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A brief history of climate talks: looking back, looking forward

by Setsuko Kamiya

Industrialization in the 19th century brought many of the benefits we enjoy in the modern world, changing the structure of society, industry and economy. But nearly two centuries later, one of the downsides of the Industrial Revolution is gaining more attention: global warming.

Not a day goes by without headlines on the threat posed by greenhouse gas emissions — a new report on the consequences of global warning, updates on the prospects for the United Nations COP15 conference on climate change from Dec. 7 to 18.

A closer look at the history of the biggest-ever international conference on climate change shows just how difficult a task it will be for U.N. member states to sign a binding agreement to curb greenhouse gas emissions, despite universal agreement on the need to fight global warming.

A preliminary meeting on the COP (conference of parties) was held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, at the Earth Summit in June 1992.

At that meeting, 154 countries signed the Framework Convention on Climate Change (FCCC), a treaty that committed signatories to voluntary cuts in greenhouse gas emissions, with the goal of bringing those emissions down to 1990 levels by the year 2000.

The convention recognized the global climate system as a shared resource whose stability can be affected by carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. But since developed counties were the main emitters of greenhouse gases, much of the convention was devoted to recommendations for those countries, objectives that they should set, and commitments that they should fulfill.

The convention entered into force March 21, 1994, after ratification by more than 50 countries in December 1993. To date, 192 countries have ratified the convention, according to the FCCC. The first meeting of the signatories, COP1, took place in Berlin in 1995.

At the end of the meeting, a U.N. ministerial declaration known as the “Berlin Mandate” was issued, committing the parties to a comprehensive menu of actions they could select from to tackle climate change, depending on their needs.

At the COP2, in Geneva in 1996, it was agreed that the protocol under negotiation on climate change would commit the parties to achieving the goals laid out in the earlier meetings.

It was not until COP3 in Kyoto in 1997, five years after the preliminary meeting in Rio, that industrialized nations finally agreed to numerical targets for cuts in carbon dioxide emissions.

The Kyoto Protocol “marks a first major international step in preventing further global warming from occurring,” said Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto, who hosted the meeting.

The Kyoto Protocol committed major greenhouse gas emitters to an average reduction of 5 percent compared with 1990 levels between 2008 and 2012, with the European Union agreeing to an 8 percent reduction, the United States to a 7 percent cut and Japan to a cut of 6 percent.

After an all-night negotiation, the parties adopted the Kyoto Protocol on Dec. 11, setting legally binding targets for cutting greenhouse gases for 37 industrialized countries and the EU.

The protocol, recognizing that developed countries, through their industrial activities, are primarily responsible for the high level of greenhouse gas emissions, imposes a heavier responsibility on them for reductions. It commits all parties to stabilizing their emissions under the principle of “common but differentiated responsibilities.”

The protocol obliges signatories to meet their targets primarily through national efforts. But it allows for the flexible use of market-based mechanisms to meet the targets in the most cost-effective manner, through emissions trading, joint implementation of projects and the Clean Development Mechanism, which allows developed countries to count emissions reductions projects in developing countries against their own emissions.

Despite Hashimoto’s boast, the road to implementation of the Kyoto Protocol has been rocky.

Negotiations on a “Plan of Action” to achieve the goals set forth in the protocol, which were supposed to be wrapped up by 2000, broke down at the COP6 meeting in The Hague.

Nations were deadlocked on several key issues, including details on an international emissions trading system, financial assistance to developing countries and the rules for counting emission reductions from “carbon sinks” such as forests.

An agreement was finally hammered out in the Bonn Agreement of 2001. It covered rules for the market-based mechanisms established under the protocol, funding of developing countries’ climate change efforts, crediting of carbon dioxide absorption by forests and other sinks, and the compliance mechanism for the Kyoto Protocol targets.

But the effectiveness of the still-young treaty was thrown into doubt by the world’s biggest greenhouse gas emitter at the time, the U.S., walking away from the international framework in March 2001.

“Our economy has slowed down in our country,” U.S. President George W. Bush was quoted as saying. “We also have an energy crisis. And the idea of placing caps on carbon dioxide does not make economic sense for America.”

Without U.S. participation, the American delegation was relegated to observer status, as negotiations moved forward.

Meanwhile, with Russia, the third-largest emitter, ratifying the treaty in 2004, the minimum of 55 countries accounting for at least 55 percent of global emissions had signed on, bringing the Kyoto Protocol into force. That year also marked the 10th anniversary of the FCCC and COP10 in Buenos Aires, Argentina, celebrated the occasion.

On Feb. 16, 2005, 90 days after Russia’s ratification, the Kyoto Protocol took full effect. As of November this year, 185 parties to the convention have ratified the agreement, according to the FCCC.

COP11 was held in Montreal between November and December 2005. It marked the first time a successor to the Kyoto Protocol, which expires in 2013, was discussed.

Given the meager results of the Kyoto Protocol in terms of actual emissions cuts, a new framework extending beyond 2013 was seen as the best way of dispelling the gloom and restoring momentum to the fight against climate change. That is what countries have been doing in the past several years.

In 2007, the international community took a decisive step in Bali, Indonesia, in their discussion for a “post-Kyoto” treaty. Parties at the COP13 negotiations adopted the “Bali Action Plan,” which committed them to a follow-up agreement to the Kyoto Protocol by the time of COP15 in Copenhagen, Denmark, in December 2009.

New governments have taken office around the world, including the administrations of U.S. President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama, both of whom have taken a more proactive stance on climate change than their predecessors. That has raised hopes for an effective political agreement to be reached in Copenhagen.

Whether rising industrial powers such as China and India, which have become major greenhouse gas emitters are willing to assume some of the burden of cutting emissions will also be critical to the success of a post-2013 framework.

Strong political commitment is necessary not only for a post-Kyoto Protocol agreement but also to create a road map for its implementation process.