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In Depth

Kyoto and beyond

Kyoto Protocol FAQs

Last Updated Feb. 14, 2007

Depending on who you talk to, the Kyoto Protocol is either a) an expensive, bureaucratic solution to fix a problem that may not even exist; or b) the last, best chance to save the world from the "time bomb" of global warming.

Those are the extremes in what has become a polarizing debate that has engaged governments, consumers, environmental groups and industry all over the world for more than 20 years.

The problem the Kyoto Protocol is trying to address is climate change, and more specifically, the speed at which the earth is warming up. Whether Kyoto can accomplish this is very much a matter of debate.

For the record, when the Kyoto Protocol went into effect Feb. 16, 2005, 141 countries had ratified it, including every major industrialized country – except the United States, Australia and Monaco. The U.S. is responsible for about a quarter of the emissions that have been blamed for global warming.

Two of the world's fastest growing polluters — India and China — have signed on. But because they are considered developing countries, with other serious problems to overcome, they have been given a pass on the first Kyoto round and do not have to begin making emissions cuts until after 2012.

Is the climate changing?

The United Nations certainly thinks so. And so do most (but not all) scientists who study climate.

In February 2007, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a report that said global warming was "very likely" – meaning an at least 90 per cent certainty – caused by human activity.

The report has some telling predictions. The document forecasts that the average temperature will rise 1.8 C to 4 C by the year 2100 and sea levels will creep up by 17.8 centimetres to 58.4 centimetres by the end of the century. If polar sheets continue to melt, another rise of 9.9 centimetres to 19.8 centimetres is possible.

Past reports from the organization have examined the changes in the previous century. In a 2001 report, the IPCC said the average global surface temperature had risen by about 0.6 degrees since 1900, with much of that rise coming in the 1990s – likely the warmest decade in 1,000 years.

The IPCC also found that snow cover since the late 1960s has decreased by about 10 per cent and lakes and rivers in the Northern Hemisphere are frozen over about two weeks less each year than they were in the late 1960s. Mountain glaciers in non-polar regions have also been in "noticeable retreat" in the 20th century, and the average global sea level has risen between 0.1 and 0.2 metres since 1900.

Simply put, the world is getting warmer and the temperature is rising faster than ever.


What are the very long-term climate predictions?

The IPCC predicts more floods, intense storms, heat waves and droughts. Its study forecasts a rise of 1.4 to 5.8 degrees Celsius in the global mean surface temperature over the next 100 years, with developing countries most vulnerable.

Other studies are even more apocalyptic. A report commissioned by the World Wildlife Fund predicts "dangerous" warming of the earth's surface in as little as 20 years, with the Arctic warming so much that its polar ice could melt in the summer by the year 2100, pushing polar bears close to extinction.

The Arctic Climate Impact Assessment predicts that caribou, musk ox and reindeer would find their habitats severely reduced. Northern aboriginal peoples around the world would find their way of life changed forever, the study said.


What is causing the world to warm up?

Greenhouse Gases

99 per cent of our atmosphere is made up of only two gases: 78 per cent nitrogen and 21 per cent oxygen. They don�t really affect the climate regulation on the planet.

The six trace gases that are blamed for global warming make up only 1 per cent of gases in the atmosphere. The gases created mainly by human activities are:

  • Carbon dioxide
  • Methane
  • Nitrous oxide
  • Sulphur hexafluoride
  • Hydrofluorocarbons
  • Perfluorocarbons

Most scientists blame industrialization. Since the 19th century, the richer countries of the Northern Hemisphere have been pumping out ever-increasing volumes of heat-trapping greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide. Industrial societies burn fossil fuels in their power plants, homes, factories and cars. They clear forests (trees absorb carbon dioxide) and they build big cities.

Greenhouse gases allow solar radiation to pass through the earth's atmosphere. But after the earth absorbs part of that radiation, it reflects the rest back. That's where the problem lies. Particles of greenhouse gas absorb the radiation, heating up, and warming the atmosphere. The increasing levels of greenhouse gases are causing too much energy to be trapped – the so-called greenhouse effect.


Isn't there a lot of debate over the whole issue of climate change?

Greenhouse gas emissions targets apply to 38 industrialized countries and "economies in transition"

For a list of these countries and their emissions targets, click here: UNFCCC

While scientists tend to agree that the earth is warming, not all agree that rising greenhouse gas emissions are the culprits. A vocal minority say the earth's climate warms and cools in long cycles that have nothing to do with greenhouse gases.

