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Published Date: Jun 1, 1998

The Climate Convention: Unraveling the Kyoto Numbers (W-33)

Adil Najam, SDPI, and Thomes P.
1998 (Published in Environmental Conservation, Vol 25, No. 3, Sept 1998)


The third meeting of the Conference of Parties (COP-3) of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) concluded with the signing of the Kyoto Protocol (UNFCCC 1997).  After much political wrangling and an extended all night negotiation session, delegates agreed to a Protocol that mandates specific emissions limits for industrialized countries and economies in transition (collectively listed as Annex I countries).  The Protocol mandates that the average anthropogenic carbon dioxide (CO2) equivalent emission of each Annex I country should be no more than its agreed allowance in the “first quantified emission limitation commitment period” which is defined as the five years between the beginning of 2008 and the end of 2012 (UNFCCC 1997: Article 3.7).  The base-period for most countries in Annex I is 1990.  The exceptions—granted during COP-2 (UNFCCC 1996, decision 9/CP.2)—are Bulgaria (1989), Hungary (1985-87), Poland (1988) and Romania (1989).

In more simple terms, this means that each Annex I country has accepted an emissions limit based on changes in equivalent carbon dioxide, relative to their base period emissions, which they are required to reach by around the year 2010.  Moreover, different countries within Annex I have agreed to different limits.  The fact that there is no apparent basis for this allocation except political wrangling and horse-trading is itself a source of some concern (Najam and Sagar, 1998).  While major emitters, including the European Union, USA and Japan agreed to reduce their emissions in 2010 to 8%, 7% and 6% respectively below the 1990 levels other countries such as Iceland, Australia and Norway have been allowed to increase their emissions above the 1990 levels but by no more than 10%, 8% and 1% respectively.  Yet others, including the Russian Federation, Ukraine and New Zealand have agreed to limit their 2010 emissions to no more than the 1990 levels.

Subsequent discussions of the Kyoto Protocol have been characterized by a decidedly partisan flavor.  It seems as if those who believe that climate change is a serious and urgent problem feel somewhat duty-bound to come to the defence of the Protocol, often arguing that even though this may not be the best agreement possible, it is at least a step in the right direction.  On the other hand, those who believe that the available scientific evidence does not justify the substantial economic costs that might be incurred seem equally compelled to attack the Protocol; not as much for what it contains but simply because it happened.  Both sides appear to be reacting more out of conviction than analysis.  In the midst of all the bickering, very little attention has been invested into analyzing the details of what was actually agreed at Kyoto.

Indeed, this lack of emphasis on the actual content of the agreement is somewhat justified by the fact that it is still doubtful whether key emitters will actually ratify the Protocol.  Legally, the Kyoto Protocol will not become a binding document for anyone until after 90 days from the date that the following two conditions have been met: a) at least 55% of the parties to the Convention have ratified it; and b) the parties that have ratified it account for at least 55% of the total Annex I emissions for 1990 (UNFCCC 1997, Article 24.1).  Since USA accounts for around 38% of those emissions, the European Union for another 22%, and Japan for 8%, the Protocol is unlikely to come into force without ratification from these key industrialized countries (Bolin 1998, 330).  Most analysts agree that it may be very difficult to get USA’s Senate to ratify the Kyoto Protocol anytime soon.  Other industrialized countries may, therefore, choose to delay their ratification until they are sure that USA will actually be joining the regime.

This paper focuses on the actual commitments made at COP-3, what they mean in practical policy terms, and how the situation in 2010 may differ from what it is today because of the decisions taken at Kyoto.  The results should be a cause of concern, if not surprise, to both sides of the debate.  Importantly, even if all Annex I countries were to live up to the commitments they made at Kyoto—which, as pointed out, remains a doubtful proposition—the total emissions from these countries in 2010 will, in fact, be nearly the same as they are today!

This fact, which may not be entirely surprising to those familiar with the numbers, has nonetheless slipped through the cracks of the debate.  This is not to belittle the significance of the Kyoto Protocol.  After all, a stabilization of emissions at current level is better than no stabilization at all.  However, it does call for a more sobering assessment of Kyoto’s ultimate importance.  As governments finalize their positions for the next round of negotiations to be held in Buenos Aires in November and as analysts busy themselves with pondering on how developing countries might be incorporated into a commitments regime, they should pause to consider the real implications of this fact.