Kyoto Protocol/Treaty

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Kyoto Protocol/Treaty

In the mid-1980s, a growing body of scientific evidence linked man-made greenhouse gas emissions to global warming. In 1990, the United Nations General Assembly issued a report that confirmed this link. The Rio Accord of 1992 resulted from this report. Formally called the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC), the accord was signed by various nations in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil and committed industrialized nations to stabilizing their emissions at 1990 levels by 2000.

In December 1997, representatives of 160 nations met in Kyoto, Japan, in an attempt to produce a new and improved treaty on climate change. Major differences occurred between industrialized and still developing countries with the United States perceived, particularly by representatives of the European Union (EU), as not doing its share to reduce emissions, especially those of carbon dioxide .

The outcome of this meeting, the Kyoto Protocol to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), required industrialized nations to reduce their emissions of carbon dioxide, methane , nitrous oxide , hydrofluorocarbons, sulfur dioxides, and perfluorocarbons below 1990 levels by 2012. The requirements would be different for each country and would have to begin by 2008 and be met by 2012. There would be no requirements for the developing nations. Whether or not to sign and ratify the treaty was left up to the discretion of each individual country.

Global warming

The organization that provided the research for the Kyoto Protocol was the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), set up in 1988 as a joint project of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the World Meteorological Organization (WMO). In 2001 the IPCC released a report, "Climate Change, 2001". Using the latest climatic and atmospheric scientific research available, the report predicted that global mean surface temperatures on earth would increase by 2.510.4°F (1.55.9 °C) by the year 2100, unless greenhouse gas emissions were reduced well below current levels. This warming trend was seen as rapidly accelerating, with possible dire consequences to human society and the environment . These accelerating temperature changes were expected to lead to rising sea levels, melting glaciers and polar ice packs, heat waves, droughts and wildfires, and a profound and deleterious effect on human health and well-being.

Some of the effects of these temperature changes may already be occurring. Most of the United States has already experienced increases in mean annual temperature of up to 4°F (2.3°C). Sea ice is melting in both the Antarctica and the Arctic. Ninety-eight percent of the world's glaciers are shrinking. The sea level is rising at three times its historic rate. Florida is already feeling the early effects of global warming with shorelines suffering from erosion , with dying coral reefs, with saltwater polluting the fresh water sources, with an increase in wildfires, and with higher air and water temperatures. In Canada, forest fires have more than doubled since 1970, water wells are going dry, lake levels are down, and there is less rainfall.


Since its inception, the Kyoto Protocol has generated a great deal of controversy. Richer nations have argued that the poorer, less developed nations are getting off easy. The developing nations, on the other hand, have argued that they will never be able to catch up with the richer nations unless they are allowed to develop with the same degree of pollution as that which let the industrial nations become rich in the first place.

Another controversy rages between environmentalists and big business. Environmentalists have argued that the Kyoto Protocol doesn't go far enough, while petroleum and industry spokespersons have argued that it would be impossible to implement without economic disaster.

In the United States, the controversy has waxed especially high. The Kyoto Protocol was signed under the administration of President Bill Clinton, but was never ratified by the Republican-dominated U.S. Senate. Then in 2001, President George W. Bush, a former Texas oilman, backed out of the treaty, saying it would cost the U.S. economy 400 billion dollars and 4.9 million jobs. Bush unveiled an alternative proposal to the Kyoto accord that he said would reduce greenhouse gases , curb pollution and promote energy efficiency . But critics of his plan have argued that by the year 2012 it would actually increase the 1990 levels of greenhouse gas emissions by more than 30%.

Soon after the Kyoto Protocol was rejected by the Bush administration, the European Union criticized the action. In particular, Germany was unable to understand why the Kyoto restrictions would adversely effect the American economy, noting that Germany had been able to reduce their emissions without serious economic problems. The Germans also suggested that President Bush's program to induce voluntary reductions was politically motivated and was designed to prevent a drop in the unreasonably high level of consumption of greenhouse gases in the United States, a drop that would be politically damaging for the Bush administration.

In rejecting the Kyoto Protocol, President Bush claimed that it would place an unfair burden on the United States. He argued that it was unfair that developing countries such as India and China should be exempt. But China had already taken major steps to affect climate change. According to a June report by the World Resources Institute , a Washington, D.C.-based environmental think tank, China voluntarily cut its carbon dioxide emissions by 19% between 1997 and 1999. Contrary to Bush's fears that cutting carbon dioxide output would inevitably damage the United States economy, China's economy grew by 15% during this same two-year period.

