What is the Kyoto Protocol?

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The landmark Kyoto Protocol is so famous that it is often misunderstood as a stand-alone agreement. Instead, it is what the name says: a protocol, in this case of the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on climate change. The treaty’s purpose is to regulate man-made greenhouse gas emissions with the goal of stabilizing global climate change.

Negotiations on the treaty were concluded in December 1997, with most of the signatories joining the treaty regime by March 1999. However, the treaty did not come into force until February 2005 with the ascension of Russia to the Kyoto regime. The United States also signed the treaty, doing so in 1998, but neither President Clinton nor President Bush submitted the treaty to the senate for ratification. Without that ratification, the American signature on the Kyoto Protocol is effectively worthless. This was compounded when the Bush administration abruptly and provocatively withdrew from Kyoto negotiations in April 2001. Currently, the United States remains the sole unratified signatory. Non-signatories include Afghanistan, Andorra, Brunei, Chad, Iraq, the Palestinian National Authority, San Marino, Taiwan and Zimbabwe.

The Kyoto Protocol binds a set of countries listed in Annex I to specific reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. Annex I states are essentially the same as Western industrialized countries. The other signatories of the Kyoto Protocol have agreed to a more general principal of greenhouse gas emissions. Therefore China, who stands as the single largest polluter on Earth, is not bound to meet any specific reduction target by Kyoto.

The other key provision of the Kyoto Protocol is the cap and trade system. Annex I countries have a carbon emissions “cap,” or maximum limit imposed upon them. This requires them to reduce their emissions by an average of 5.2% of their 1990 emissions level by a target date between 2008 and 2012. However, there is a “trading” escape valve, where states or companies can buy “emissions credits” to make up the difference between actual performance and their established “cap.” The European Union actually created its own Emissions Trading Scheme in 2003 to serve as a market for emissions allowances.

Despite the lack of national participation, several U.S. states have formed an organization that operates under Kyoto-like terms, including a cap and trade emissions system. This is called the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative and consists of Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Delaware, Massachusetts, and Maryland. While not joining the group, California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed a law that calls for California to cut it’s emission to Kyoto-like levels. In addition, dozens of US cities have independent greenhouse gas emissions reductions programs.

Critics of the Kyoto Protocol focus on a cost-benefit analysis of the actions called for by the treaty, and note that the cuts called for by the Protocol will have only a small impact on global warming. They also note that by effectively leaving countries such as India and especially China out of the system it does not address major sources of emissions that are still growing. After all, while the United States is the world’s largest per capita emitter of carbon dioxide, its growth rate is effectively frozen or in marginal decline. China’s emissions are the largest in absolute terms and growing explosively.

However, the Kyoto Protocol was never intended to be the end-all, be-all treaty regarding carbon emissions and climate change. It was only ever intended to be the necessary first step to start the process. Any successor agreements would call for another round of emissions reductions, and it is doubtful that such a treaty would be ratified even by the parliaments of Kyoto-enthusiasts in Europe and Japan if it did not include at least an emissions freeze on countries like Brazil, China and India. However, the big missing link still remains the United States and without American participation, the Kyoto Protocol remains only partially workable.

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