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A Long Decade of Negotiations: The Difficult Birth of the Kyoto Protocol

As a result of what many considered to be increased evidence of human interference with the climate system and growing public concern over global environment issues, the UN Environment Program (UNEP) and the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) established the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in 1988.

That same year, the United Nations General Assembly held its first debate on climate change and adopted resolution 43/53 on the "Protection of the global climate for present and future generations of mankind (IPCC)." This resulted in 1990 in negotiations conducted by an Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee (INC) for a framework convention on climate change.

On May 9, 1992, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) was adopted by governments and was opened for signature on June 4, 1992 at the UN Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED), otherwise know as the Earth Summit, in Rio de Janeiro. The Convention is not a legally binding treaty but rather an institution of which countries are members.

The Convention came into force on March 21,1994. Today, 186 governments, including the European Union and the United States, are parties to the convention and it is approaching universal membership.

The ultimate objective of the Convention is "to achieve stabilization of atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases at levels that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic (human-induced) interference with the climate system." The Convention does not define "dangerous," but says that the ecosystem should be able to adapt naturally and that economic development should proceed in a sustainable manner.

The Convention sets different goals for countries according to their levels of development, and expects the most developed countries to lead the way. It establishes the Precautionary Principle, embodying the idea that there are no certitudes as to the effect of human activity on climate change, but that if action is delayed until proof is available it may be too late. The Convention recognizes that countries may become greater contributors to climate change as they develop, and, therefore, emphasizes sustainable development.

Although seen by many as significant progress, it was realized that the Convention on its own had limitations. The Berlin Conference of the Parties (COP) in March and April 1995 launched a new round of talks to decide on clearer commitments for industrialized countries. The Convention recognizes that developing countries have certain economic needs and cannot comply with the standards it has set. The industrialized countries are expected to lead the way. This concept is applied in the Protocol, which is why countries like the United States criticize the Protocol for favoring developing countries.

This round resulted in the Kyoto Protocol, which was adopted in Kyoto, Japan on December 11, 1997. The 87 countries that signed the Protocol indicated intentions of also ratifying it. But while the Protocol resolved some outstanding issues, it did not fully explain how its objectives were to be implemented, making some of the signatories reluctant to proceed with ratification.

A new round of negotiations was accordingly launched in Buenos Aires in November 1998, to draft the Protocol's rulebook. This round, which agreed on a plan called the Buenos Aires Plan of Action, linked negotiations on the rulebook with talks on implementation issues under the Convention. The deadline for the end of negotiations was the COP meeting of November 2000 in The Hague. Technical and political difficulties, however, caused the negotiations to break down.

Talks reconvened at a COP session in Bonn in July 2001, which adopted the so-called Bonn Agreements. These mainly constituted a political deal signing off on the most controversial aspects of the Buenos Aires Plan of Action.

The next COP meeting, in Marrakech in October and November 2001, built on the Bonn Agreements and came up with a rulebook for the Kyoto Protocol. It also achieved significant advances in the terms of implementation of the Convention and its rulebook.

These agreements, known as the Marrakech Accords, ended a cycle of negotiations by launching a new implementation phase for both the Convention and the Protocol, based on a complex combination of institutions, rules, procedures, and mechanisms that is the most elaborate of any international environmental agreement.

The Kyoto Protocol supplements and strengthens the Convention as it is a legally binding treaty, which has the same objective as the Convention, and specifies the reduction of gas emissions by five percent from 1990 levels by 2008-2012.

The Protocol's emissions targets cover the six main greenhouse gases: Carbon Dioxide (CO2); Methane (CH4); Nitrous Oxide (N2O); Hydro §uorocarbons (HFCs); Per §uorocarbons (PFCs); and Sulfur hex §uoride (SF6). Only countries that are already parties to the Convention can ratify (or accept, approve, or accede to) the Protocol and thereby become parties to it.

The rules for entry into force of the Kyoto Protocol require 55 Parties to the Convention to ratify (or approve, accept, or accede to) the Protocol, including Annex I Parties1 accounting for 55 percent of that group's carbon dioxide emissions in 1990. These criteria ensure that no one party, not even the United States, can veto the Protocol.

Today, the Protocol is getting closer to the entering into force stage since the European Union became a party to the Protocol on May 31, 2002 and Japan adopted the Protocol on April 6, 2002. There are now 74 countries that have adopted the Protocol, which satisfies the first requirement for enforcement. Of these countries 20 are Annex I countries, representing 40.9 percent of the Annex I countries' carbon dioxide emissions in 1990. Thus, Annex I countries accounting for a further 14.1 percent of carbon dioxide emissions in 1990 must still ratify the Protocol to meet the second requirement and allow it to enter force. If either the Russian Federation (17.4 percent) or the United States (36.1 percent) were to adopt the Protocol, it would then go into force. However, the U.S. administration has announced that it will not ratify the Protocol because of the negative economic effects it would have on U.S. industry (the United States is responsible for the largest share of carbon dioxide emissions) and also because Washington views the disparity between the requirements imposed on industrialized countries and developing countries as unfair.

For more information about the Convention and the Protocol:


1 Annex I parties are: Australia, Austria, Belarus*, Belgium, Bulgaria*, Canada, Croatia*, Czech Republic*, Denmark, Estonia*, European Union, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary*, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Latvia*, Liechtenstein, Lithuania*, Luxembourg, Monaco, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Poland*, Portugal, Romania*, Russian Federation*, Slovakia*, Slovenia*, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Turkey, Ukraine*, United Kingdom, United States.

The * indicates countries with economies in transition.

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