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The Kyoto Protocol

Over 160 nations, including the U.S., signed the UN-brokered protocol, but only 30 countries have since ratified it, none of them industrialized. President Bush recently announced that the U.S. is abandoning the treaty. He said he was still interested in combating climate change, but has not offered any alternative strategies.

Delegates met in The Hague, Netherlands, last November to work out the details of implementing the protocol, with the aim of prompting ratification. But no deal was reached. Delegates from Europe and the U.S. blamed each other for the stalemate and subsequent negotiations have also faltered. Another conference on Kyoto is scheduled for July in Bonn, Germany.

The Kyoto Protocol requires developed countries to reduce their collective greenhouse gas emissions to five percent below 1990 levels by 2008-2012. These countries include most major industrialized nations and most of central and eastern Europe.

Each nation has specific reduction targets. The United States, for example, must reduce greenhouse gas emissions by seven percent of 1990 levels, Japan by six percent and the European Union by an average of eight percent. The agreement calls for cuts in carbon dioxide (the most prevalent and potent greenhouse gas), methane, nitrous oxide and man-made hydrofluorocarbons, perfluorocarbons and sulphur hexafluoride.

At the heart of the discussions in The Hague were several mechanisms established by the Kyoto Protocol to help nations meet their reduction targets. They help lower the cost of reduction compliance by creating an emissions trading regime and methods for countries to earn credit towards their targets. Talks at The Hague stalled on the details, especially the issue of credits for so-called carbon absorbing sinks, such as forests.

An emissions trading system allows developed countries to buy and sell emissions credits with one another. Nations that reduce emissions beyond their Kyoto target can sell their excess emissions credits to other countries trying to reach their target. The idea is that the system will reduce the overall cost of meeting the targets. Reductions will be made where they are cheapest: countries finding it difficult or expensive to reach their targets can buy emissions credits from countries that have more easily or cheaply achieved theirs.

The Kyoto Protocol also outlines two strategies that allow developed countries to reach their reduction targets by contributing to emissions-reducing projects in other countries. Through the clean development mechanism, industrialized countries earn reduction credit for investments in projects in developing countries. Joint implementation is similar to the clean development mechanism, but credit is earned when industrialized countries invest in other industrialized nations.

Some of the details discussed at The Hague focused on what kinds of projects would be eligible for the clean development mechanism and joint implementation. For instance, would nuclear power plants, which do not emit greenhouse gases but have their own controversies, count? Delegates also debated the extent to which nations could use the flexibility mechanisms to reach their targets. Kyoto called for mechanisms to be “supplemental” to domestic efforts.

The ultimate sticking point at The Hague was the role of carbon absorbing sinks. The United States led a group of countries advocating reduction credit for the carbon dioxide naturally absorbed by forests and farmlands. The E.U. wants to limit credit for carbon sinks, arguing countries should cut emissions at home.

If Kyoto’s details are agreed to, the Protocol must be ratified by 55 nations to enter into force. Those nations must include industrialized nations that account for at least 55 percent of total carbon dioxide emissions in 1990.

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