Not just hot air — global diplomacy and the search for a successor to the Kyoto Protocol

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Article Published 09 Mar 2009 Last modified 11 May 2021
6 min read
Every winter the gates of Copenhagen's famous Tivoli Gardens, an old-world amusement park in the city centre, open to officially mark the beginning of the extended Christmas period. This December the twinkling lights of Tivoli will most likely be outshone by COP 15 — the most important global climate change meeting ever — as thousands of diplomats, politicians, business people, environmentalists, media and climate experts from around the globe flock to the Danish capital.

Climate change cuts across normal political and financial boundaries [...] The costs of inaction on climate change are immense both financially and morally. Poorer people will suffer first but the knock on effects will be felt by us all.

Professor Jacqueline McGlade, executive director of the EEA.

'COP 15' is a crucial step in a process dating back to 1992 and the UN's 'Earth Summit' in Rio de Janeiro. The Rio summit resulted in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) which forms the legal basis for global efforts to address climate change. Meetings of the Convention, known as Conferences of the Parties (COPs), have taken place every year since 1994.


Main political aims of COP15

The 4 main political essentials for a Copenhagen deal are:

  • Ambitious emission reduction targets for developed countries

  • Nationally appropriate mitigation actions of developing countries

  • Scaling up financial and technological support for both adaptation and mitigation

  • An effective institutional framework with governance structures that address the needs of developing countries

The deal is also expected to include actions to reduce emissions from the following large emission sources which are currently not covered by the Kyoto Protocol:

  • Deforestation in developing countries

  • International aviation and maritime transport


Kyoto — a first step in cutting emissions

The Kyoto Protocol, signed in 1997 as an extension of the UNFCCC, is a first step in the long-term emissions reduction effort that is needed to prevent dangerous levels of climate change. The first commitment period of the protocol effectively runs out in 2012 and 'COP 15' will be expected to produce an ambitious successor.

Kyoto is still significant because it set binding emission targets for the developed countries that ratified it. Under the protocol developed countries (except the US) agreed to reduce emissions by about 5 % from 1990 levels (by 2008-2012). For example, the 15 countries who were members of the EU (EU-15) in 1997 have a joint target to cut emissions by 8 % compared to the Kyoto 'base year'. They must achieve this target during the period 2008–2012.

Countries are expected to meet their Kyoto targets mainly by cutting emissions at home. However some other options are available to help them reach their target including buying of emission credits for projects that reduce emissions in developing countries (e.g. by implementing renewable energy).

'Kyoto' is generally regarded as successful. However, it has also been controversial mainly because the United States did not ratify it and because developing nations like China and India, which have rapidly developing economies, have no targets under the protocol.

Piecing the emissions puzzle together

The European Environment Agency (EEA) climate change team plays a role in the European effort, coordinating an accountancy job on EU emission data. Data from around Europe on emissions of so-called greenhouse gases are compiled and quality assured by countries and then collected, verified and analysed by EEA in two key reports that feed into the Kyoto process. ( Greenhouse gas emission trends and projections in Europe 2009, Annual European Community greenhouse gas inventory 1990–2007 and inventory report 2009)

Counting Gases

Each EU Member State must present an estimate of its emissions to the European Commission and the EEA. Consider the energy sector, which is responsible for more than 80 % of the total greenhouse gases emissions in the EU. Statistics on energy use, by type of fuel, are multiplied by 'emissions factors' and the energy emission is calculated by each country. The most recent EEA figures show that emissions from the EU-15 were 6.8 % below the 'base year'.

Looking ahead: beyond Kyoto

The buzz words, 'common but differentiated responsibility', first uttered at the Earth Summit in Rio, have popped up ever since in climate change debates. In simple language the phrase reflects the fact that developed nations have a greater responsibility for the greenhouse gases in our atmosphere.

These countries have been more industrialised, have created more emissions and should have legal targets to cut emissions before developing nations. However, also rapidly developing countries should act to keep their emission increases below their business as usual projections. It has proved very difficult to turn the concept into action acceptable to both industrialised and developing countries. Next December, a major task of the COP 15 will be to finally turn the rhetoric into a global emissions reduction effort beyond 2012 (after the Kyoto Protocol ends).

That means new targets for emissions reductions and most importantly the buy-in of America and major developing nations such as India and China. We already know the EU's position on future emissions reduction efforts: a 20 % cut in emissions by 2020, growing to a 30 % cut if other developed nations sign up at Copenhagen. All EU-27 Member States will be included.

The EU's 2020 target is almost equivalent to removing emissions from all transport across Europe. Imagine every truck, bus car, train boat and aeroplane disappearing — in terms of emissions. It's ambitious, but it must be because the challenge is serious.

Climate change cuts across normal political and financial boundaries. It is no longer a matter for one or two ministers around national cabinet tables. It's a matter for heads of government and should be treated as such.

Professor Jacqueline McGlade, executive director of the EEA.

Mitigation and adaptation

Greenhouse gases are causing our climate to change. Southern Europe is expected to become warmer and drier while the North and North West will most likely become milder and wetter.

Overall global temperatures will continue to rise. EU Member States agree that global temperature increases should be limited to 2 ºC above pre-industrial levels in order to avoid severe changes to our climate. This is the main goal of the global 'mitigation' effort. Mitigation efforts are focused on cutting emissions of 'greenhouse' gases.

Limiting temperature increases to 2 °C requires a reduction in global gas emissions of at least 50 % by 2050. It also requires developed countries (together) to reduce their emissions by between 25 and 40 % by 2020. However, even if emissions stop today, climate change will continue for a long time due to the historical build up of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Impacts are already clear in the Arctic, for example. We must begin to adapt. Adaptation means assessing and dealing with the vulnerability of human and natural systems. Climate change mitigation and adaptation are very closely linked. The more successful mitigation efforts are in cutting emissions, the less extensive our need for adaptation.

Developing countries face some of the greatest risks from the impacts of climate change such as droughts and coastal and river flooding. Many of these countries have little capacity to address these risks. An important pillar of any agreement in Copenhagen must be a strategy to help poorer countries begin to prepare for these risks as quickly as possible.


Efforts to fight climate change will have many benefits

The efforts required to meet the EU targets will also cut air pollution in Europe. For example, improvements in energy efficiency and increased use of renewable energy will both lead to reduced amounts of fossil fuel combustion — a key source of air pollution. These positive side effects are referred to as the 'co-benefits' of climate change policy.

In 2009, the EU agreed a Climate and Energy package to:

  • reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 20 % by 2020;
  • increase the share of renewable energy by 20 % by 2020;
  • improve energy efficiency by 20 % by 2020.

It has been estimated that the above package will cut the cost of meeting EU air pollution targets by EUR 8.5 billion per year. The savings to the European health services could be as much as six times that figure. Another key benefit of climate change mitigation action is the substantial increase in jobs in the area of renewable energy and energy efficiency in Europe and globally.


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