The continuation of the Rio Convention
International negociations on greenhouse gases emissions begun after the Rio Convention on climate, officially named “United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change”, that has been signed in 1992 by about every country in the world during the Earth Summit (in Rio). The main objective enclosed in this convention is to achieve “stabilization of greenhouse gases concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that prevents any dangerous anthropic perturbation of the climate system” (in other words: we ought not to cross the threshold over which damages become irreversible, but setting the limit is an arduous problem !).
Between 1992 and 1994, this Rio convention was ratified by 175 countries (that is about all the countries in the world, including the US) and the European Community. However, the Framework Convention includes no element on the maximum greenhouse gases concentrations we should not go over, in what delay the world should achieve that objective of stabilization of the atmospheric greenhouse gases, or how the burden sharing should be done. More generally the Convention doesn’t include any statement decribing in practical terms how the action should take place, and has postponed this kind of “details” to further discussions, that are to take place during periodic meetings of the countries that signed the Convention (these countries are called “parties” in the jargon of the UN). These meetings, in the language of the Convention (actually in the language of all UN conventions), are named “Conferences of the Parties”, or COPs, and take place once a year.
|4||1998||Buenos Aires, Argentina|
|6||2000||La Hague, Netherlands|
|8||2002||New Delhi, India|
|10||2004||Buenos Aires, Argentina|
|17||2011||Durban, South Africa|
Dates and places of the “Conferences of the Parties” since 1995
If the Framework Convention did not set up any precise calendar, or any precise sharing of the effort, it nevertheless separated the countries in two categories :
- those that are – at least officially ! – ready to commit to a decrease of their emissions belong to the “annex 1” ; it concerns essentially developped countries (caution ! I refer to a commitment at the time of the signing, not to a ratification afterwards. USA and Australia hence belong to Annex 1, even though they did not ratify the Protocol at the time these lines are written).
- the rest are not ready to commit to reduce their emissions ; it concerns essentially developping countries.
As stated above, no practical measures have been included in the Framework Convention, and they hence must be included in “protocols” to be added later on (protocols are kind of annexes to the Convention), and that will precisely detail the points that have been let aside at the time of the signing of the Framework Convention. One important point is that the additional protocols can be signed – thus ratified – by only a part of the parties of the Framework Convention, and are binding only for the countries that ratify them. The Kyoto Protocol, adopted in 1997, and ratified from 1997 to 2004, is one of those. The countries that did noit ratify it, among whicch the US, end up in a peculiar situation: they are bound by the objective (participate to the stabilization of the atmospheric greenhouse gases concentrations), without saying how – and at what pace – they will do it !
A quantitative objective set “by default”
As we have seen above, the Rio Convention hasd given only a qualitative defintion of the objective : the name of the game is to remain below the level that will “prevent any dangerous anthropic perturbation of the climate system”. Unfortunately, this way to state the objective is not sufficient to define the action that must be taken, because:
- nobody knows what is the atmospheric CO2 concentration (or the concentration of any other greenhouse gas) that “prevents any dangerous anthropic perturbation of the climate system”,
- the CO2 concentration that we have already reached is unpreceeded in human history,
- it is therefore strictly impossible to be inspired by the past to know where is the threshold under which we would not be at risk,
- given the long delays that take place between the increase of CO2 in the atmosphere and the effects of climate change, we may well have already went over – and by far – the limit to avoid major catastrophas in a near or remote future. The danger not only derives from the ultimate level of CO2 that will be reached (there has already been important concentrations before the apparition of man), but most of all from the speed with wich we are getting there: by forcing the climate system at a rate unkonwn during the past million years, we may engage violent and unmanageable displacements of equilibrium “later on”.
- as a consequence, the commitments announced at Kyoto (a 5,2% cut in the emissions of the developped countries by 2010, more or less) do not constitute an answer based on scientifically established limits to avoid a well identified set of risks ; it is just the result of negociations on the grounds that “something has to be made”,
- it is therefore a useful – and more: non avoidable – first step (it seems indeed difficult to manage to divide emissions by two without being previously able to cut them by 5% !) but that remains insufficient compared to what will eventually be necessary.
Who commited for what ?
As explained above, the Kyoto protocol is the first addendum to the Climate Convention that includes quantitiative goals and a calendar. The global objective is to obtain a 5,8% decrease of the Annex I countries compared to the 1990 level. The time when this should be achieved is not presented in a usual way: it is not a precise year which is given, but a bracket which 2008- 2012. It means that each country that has an objective should meet it “sometime” bewteen 2008 and 2012.
