Wed, Feb 16, 2005 - Page 9 News List

Will the deal really work?

The Kyoto Protocol comes into force today, but few people know much about climate change and carbon trading

By Paul Brown  /  THE GUARDIAN , London

ILLUSTRATION: MOUNTAIN PEOPLE

Today, one of the most controversial treaties in decades becomes part of international law. It has been heralded as a breakthrough in the fight against dangerous climate change and a triumph for international diplomacy -- despite the fact that the US, the world's greatest emitter of greenhouse gases, refuses to take part.

The protocol, an addition to the Climate Change Convention negotiated at the Earth Summit in 1992, is the first legally binding international treaty on the environment. The convention placed an obligation on every country that signed it to reduce man-made greenhouse gas emissions but did not give any targets -- so everyone agreed another agreement was needed.

Kyoto gives each of the industrialized countries of the world an individual limit to the greenhouse gas emissions they can make. The reductions overall are tiny compared with the cuts that scientists say are necessary to stabilize the climate. So will Kyoto really make a difference to whether global warming is contained? Can it save the planet from the potential of runaway global warming?

Here we explain the nuts and bolts of Kyoto, how it works, and what it does.

One, what is Kyoto designed to reduce?

Six gases: Carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels is the biggest factor in climate change but methane from agriculture and landfill, nitrous oxide from vehicles, and hydofluorocarbons, perfluorocarbons and sulphur hexafluoride from other industrial processes are included.

Two, why do different countries have different targets?

In 1997, in Kyoto, a protocol or addition to the original treaty was negotiated after many tortuous sessions in special case, and so the idea of differential responsibilities was born.

The first major difference in responsibilities was between industrial countries and developing countries. It was felt that industrial countries, which had gained most from the industrial revolution were also most to blame for the greenhouse effect. It was therefore agreed that the first round of reductions should be from them and the countries, such as the US and Japan, which are now burning most fossil fuels.

There were 34 industrial countries which agreed to targets, most of them in Europe. Some, such as Spain and Portugal, which were still developing, were allowed large increases in emissions and others, such as Germany, agreed to large cuts, partly because its heavy industry was shutting down but mainly because the government felt that it had to give a lead. Each country can discover how much CO2 it emits by calculating the volume of fossil fuels it burns, usually through imports and the tax system.

Three, what difference does the US make?

The treaty immediately hit a snag because politicians in the US, the world's largest emitter of greenhouse gases, passed a vote in the US Senate refusing to ratify the protocol. This was because they felt that China and other developing countries would gain a competitive advantage over them, because they would not have the costs of reducing emissions.

The snag could have been devastating because, under the rules negotiated in Kyoto, industrialized countries responsible for 55 percent of the emissions had to have their national parliaments ratify the convention before it could come into force. Since the US is responsible for 36 percent of the greenhouse gases from the industrialized world it meant that almost all the other countries which had agreed targets had to ratify the protocol before it could come into force.

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