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Climate Change Information Sheet 21

The Kyoto Protocol

The Kyoto Protocol to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change will strengthen the international response to climate change. Adopted by consensus at the third session of the Conference of the Parties (COP-3) in December 1997, it contains legally binding emissions targets for Annex I (industrialized) countries. By arresting and reversing the upward trend in greenhouse gas emissions that started in these countries 150 years ago, the Protocol promises to move the international community one step closer to achieving the Convention’s ultimate objective of preventing "dangerous anthropogenic [man-made] interference with the climate system".

The developed countries are to reduce their collective emissions of six key greenhouse gases by at least 5%. This group target will be achieved through cuts of 8% by Switzerland, most Central and East European states, and the European Union (the EU will meet its group target by distributing different rates among its member states); 7% by the US; and 6% by Canada, Hungary, Japan, and Poland. Russia, New Zealand, and Ukraine are to stabilize their emissions, while Norway may increase emissions by up to 1%, Australia by up to 8%, and Iceland 10%. The six gases are to be combined in a "basket", with reductions in individual gases translated into "CO2 equivalents" that are then added up to produce a single figure.

Each country’s emissions target must be achieved by the period 2008 - 2012. It will be calculated as an average over the five years. "Demonstrable progress" must be made by 2005. Cuts in the three most important gases – carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4), and nitrous oxide (N20) – will be measured against a base year of 1990 (with exceptions for some countries with economies in transition). Cuts in three long-lived industrial gases – hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), perfluorocarbons (PFCs), and sulphur hexafluoride (SF6) – can be measured against either a 1990 or 1995 baseline. (A major group of industrial gases, chlorofluorocarbons, or CFCs, are dealt with under the 1987 Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer.)

Actual emission reductions will be much larger than 5%. Compared to emissions levels projected for the year 2000, the richest industrialized countries (OECD members) will need to reduce their collective output by about 10%. This is because many of these countries will not succeed in meeting their earlier non-binding aim of returning emissions to 1990 levels by the year 2000, and their emissions have in fact risen since 1990. While the countries with economies in transition have experienced falling emissions since 1990, this trend is now reversing. Therefore, for the developed countries as a whole, the 5% Protocol target represents an actual cut of around 20% when compared to the emissions levels that are projected for 2010 if no emissions-control measures are adopted.

Countries will have some flexibility in how they make and measure their emissions reductions. In particular, an international "emissions trading" regime will be established allowing industrialized countries to buy and sell emissions credits amongst themselves. They will also be able to acquire "emission reduction units" by financing certain kinds of projects in other developed countries. In addition, a "clean development mechanism" for promoting sustainable development will enable industrialized countries to finance emissions-reduction projects in developing countries and to receive credit for doing so. The use of these three mechanisms is to be supplemental to domestic action.

They will pursue emissions cuts in a wide range of economic sectors. The Protocol encourages governments to cooperate with one another, improve energy efficiency, reform the energy and transportation sectors, promote renewable forms of energy, phase out inappropriate fiscal measures and market imperfections, limit methane emissions from waste management and energy systems, and manage carbon "sinks" such as forest, croplands and grazing lands. The methodologies for measuring changes in net emissions (calculated as emissions minus removals of CO2) due to the use of sinks are particularly complex.

The Protocol will advance the implementation of existing commitments by all countries. Under the Convention, both developed and developing countries agree to take measures to limit emissions and promote adaptation to future climate change impacts; submit information on their national climate change programmes and inventories; promote technology transfer; cooperate on scientific and technical research; and promote public awareness, education, and training. The Protocol also reiterates the need to provide "new and additional" financial resources to meet the "agreed full costs" incurred by developing countries in carrying out these commitments; a Kyoto Protocol Adaptation Fund was established in 2001.

The Conference of the Parties (COP) of the Convention will also serve as the meeting of the Parties (MOP) for the Protocol. This structure is expected to reduce costs and facilitate the management of the intergovernmental process. Parties to the Convention that are not Parties to the Protocol will be able to participate in Protocol-related meetings as observers.

The new agreement will be periodically reviewed. The Parties will take "appropriate action" on the basis of the best available scientific, technical, and socio-economic information. The first review will take place at the second COP session serving the Protocol. Talks on commitments for the post-2012 period must start by 2005.

The Protocol was opened for signature for one year starting 16 March 1998. It will enter into force 90 days after it has been ratified by at least 55 Parties to the Convention, including developed countries representing at least 55% of the total 1990 carbon dioxide emissions from this group. Political disagreements in late 2000 and 2001 over how to implement the Protocol have slowed down the rate of ratification. In the meantime, governments will continue to carry out their commitments under the Climate Change Convention. They will also work on many practical issues relating to the Protocol and its future implementation at their regular COP and subsidiary body meetings.

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