Recently, the Bali Climate Talks generated a lot of media attention about global warming and the Kyoto Protocol. But amid the talk of technology transfer and carbon caps, it occurred to me that it’s easy to get lost in the details. The basic premise of the Kyoto Protocol and its intended purpose are not always clear. So I asked my friend, Sikina Jinnah, a doctoral student in Environmental, Science, Policy, and Management focusing on International Environmental Politics at the University of California, Berkeley three simple questions:
1. What is the purpose of the Kyoto protocol?
2. Why won’t the U.S. ratify it?
3. What is the future of Kyoto when it expires, or with a new Administration?
The Kyoto Protocol was born out of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC). As is typical in international environmental law, states first negotiate a very general framework convention to agree that there is a problem that needs to be addressed by the international community. Then they negotiate a more detailed protocol (in this case the Kyoto Protocol) to decide how they are going to address that problem. The UNFCC encourages countries to stabilize greenhouse gas emissions; the Kyoto Protocol commits them to do it.
The goal of the UNFCC and the Protocol is “stabilization of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system.” Sikina told me that the short version is this: developed countries must reduce greenhouse gas emissions by approximately 5 percent below 1990 levels. This has to be completed by the end of the first commitment period in 2012.
The Kyoto Protocol also includes provisions to permit emissions trading among nations and clean development mechanisms. These encourage industrialized nations to transfer technology to developing countries to help them reduce emissions.
Why Won’t the United States Sign/Ratify It?
The United States is a party to the UNFCC but not the Kyoto Protocol. However, we have signed the Kyoto protocol (Bill Clinton did so in 1998). However, a signature doesn’t mean all that much. In order for an international treaty to be recognized by domestic law, it has be signed by the president but also ratified by Congress. Ratification ensures implementation. Congress has been clear from the start that they will not ratify the KP. Why? According to Sikina, the U.S. position has changed a bit over the years. First, the Bush administration said that we don’t have enough scientific evidence to know that climate change really exists and that it is as important as the UNFCC makes it out to be. This position has been refuted (see, Fuzzy Climate Change). Secondly, the U.S. had a problem with the fact that developed countries were being asked to reduce emissions but had no requirements for developing countries, in particular, China and India.
The reason for placing the onus on developed nations, according to the UNFCC, is twofold. Firstly, those developed countries will have an easier time paying the cost of cutting emissions. Secondly, “developed countries have historically contributed more to the problem by emitting larger amounts of greenhouse gases per person than in developing countries.”
The United States contends that not requiring rapidly developing countries like China and India to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions will put us at an economic disadvantage.
Future of the Kyoto Protocol
The Bali climate change conference ended in the adoption of the Bali roadmap, which outlines what is going to happen when the Kyoto Protocol expires in 2012. Because we are in an election year, the forecast really looks beyond our current president. With a new Administration and new pressure to address the issue of climate change, a change in Washington will be eminent. However, it remains to be seen if Congress will go along with this change.
However, many states are not waiting for the federal government to act. In California, Governor Schwarzenegger signed AB 32, a bill that aims to reduce the state’s greenhouse gas emissions by 25 percent by 2020. Actions at the city, state, and regional level from both private and public sector show an effort to address climate change, regardless of our inaction in the international setting (see, Greenhouse Gas Emissions, States Taking a Stand).