Global warming and the basic mechanisms of climate change

Since the first warnings of global warming and the possibility of climate changes in 1885 by various scientists, researched has gathered insight into both the basic mechanisms of climate change and the potential impacts that can be expected in the future. In response to these findings, 160 countries gathered at the “Earth Summit” in Rio de Janeiro, where they agreed to adopt the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (FCCC)1. The Convention aimed to stabilise greenhouse gases “at a level that would prevent dangerous interference with the climate system”2, and provided guidelines and obligations for so-called “Developed Countries”3. All countries were to develop a national database of the “anthropogenic emissions by sources and removals by sinks” and to devise a solution which will reduce the climate change4; however, developed countries also had other commitments under the convention5.

Within the Convention, it provided that “[t]he Conference of the Parties shall, at its first session, review the adequacy of”6 the commitments of the parties in order to asses whether the objectives of the Convention were being met. At there first session in Bonn7, the Berlin Mandate: a “mechanism by which binding reduction and limitation obligations would be negotiated”8; was adopted, as it became apparent that the ‘obligations’ of the Convention were not adequate; the large and influential countries e.g. USA and Japan, would not meet the non-binding targets by 2000, and that legally binding limits should be established. It was intended that by the third session of the Conference of the Parties (which was to be held in Kyoto, Japan in December 1997), the negotiations would result in a ‘protocol or another legal instrument’. The Mandate offered considerations, which were to guide the negotiations, and stated that developing countries would face no new commitments and that developed countries should have quantified limitations and reduction objectives. The Mandate believed that “the developed country Parties should take the lead in combating climate change and the adverse effects thereof”9.

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With negotiations completed, the obligations agreed upon were initialised on the 10th December 1997. In contrast to the weak target embedded in the FCCC which required the parties to ‘aim’ to return their carbon dioxide emission levels to 1990 levels by 200010, the Kyoto Protocol was the first legally binding treaty aimed at cutting greenhouse gases and has been acknowledged as being the most far-reaching piece of international law to be issued in many decades.

The Kyoto Protocol is a legally binding instrument, of the FCCC, which set legally binding limits for emissions of greenhouse gases11, for all those who ratified it. It was opened for signature on 16th March 1998 and will enter force 90 days after it has been ratified by at least 55 parties to the Convention, including developed countries accounting for 55% of the total 1990 carbon dioxide emissions from industrialised countries (Annex 1 countries)12.

Under the Protocol, it is the developed countries (Annex 1 countries)13 which are primarily responsible for reducing emissions, in order to avoid climate change and global warming; it is believed that because the developed countries are the large energy users and thus large greenhouse gas producers, it is these countries that should face the consequences in reducing the emissions. As a result, Parties in Annex 1 shall:

“individually or jointly, ensure that their aggregate anthropogenic carbon dioxide emissions of the greenhouse gases listed in Annex A do not exceed their assigned amounts, calculated pursuant to their qualified emission limitations and reduction commitments inscribed in Annex B and in accordance with the provisions of this Article, with the view to reducing their overall emissions of such gases by at least 5% below 1990 levels in the commitment period 2008 to 2012”

The obligation contains one specific commitment and one general commitment for each Annex 1 country. The specific commitment, which is individual emission targets, for each Annex 1 country is outlines in Annex B. There is a range of targets which include actual increases of 10 % as well as reductions of 8%. This range reflects the various stages of development of economics (and dependency on fossil fuels) in tandem with political realities of the respective governments. For example, the EU agreed to an 8 % reduction, the USA 7% reduction, Canada, Japan 6% reduction. Russia agreed to stabilise at 1990 levels, while Norway, Australia and Iceland were allowed to increase by 1%, 8% and 10% respectively.

As stated, developing countries are not contained in Annex 1, therefore, no emission limits apply to them and they are not required to do more than their existing commitments under Article 4(1) of the convention14. Kyoto Protocol, however, recognises the need for quicker implementation of the existing commitments: Article 1015

“All Parties, taking into account their common but differentiated responsibilities and their specific national and regional development priorities, objectives and circumstances, without introducing any new commitments for Parties not included in Annex 1, but reaffirming existing commitments . . . and continuing to advance the implementation of these commitments in order to achieve sustainable development”

Article 10 (b) and (c) outlines the commitments of developing countries, and although they are not new commitments, they are certainly an elaboration of the existing ones.

The Kyoto Protocol “will not solve the global warming problem, but is a vital first step toward the much deeper reductions that will eventually be needed”16. If implemented it will have considerable consequences on the way Nations around the globe allocate the use of non-renewable sources.

The potential benefits from Kyoto are captured by the avoided damages from climate change. In assessing the possible impact of rising atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, the WMO/UNEP Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change concluded in their 1995 Report that: “the balance of evidence suggests that there is a discernible human influence on global climate”17. Potential climate risks avoided include more severe weather patterns, hobbled ecosystems, less biodiversity, less potable water, loss of coastal areas from rising sea levels18, rises in mean temperature19, more infectious diseases such as malaria, yellow fever, and cholera.

