Kyoto TreatyThe Kyoto treaty is heralded as one of the most significant pieces of global legislation in the fight against climate change helping to make the world a greener place. Having an understanding of the larger political movements taking place in the green debate helps contextualise smaller contributions we should be making individually to reduce our carbon footprint. But what are main objectives of the protocol, what are the biggest challenges and what does the future look like for the Kyoto agreement? Here are the main issues around the treaty…

Background to Kyoto

Kyoto came about as a result of much earlier concern over greenhouse gases, CO2 emissions and the climate change. The Earth Summit held in Rio in 1992 brought together 150 different nations to discuss the key issues – and an agreement was reached that nations would reduce emissions by 2000.

Unfortunately the agreement wasn’t binding or set in law, and emissions continued to rise as a whole. This set the stage for nations to come together again, this time to discuss a binding protocol, in Kyoto.

Key Elements of the Kyoto Treaty

Greenhouse gases: Kyoto sets out limits on the emissions of the principle greenhouse gases, including carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, hydrofluorocarbons, perfluorocarbons and sulphur hexafluoride. Percentage targets have been set for reducing or limiting emissions of these gases for 35 developed countries. These figures are reductions to the levels recorded in 1990 as a universal benchmark. For the UK and EU countries, this figure is a 12.5% reduction by 2012.

Emissions market: The protocol also allows emissions trading among industry in these 35 countries. For example, an industrial plant is given a limit to the emissions they can output in a single year. If they come in under target, they can sell credit to other plants who have exceeded their agreed targets.

Ethical credits: In a similar way, a nation is also able to earn credits for developing schemes and projects that reduce emissions.

Carbon offsetting: A nation can also offset protocol obligations by arranging projects and schemes in the developing world.

The Controversial Issues

While the vast majority of nations present at the original Kyoto and subsequent Earth Summit meetings acknowledge that climate change is a global threat and measures should be taken to tackle it and agree in principle to the main objectives, only 35 have actually ratified the agreement. This brings into question the whole validity of the protocol. Crucially, the world’s largest carbon emitter, the US, is amongst those who have not ratified the Kyoto Treaty, which means that global emissions aren’t near overall targets.

On a national level, many environmental groups have called for the UK to do more to reduce their carbon output and enshrine their targets into UK law, and not just international legislation. A Climate Change Bill has been introduced as an answer to this.

The Future for Kyoto

So far, with the 2012 targets ever looming, many countries still have some way to go before they meet their agreed targets. One key breakthrough has been the US’s acknowledgement that climate change needs to be tackled urgently. A non-binding agreement was reached in February 2007 at the G8+5 Climate Change Dialogue in Washington, which, it is hoped, will form the follow up treaty to Kyoto.