Politics has always been at the forefront of this debate. The IPCC has provided assessments of climate change that have helped shape international treaties, including the Kyoto Protocol. However, the Bush administration, acting at the request of ExxonMobil, the world's largest oil company, and attempting to cast doubts upon the scientific integrity of the IPCC, was behind the ouster in 2002 of IPCC chairperson Robert Watson, an atmospheric scientist who supported implementing actions against global warming.

The ability of trees and plants to fix carbon through the process of photosynthesis , a process called carbon or C sequestration, results in a large amount of carbon stored in biomass around the world. In the framework of the Kyoto Protocol, C sequestration to mitigate the greenhouse effect in the terrestrial ecosystem has been an important topic of discussion in numerous recent international meetings and reports. To increase C sequestration in soils in the dryland and tropical areas, as a contribution to global reductions of atmospheric CO2, the United States has promoted new strategies and new practices in agriculture, pasture use and forestry, including conservation agriculture and agro-forestry . Such practices should be facilitated particularly by the application of article 3.4 of the Kyoto Protocol covering the additional activities in agriculture and forestry in the developing countries and by appropriate policies.

Into the future

In June 2002, the 15 member nations of the European Union formally signed the Kyoto Protocol. The ratification by the 15 EU countries was a major step toward making the 1997 treaty effective. Soon after, Japan signed the treaty, and Russia was expected to follow suit.

To take effect, the Kyoto Protocol must be ratified by 55 countries, but these ratifications have to include industrialized nations responsible for at least 55% of the 1990 levels of greenhouse gases. As of 2002, over 70 countries had already signed, exceeding the minimum number of countries needed. If Russia signs the treaty, nations responsible for over 55% of the 1990 levels of greenhouse gas pollution will have signed, and the Kyoto Protocol will take effect.

Before the EU ratified the protocol, the vast majority of countries that had ratified were developing countries. With the withdrawal of the United States, responsible for 36.1% of greenhouse gas emissions in 1990, ratification by industrialized nations was crucial. For example, environmentalists hope that Canada will ratify the treaty as it has already committed compliance.

Although the Bush administration opposed the Kyoto Protocol, saying that its own plan of voluntary restrictions would work as well without the loss of billions of dollars and without driving millions of Americans out of work, the EPA, under its administrator Christine Todd Whitman, in 2002 sent a climate report to the United Nations detailing specific, far-reaching, and disastrous effects of global warming upon the American environment and its people. The EPA report also admitted that global warming is occurring because of man-made carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. However, it offered no major changes in administration policies, instead recommending adapting to the inevitable and catastrophic changes.

Although the United States was still resisting the Kyoto Protocol in mid-2002, and the treaty's implications for radical and effective action, various states and communities decided to go it alone. Massachusetts and New Hampshire enacted legislation to cut carbon emissions. California was considering legislation limiting emissions from cars and small trucks. Over 100 U.S. cities had already opted to cut carbon emissions. Even the U.S business community, because of their many overseas operations, was beginning to voluntarily cut back on their greenhouse emissions.

[Douglas Dupler ]



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McKibbin, Warwick J., and Peter Wilcoxen. Climate Change Policy After Kyoto: Blueprint for a Realistic Approach. Washington DC: The Brookings Institution Press, 2002.

Victor, David G. Collapse of the Kyoto Protocol and the Struggle to Slow Global Warming. Boston: Princeton University Press, 2002.


Benedick, Richard E. "Striking a New Deal on Climate Change." Issues in Science and Technology, Fall 2001, 71.

Gelbspan, Ross. "A Modest Proposal to Stop Global Warming." Sierra, May/June 2001, 63.

McKibben, Bill. "Climate Change 2001: Third Assessment Report." New York Review of Books, July 5, 2001, 35.

Rennie, John. "The Skeptical Environmentalist Replies." Scientific American, May 2002, 14.


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IPCC Secretariat, C/O World Meteorological Organization, 7bis Avenue de la Paix, C.P. 2300, CH- 1211, Geneva, Switzerland 41-22-730-8208, Fax: 41-22-730-8025, Email: [email protected], <>

UNIDOClimate Change/Kyoto Protocol Activities, UNIDO New York Office, New York, NY USA 10017 (212) 963-6890, Email: [email protected], <>