In addition to the obvious health benefits for all living beings, the protocol allows a great deal of flexibility since it does not specify to countries how their targets are to be achieved. This is left up to the countries themselves; therefore they are able to implement measures which they feel appropriate. Additionally, the fact that with the protocol countries are given between the years of 2008 and 2012 to fulfil their obligations under Article 3 is a further example of flexibility, and as has been suggested that this thereby encourages parties to sign and ratify the protocol.

There are, however, numerous unanswered questions about the structure of atmospheric systems and their potential thresholds. As Schelling suggests, “uncertainties abound: We do not know which regions will get warmer or cooler; which will get wetter or drier; which will get stormier or calmer”20. In assessing the benefits of Kyoto, it depends on the perceived risk of catastrophe: if it is believed that disaster is imminent, emission reductions cannot come soon or fast enough; however, if it is not, it is hard to justify the likely costs if the Kyoto Protocol. Numerous risk perception studies have revealed that people commonly overestimate the chance that they will suffer from a low probability/high severity event, e.g. a nuclear power accident21; when the potential outcome is potentially very bad, people inflate the chance that the outcome will be realized. Policymakers are not immune to this human fallibility either.

With the US being the largest contributor to global emissions with around 23% of emissions of carbon dioxide, it had the most to lose, in reducing its emissions and fulfilling obligations, in ratifying the Kyoto Protocol. As a result, the US had to weigh up the pros and cons of ratifying the Kyoto Protocol. Although they accepted that climate change was a worrying factor, the immediate threat to their economy, by adopting the KP, was too great. Their reliance on fossil fuels would cause great problems when trying to reduce emissions and as a result their economic growth would have to find other ways to continue growing. As a result of these concerns, if an agreement was to be reached, the Kyoto Protocol had to satisfy their concerns. It is also worth bearing in mind that “without the US the value of any agreement would be relatively meaningless”22 with the US being the largest contributor of carbon dioxide emissions; consequently this gave the US a great deal of weight when seeking to negotiate.

Before the US would consider the Protocol, it demanded that various provisions be included. One of the essential demands of the US, along with Japan, Canada and New Zealand they differentiation. The principle of differentiation allows groups of countries to have collective targets. As a result, a country may increase their emissions and have this offset by a greater decrease by another country, thus meeting the collective target. The EU has already adopted the differentiation principle by setting individual targets in Annex B. Thus poorer countries in the EU could continue increasing their emissions as long as other countries performed greater cuts in order to meet the collective target.

The second demand of states including the US was the need for flexibility within the Protocol; “in particular, that each state individually should decide on the measures and policies necessary for the implementation of its obligations, the establishment of a mechanism allowing the purchase from another state of unused emission quotas (’emission trading’), and to allow states to undertake climate mitigation projects in one state but claim the benefit of reduced emission for itself”23.

Originally the EU had been in favor of coordinated efforts to meet the targets; however the US, in theory, ended up getting their wish. The Protocol permits that an Annex 1 country will be allowed to “Implement and/or further elaborate policies and measures in accordance with its national circumstances”24. As a result of EU pressure, however, provisions were installed which gave the Conference of the Parties the power to “consider ways and means to elaborate the coordination of such policies and measures.”25

Emissions Trading

Emission Trading is the first mechanism in the Protocol aimed at providing flexibility and choice in terms of meeting individual quotas as to the amount of reductions. The concept behind Emission Trading is to allow the market to facilitate the emission reduction projects in the most cost effective manner. Individual parties will be able to trade emission entitlements with other parties with the intention of meeting their quota obligations. Initially this trading activity has been limited to Annex 1 parties, as they are the only parties with legally binding commitments.

Clean Development Mechanism

The Clean Development Mechanism is a mechanism that aims to address the issues of climate change by international co-operation. Crucially, it aims to connect the demands of non-Annex 1 parties, by transferring new technology. Projects (to reduce greenhouse gases) are undertaken in developing countries and are used to offset some of the reduction targets they faced.26 In return for voluntarily undertaking projects in developing countries that increase the financial flows into the recipient country concerned, and also to provide “real, measurable and long term”27 benefits, which help to stimulate “leap-frogging” in terms of technology transfer, Annex 1 countries will be allowed to take partial credit for the emissions reductions resulting.

Joint Initiative

Joint Implementation, in the context of the climate change convention, refers to the possibility of emission reductions in one country being funded from, or otherwise arranged jointly with another country. The logic behind this approach is that as long as the global atmosphere experienced a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, it does not matter from where the reductions actually originated.

“For the purpose of meeting its commitments under Article 3, any Party included in Annex I may transfer to, or acquire from, any other such Party emission reduction units resulting from projects aimed at reducing anthropogenic emissions by sources or enhancing anthropogenic removals by sinks of greenhouse gases in any sector of the economy.”28

The emission reduction projects then generate ‘Emission Reduction Units’, which can then be used to offset national targets. However, there has to be approval by all parties involved, and the reduction in emissions must also be additional to work carried out domestically29.

