Was the Kyoto Protocol a Success or Failure?

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This year’s COP17 United Nations climate change summit in Durban, South Africa increased awareness of the uphill effort required to establish an international emissions reduction treaty. But Durban was just the latest in a long line of attempts to limit global warming.

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Almost 15 years ago, the world gathered in Japan to negotiate the Kyoto Protcol, a landmark international treaty to limit greenhouse gases. As the expiration date of the world’s first carbon cutting treaty draws closer, energyNOW! asks – was Kyoto a success or a failure? The full video is available below:

COP17 was considered a success by many observers, resulting in agreement by nations to forge a binding global climate deal by 2015 and a $100-billion-per-year fund overseen by the World Bank to help poor countries fight and adapt to climate change. But the COP17 agreements pale in comparison to both the scale of the Kyoto Protocol, and the initial reaction it received.

Kyoto’s roots go back to 1992, when the international community gathered at the Rio Earth Summit. Leaders there signed the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, an attempt to stabilize global greenhouse gas emissions. “There was a feeling that the way to proceed would be with an international agreement that had some teeth in it,” said Eileen  Claussen, President of the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions.

Claussen spent the next five years working as the lead U.S. climate negotiator to convert the Rio framework into a treaty with legally binding greenhouse gas targets. She says the major obstacle to international agreement quickly became clear – economic interests, especially in the developing nations like China, India, and Brazil.

Those concerns ultimately hamstrung the Kyoto Protocol. Even though it included comprehensive goals that set binding targets to reduce emissions an average of five percent against 1990 levels by 2012, it fell short in signatories. Only 37 industrialized nations signed the Protocol, committing to stabilize emissions.

Optimism initially abounded over Kyoto. In his 1998 State of the Union Address, President Bill Clinton said “our overriding environmental challenge is the worldwide problem of climate change,” and signed the Protocol. But Congress was overwhelmingly opposed because of economic fears, and Clinton never sent it to the Senate for ratification.

President George W. Bush later withdrew America completely from the Protocol, saying the treaty was “fatally flawed in fundamental ways.” But even without U.S. participation, the global community moved forward. “The rest of the world, in a pretty unusual step, decided they would continue negotiating the protocol, which eventually came into force without the U.S.,” said Claussen.

Even though most Kyoto Protocol signatories succeeded in cutting emissions, worldwide atmospheric CO2 levels have soared, now up 35 percent since 1997. Most of that increase has come from the same large developing countries that were not included in the protocol – China and India are now the world’s first and third largest emitters, with the U.S. falling from first to second.

In Durban, the European Union pledged to extend its Kyoto Protocol targets until 2017, but many countries will let their targets expire next year. These defections threaten to limit reductions even further – in the 1990s Kyoto accounted for 33 percent of world CO2 emissions. After 2012, it will only account for 15 percent.

So, while talks continue through the UN Framework and nations have pledged to negotiate binding reduction targets, the same obstacles remain and emissions are higher than ever. “The need to do something on a global basis has never been clearer,” said Claussen. “But the ability to actually get there, well this is a very difficult period.”

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