If the objective of Kyoto is global, each country did not commit to the same level. Some countries even pledged….to increase their emissions !
|Signing party||fossil CO2 only in 1990 (thousands of tonnes carbon equivalent)||Commitment in the Kyoto protocol|
|Great Britain||152 091||-12,5%|
|New Zealand||6 108||0,0%|
|Czech Republic||43 656||-8,0%|
|USA||1 320 132||-7,0%|
Commitment of every country to the Kyoto Protocol (between 1990 and 2008-2012).
When does it start ?
One of the dispositions of the Kyoto Protocol is that it will come into force, for the countries that ratified it, when at least 55 countries, representing at least 55% of the world total of greenhouse gases emissions of 1990, have ratified it. In september 2003, the number of countries that had ratified it was way over 55: almost 100 countries had then done so. But the United States have pulled out of the process, and Russia had not yet ratified it. As these two countries together represent more than 45% of the 1990 world total, the Kyoto Protocol couldn’t come into force as long as they both remained out of the process.
The ratification by Russia has therefore changed the situation, allowing that this threshold of 55% of the 1990 world emissions be crossed, and the Kyoto Protocol will therefore have the legal force of a treaty, for its signatories, from Frebruary 16, 2005. The US position cannot be considered as definitive, even though it is certain that the US will never ratify Kyoto: in 2001, the US emissions were 20% over the 1990 level (including sinks), when the US commitment was a 7% decrease. Catching up voluntarily a 27% difference in 5 years is just not possible.
However, as climate change related problems will keep increasing no matter what for the coming decades, as the pressure of public opinion can hence only rise with time (the only alternative is that the decrease of the emissions becomes a byproduct of a severe short term problem, but then we automatically have a reduction process !), and as the US will not bear to shift from the status of “light of the world”, that it long had, to the status of “shame of the world” that more and more people attribute to this country when evoking the climate problem, my conviction is that all this is only a matter of time: eventually US will be part of the process, just as Russia joined in, and therefore “something like Kyoto”, if not Kyoto itself, will come into force.
The only good question is too know whether this will happen soon enough to avoid things that we might regret later on…
Kyoto, a piece of cake ?
If the negocations about the ratification of Kyoto have been so harsh, is it because the objective is so hard to meet ? Well, not only…. It can be seen on the following table, for example, that for Russia it will be, on the short term, a “piece of cake”: the objective is a stablization of the emissions in 2008 compared to the 1990 level, and they were 47% below 1990 in 1999 ! (for CO2 alone, coming out of fossil fuels, and for 2003, they are probably closer to a 20% decrease compared to 1990, but it is still much below).
|Country||Year of last report to UNFCCC||Evolution last year/1990 (in %)||Kyoto Commitment (%)|
Emission of a part of the Annex I countries
(*) : figures exclude land use change (“sinks” and deforestation)
Source : UNFCCC
The “lack of will” to ratify Kyoto in Russia was not linked to the short term effort, which is non existant in this country, just as it is non existant in all the Eastern Europe countries, that all experienced a sharp drop of their emissions after the fall of their communist regimes. Just the opposite, some countries ratified this protocol though they are “way over” their 1990 emissions. This is the case, for example, for Italy (15% extra emissions in 2001 compared to the target), or Japan (15% extra emissions in 2001 compared to the target), Spain (20% extra emissions in 2001 compared to the target), and most of all Canada (over 40% extra emissions in 2001 compared to the target !).
Another interesting fact is that there is no direct link between the evolution of the emissions and the “ecological” reputation of the country: Sweden (with a high “ecological” reputation) has a very easy play (it had a 4% rise allowance, but decreased by almost 30% in 2001) when Austria and Denmark (that also have an “ecological” reputation, at least in France) are both more that 15% over their target. Finland and Norway, that could be considered as very close seen from the rest of the world (or at least southern Europe, France included) have experienced opposite evolutions !
In Europe, the only large contries that are still in line with the target for the time being are Germany, United Kingdom, and France. But beware: Kyoto is only a modest first step in the process !
To learn more
The following can be found on the UNFCCC website:
- the full text of the framework convention on climate change
- the full text of the Kyoto Protocol
- the current status of the ratification of the protocol