Despite the US signing up in 1997, on the July 1997 the US Senate voted 95 – 0 against ratification of the Kyoto Protocol, and then in March 2001 the recently elected George W. Bush rejected the Kyoto Protocol as “fatally Flawed”, and withdrew the US from negotiations stating “Kyoto is dead”.

There are many reasons why the US refused to ratify the protocol however Mr Bush outlined that the Kyoto Protocol on Global Warming was “in many ways unrealistic” and that its targets were “arbitrary and not based on science”30. Although Mr Bush admitted that “we recognise a responsibility to reduce our emissions”, there still remains great scepticism in the scientific community31 that Greenhouse Gases, which the Kyoto Protocol aims to reduce, are the main source of global warming.

Back in 1996, the US announced that they would not adopt the Kyoto Protocol unless it was a cost effective climate change policy; however, the cost-benefit analysis proved inconclusive. Dr Watson32 stated that “Kyoto would of hammered our economy and put millions of Americans out of work”33, and it was suggested by the Bush administration that the US is not willing to jeopardise their economy without clear and definite future benefits34.

One of the fundamental reasons behind the US rejection was that no agreement was reached in Kyoto on what commitments developing countries should assume to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. The US highlighted that the Protocol excluded 80% of the world and that it is clear that climate protection requires the participation on the developing countries because by the middle of the next century they are predicted to generate the largest share of carbon dioxide. Developing nations have no incentive to reduce their economic growth. China, for example, is the second largest emitter after the US, but its per capita emissions are about a seventh of those in the United States. This would have put the US at a great disadvantage, as their projected emissions for years 2008 to 2012 would have to be reduced by 40% to fulfil their obligations under the Kyoto Agreement. As a result the “Bootlegger and Baptists” theory comes into practice – in which all parties benefit, however not all parties have to contribute.35

George Bush came under significant criticism after rejecting the Kyoto Protocol; however, he recognizes the problems surrounding climate change and admits “[t]here is no doubt that humans have obviously influenced the climate”36. As a result, in 2001, the Bush administration announced that they were still committed to “addressing climate change issue in a manner that protects our environment, consumers and economy”37 and he had ordered his cabinet to make recommendations that address this issue both internationally and domestically.

Bush had previously proposed a “climate change research initiative to study global warming and bolster co-operation between research institutions in the US, Europe, Latin America and Japan”38. Currently the US are co-operating with Mexico and South America to try and tackle climate change39. Initially, Dr Watson suggested that Washington should “research into renewable energy and ways of ‘capturing’ and ‘sequestering’ carbon emissions resulting from the burning of fossil fuels”40. As a result, the US have created two initiatives which deal with research, and sequestration: The National Climate Initiative, and the National Climate Technology Initiative respectively. The National Climate Change Initiative involves NASA, which are examining how carbon dioxide affects global change, with simulations of climate change. They will also look into the effect of aerosols, and water cycles. The National Climate Technology Initiative has two projects on carbon sequestration. The Nature Conservancy Project looks into how carbon dioxide can be stored more effectively, and the second – the International Team of Energy Companies is looking into ways of lowering the cost of removing carbon dioxide from emissions.

Recommendations, were also announced in May 2001, to promote energy efficiency and conservation and to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases through the use of alternative, renewable, and advanced forms of energy. In line with these recommendations, individual States are also involved in tackling emissions.

“[Each State] can influence which energy sources utilities are promoted in their state and which type of energy constituents choose. They have a responsibility for land use and planning and industrial development, as well as activities that directly or indirectly contribute to [greenhouse gas] emissions such as waste management” 41.

As of May 2002, 25 US states had introduced state action plans to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. New Hampshire enacted a Clean Power act which sets limits on emissions of Sulphur Dioxide, Nitrogen Oxides and Carbon Dioxide. Many states have also introduced State Greenhouse Gas Registries, which register their voluntary greenhouse gas emission reductions.42

Although the US rejection of the Kyoto Protocol was met with a plethora of criticism, the reasoning behind rejecting the Protocol, is arguably, understandable. No country would want to damage their economy without a guarantee of future benefits, and no leader would agree to such legal documentation should they face the number of risks that the US faces.

As a result, the US have taken a stance that the will individually tackle the problems raised by the Kyoto Protocol, with them considering to revaluate their opinion of the Protocol in the future. Although the withdrawal of the US is a major setback, presently the Protocol has been ratified by 100 parties, of which Annex 1 parties account for 43% of the carbon emissions43. It has been suggested that Kyoto is now “riddled with more holes than a block of Swiss cheese”44; however it is a good building block for tackling global emissions, a problem which has been discussed for many years.

I believe that the US was correct in rejecting the Kyoto Protocol, as they faced a number of growing problems, and negotiations were not progressing. I feel, however, that the US must stick to its outlines of improvements for global emissions, and that reconsideration on Kyoto should occur in the near future, in order to improve, and combine combat of harmful emissions.