Baseline emissions refer to the production of greenhouse gases that have occurred in the past and which are being produced prior to the introduction of any strategies to reduce emissions. The baseline measurement is determined over a set period of time, typically one year. This historical measurement acts as a benchmark to evaluate the success of subsequent efforts to reduce emissions. Without the knowledge of baseline emissions, it is impossible to reliably judge the success of any remediation efforts.
Baseline emissions are important in some climate protocols. For example, countries that adopted the greenhouse-gas reduction guidelines of the Kyoto Protocol were obligated to provide information on their nation's 1990 greenhouse-gas emissions. By doing so, the progress of the participating countries in meeting the protocol's emission-reduction timelines could be judged.
Baseline emission information is also valuable when nations or industries seek to negotiate with other jurisdictions to trade emissions so that both parties can meet their overall emission-reduction targets.
Historical Background and Scientific Foundations
The concept of establishing baseline measurements has been a fundamental aspect of science for centuries. The
progress of an experiment or a strategy is impossible to evaluate unless there is a starting point. In the case of climate change, knowledge of the emissions of the compounds of concern at the start of the process is essential.
In climate change, baseline emissions are typically concerned with greenhouse gases—the gases, such as carbon dioxide, produced mainly due to human industrial and other activities that accumulate in the atmosphere and increase the retention of the heat energy of the sun. Greenhouse gases are the basis of global warming—the increasing temperature of the atmosphere that has been occurring for about 150 years, and which has been accelerating since the mid-twentieth century.
Emission reduction agreements such as the Kyoto Protocol mandate that the baseline emission data go back to 1990. This acts to put all participating nations at a common starting point, enabling similar reduction guidelines to be imposed on all nations, rather than negotiating numerous individual reduction timetables.
Other reduction programs have different requirements for baseline emissions. For example, in Canada, the Pilot Emission Reduction Trading (PERT) and Greenhouse Gas Emission Reduction Trading (GERT) programs that have been established to develop the concept of emission trading require baseline data from the previous five years (for PERT) or since the beginning of 1997 (for GERT).
Whatever the date of the baseline emissions, the intent is the same—to provide a common starting point for all participants that allows evaluation of the subsequent emission-reduction programs.
Impacts and Issues
Baseline emission data are crucial for nations participating in the Kyoto Protocol, which mandates a 5.2% reduction in greenhouse-gas emissions by industrialized nations compared to the baseline 1990 levels by 2008–2012. This target is collective, so by trading emissions with other nations, a country may need to reduce emissions of one type of greenhouse gas less than the reductions required for another gas.
Although debate has arisen concerning whether these targets can be achieved, with nations such as Canada actively backing away from their Kyoto obligations, baseline data will continue to be useful as a benchmark for alternative emission-reduction plans that nations such as Canada ultimately adopt.
WORDS TO KNOW
: Gases that cause Earth to retain more thermal energy by absorbing infrared light emitted by Earth's surface. The most important greenhouse gases are water vapor, carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, and various artificial chemicals such as chlorofluorocarbons. All but the latter are naturally occurring, but human activity over the last several centuries has significantly increased the amounts of carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide in Earth's atmosphere, causing global warming and global climate change.
: Extension in 1997 of the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), an international treaty signed by almost all countries with the goal of mitigating climate change. The United States, as of early 2008, was the only industrialized country to have not ratified the Kyoto Protocol, which is due to be replaced by an improved and updated agreement starting in 2012.
Baseline emission data are valuable on a local level. For example, the city of Berkeley, California, compiled a baseline greenhouse-gas emissions inventory during 2007. The results of the inventory are being used to guide municipal legislators and industries in forming reduction guidelines as part of the city's participation in the International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives (ICLEI) Cities for Climate Protection Campaign. As of 2007, more than 800 local governments worldwide are participants in the campaign.
DiMento, Joseph F. C., and Pamela M. Doughman. Climate Change:What It Means for Us, Our Children, and Our Grandchildren. Boston: MIT Press, 2007.
Gore, Al. An Inconvenient Truth:The Planetary Emergency of Global Warming and What We Can Do About It. New York: Rodale Books, 2006.
“GLOBE-Net Special Feature: A Primer on Climate Change and Carbon Trading.” GLOBE-Net. < http://www.globe-net.ca/special_features/primer_section5.cfm> (accessed November 25, 2007).