What the world is doing
The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and its Kyoto Protocol provide a global framework for tackling climate change, defining objectives and showing how they can be reached.
The UNFCCC assigns "common but differentiated responsibilities" to developed and developing countries, recognising that industrialised countries must take the lead in the fight against climate change and its impacts. After all, they are responsible for most of the current build-up of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and have the financial and technological resources to reduce their emissions.
Under the UNFCCC, signatories establish national programmes for reducing greenhouse gas emissions and submit regular reports. Industrialised countries among the parties – but not developing countries – were required to stabilise their greenhouse gas emissions at 1990 levels by the year 2000, a goal which, as a group, they have achieved. The UNFCCC parties meet annually to review progress and discuss further measures, and a number of global monitoring and reporting mechanisms are in place to keep track of greenhouse gas emissions.
The Kyoto Protocol
Governments knew the UNFCCC was only the beginning of the battle to tackle climate change. In 1997, they took a further step and adopted a protocol to the UNFCCC in the Japanese town of Kyoto.
The Kyoto Protocol sets legally binding limits on greenhouse gas emissions from industrialised countries. It also introduces innovative market-based mechanisms – the so-called Kyoto flexible mechanisms – to keep the cost of curbing emissions as low as possible.
Under the protocol, industrialised countries as a whole are required to reduce their emissions of six greenhouse gases (CO2, methane, nitrous oxide, hydrofluorocarbons, perfluorocarbons and sulphur hexafluoride) by around 5% below 1990 levels during the first ‘commitment period’ from 2008 to 2012. A five-year period was chosen rather than a single target year to smooth out annual fluctuations in emissions due to uncontrollable factors such as the weather. There are no emissions targets for developing countries.
The Kyoto Protocol entered into force in February 2005. In early 2009, 183 states and the European Union had ratified the protocol. This means that 37 developed countries plus the EU-15 (the 15 Member States when the protocol was signed) are committed to reaching their Kyoto targets. Only one major country that originally signed the treaty has not ratified: the US.
The Kyoto Protocol is only one stage in the fight against climate change. There needs to be an intensification of efforts and long-term commitment from the international community if potentially disastrous impacts are to be avoided.
In December 2007, all major countries agreed to begin negotiations on a new global regime to tackle climate change for after 2012, when Kyoto expires, at the United Nations climate change conference in Bali. Progress continued the following year in Poznan, Poland and the aim of on-going negotiations is to secure an agreement by the end of 2009 at the UN climate change conference in Copenhagen.
The 192 countries involved in the talks have agreed that deep cuts in emissions will be needed if climate change is to be kept within safe limits. A crucial element of negotiations so far is the recognition that both developing and developed countries need to take action, albeit with consideration of their respective abilities. While only the latter had emissions reduction commitments under the Kyoto Protocol, it has long been acknowledged that this approach would not be enough, especially when estimates are that emissions from developing nations will exceed those from developed countries by 2020.
Agreement has been reached on a number of vital elements – a fund to help developing countries adapt to climate change, on test projects to reduce deforestation and on funding to transfer clean technologies to developing countries.
Current scientific evidence indicates that the effects of climate change will only remain manageable if global temperatures rise by no more than 2ºC above pre-industrial levels. For this to happen, worldwide emissions must peak by 2020 and be cut to 50% of 1990 levels by 2050.
In early 2009, the Commission set out detailed proposals on how to achieve these goals. They include increasing the amount of money invested in low-carbon development, especially in developing countries, innovative sources of international funding, an international carbon market by 2015, and steps to help countries adapt to climate change.