. Among other things, it oversees compliance with the Kyoto Protocol and reviews the evidence about global warming with a view toward future climate policy. Even after the Kyoto Protocol expires in 2012, the COP—as well as the UNFCCC itself—will continue to exist. Thus it is possible that the international community will someday agree to a new treaty that replaces Kyoto.

within the United States) could pay to protect and expand forests in Central America to absorb some of the excess carbon dioxide emitted inside the United States."12

Because it affects virtually every major sector of the economy, Kyoto is considered the most far-reaching environmental treaty ever adopted. For the same reasons, however, it was necessary for delegates to draw up a politically acceptable document. Most observers consider Kyoto a compromise; it has been criticized on one hand for setting unworkable targets over too short a time frame and on the other for doing too little to stop the accumulation of greenhouse gases.

Kyoto requires "Annex I" countries (37 industrialized countries, including the United States, the European Union, and the former East Bloc) to implement policies aimed at improving energy efficiency and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Those countries must meet an overall target of a 5.2 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2012. (That target is measured relative to 1990 emissions levels.) Annex I countries bear the burden of reducing emissions for two reasons: They can better afford the cost of doing so, and they have been responsible for most of the emissions. Emissions-reduction targets vary by country; for example, it is 7 percent for the United States, 6 percent for Canada and Japan, and 8 percent for the European Union. Because compliance is based on net changes in emissions, a country can offset its emissions by taking steps such as planting trees, which absorb carbon dioxide.

To give countries flexibility in meeting their emissions-reduction targets, Kyoto offers three market-based options. One is emissions trading: countries that emit less carbon dioxide than the target or take steps to capture carbon dioxide (for example, by expanding forests) can sell "credits" to those countries whose emissions exceed the target. Countries can also earn credits by implementing emissions-reduction projects, either at home or in other countries, or by transferring clean-energy technology to or making investments in developing countries.

Even though Kyoto was signed in 1997, it did not take effect until the 90th day after at least 55 countries, including Annex I countries that accounted for at least 55 percent of that group's carbon dioxide emissions, agreed to its terms. That did not happen until Russia agreed to Kyoto on November 18, 2004, making the treaty's effective date February 16, 2005.

Source: UNFCCC Kyoto Protocol Page.

Because of strong opposition in Congress and the White House, the United States never agreed to Kyoto. The United States is not always in agreement with the United Nations; in fact, many Americans are calling for the United States to stop allowing other nations to interfere with its sovereignty.

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