The basis of international policy for cutting down emissions of greenhouse gases is the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. It was signed in 1992 and came into effect in 1994.
It has as an "ultimate objective" the stabilising of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere "at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic (human-induced) interference with the climate system."
The convention accepts as a stated principle “common but differentiated responsibilities”, meaning that the industrialised nations, being responsible for by far the greatest share of emissions, both now and in the past, should take the lead in combating climate change and its damaging effects.
The Kyoto protocol
A first step towards quantified commitments as a means of attaining the aim of the climate convention was taken when the Kyoto Protocol was signed in 1997. It entered into force in February 2005.
The protocol embraces six greenhouse gases, carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide and industrial gases HFCs, PFCs and sulfur hexafluoride (SF6), that are combined in a "basket", so that individual gases are translated into CO2 equivalents, which are then added up to produce a single figure.
Emissions from aviation and marine bunker fuels used in international transport do not enter into any national undertakings.
First commitment period (2008-2012)
Under this protocol the industrialized nations have made legally binding undertakings with regard to their emissions of greenhouse gases for the period 1990 to 2008-2012 (average for the five years). Some countries will be allowed to increase their emissions, or freeze them at current levels, but most will have to make reductions (see table below). The overall reduction for the so-called Annex I countries (those listed in the table below) was expected to be 5.2 per cent when the protocol was signed.
|0%||New Zealand, Russia, Ukraine|
|-6%||Canada, Hungary, Japan, Poland|
|-8%||EU15 (collectively), Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Liechtenstein, Monaco, Romania, Switzerland, Slovakia and Slovenia.|
The United States – which accounted for a good third of the Annex I countries' emissions of carbon dioxide in 1990 and has the world's highest emissions per capita – abandoned the protocol in 2001, with the excuse that it excluded 80 per cent of the world's population and would, moreover, be detrimental to the US economy.
Canada signed and ratified the protocol, but withdrew from it in 2011.
Second commitment period (2013-2020)
In December 2012, the members of the protocol agreed upon a second commitment period under the Kyoto Protocol. The agreement consists of legally binding targets for 37 countries: Australia, all members of the European Union, Belarus, Croatia, Iceland, Kazakhstan, Norway, Switzerland, and Ukraine. The targets add up to emission reductions of 18 per cent below their 1990 levels for the eight-year commitment period.
New Zealand, Japan and Russia have refused national targets for a second commitment period.
The Copenhagen accord
At the final plenary in Copenhagen 2009 the UNFCCC took note of the Copenhagen Accord for all 194 members of the convention. It calls for countries to submit voluntary emission reduction targets, known as pledges. So far 86 countries have made pledges, accounting for about 80 per cent of global emissions.
The accord has been heavily criticised for not being legally binding. And even if all pledges are kept they will not be enough to protect the world from severe climate change.
It has been agreed that “a protocol, another legal instrument or an agreed outcome” which is “applicable to all Parties” should be achieved no later than 2015 and be implemented in 2020.
>> Further reading
Climate Action Network Europe. Umbrella for European environmental organizations. (external link)
UNFCCC. Official website of the UN Climate Convention, featuring convention documents, national reports and other information. (external link)
Political development. Chapter 9 in the secretariat's book Air and the Environment (2004).
The Kyoto protocol. Factsheet from the secretariat, February 2003.