Some dispute the data concerning rising sea levels and rising temperatures. Others dispute the projections, which are based on computer models. But again, those views are those of a minority. Most climatologists agree that global warming is causing unprecedented climate change�and that things will get worse unless something is done.


What does the Kyoto Protocol require?

The Kyoto Protocol was adopted in late 1997 to address the problem of global warming by reducing the world's greenhouse gas emissions. It is considered a first step and is not expected to solve the world's climate change problems by the time its first commitment period ends in 2012.

Kyoto sets out an agenda for reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 5.2 per cent from 1990 levels (although "economies in transition," like Russia, can pick different base years). Some reports say the lower target is to be met by 2010. But that's shorthand for the actual target date, which is to achieve those emission cuts over a five-year average (2008 to 2012).

All countries are not treated equally by Kyoto. Canada, for instance, has committed to chopping its greenhouse gas emissions by six per cent. The U.S. target was a seven per cent reduction. But in 2001, one of the first acts of newly-elected President George W. Bush was to formally withdraw the U.S. from Kyoto. Bush said the U.S. would not ratify the treaty because it would damage the U.S. economy and major developing nations like China and India were not covered by its provisions.

Kyoto also allows some industrialized countries to make no cuts, or even to emit more greenhouse gases than they did in 1990. Russia's and New Zealand's emission levels are capped at their 1990 levels. Iceland can emit up to 10 per cent more greenhouse gases, Australia eight per cent more. (Like the U.S., Australia has announced it won't ratify Kyoto). Developing nations are not subject to any emissions reduction caps under Kyoto.

Much of the criticism around the Kyoto Protocol is over political realities and the limitations of the treaty. Critics say a five per cent cut will accomplish little, especially with the United States not on board. Some Canadian critics say our economy will pay a heavy price for meeting our Kyoto commitments because we'll have to compete with an American economy that faces no such restrictions. Many doubt that Canada's target cuts can be reached in Kyoto's first phase that ends in 2012.

Others say the money to implement Kyoto would be much better spent on improving land usage and infrastructure in poor countries.


Does the American decision to pull out of the Kyoto Protocol doom the deal?

The American decision was not enough to kill Kyoto. One of President Bush's first acts was to announce that he would not send Kyoto to the Senate for ratification - mainly because the deal had little chance of being passed. He also argued Kyoto would be bad for the U.S. economy and would be ineffective, because major developing nations like India and China were not covered by its provisions.

But that didn't stop world ratification of the protocol. Russia came onboard on Sept. 30, 2004. That gave the deal enough support to come into effect on Feb. 16, 2005.

Still, no country on the planet is responsible for producing as much greenhouse gas as the United States. Without significant action from the Americans, Kyoto's targets would be difficult to reach.


How are emission targets met?

Emission targets can be met several ways. The most obvious way is to actually reduce greenhouse gas emissions – more fuel-efficient cars, fewer coal-fired power plants. But Kyoto also allows for three other mechanisms.

Countries can buy emissions credits from countries that don't need them to stay below their emissions quotas. A country can also earn emissions credits through something called joint implementation, which allows a country to benefit by carrying out something like a reforestation project in another industrialized country or "economy in transition." There's also what's called a clean development mechanism that encourages investment in developing countries by promoting the transfer of environmentally-friendly technologies.

Each developed country must develop its own strategy to meet its Kyoto commitments. Industrial countries that ratify Kyoto are legally bound to see that their emissions do not exceed their 2008/2012 targets.


Is Canada still planning to meet its Kyoto commitments?

In a word - no. The election of a Conservative government in 2006 brought about a reversal in Canada's climate change policy. The specific emissions reduction targets of the Kyoto Protocol - at least as far as Canada was concerned - would be abandoned.

In April 2005, then prime minister Paul Martin and his Liberal government unveiled what they called Moving Forward on Climate Change: A Plan for Honouring Our Kyoto Commitment. Under their revised plan, the Liberals pledged to spend $10 billion over seven years to help Canada cut its average greenhouse gas emissions by 270 megatonnes a year from 2008 to 2012.

However, when Prime Minister Stephen Harper and the Conservative government tabled the federal budget in May 2006, there wasn't a single mention of the Kyoto Protocol. Finance Minister Jim Flaherty repeated his pledge to develop a $2-billion, five-year "made-in-Canada" climate change plan, but there were no details. The budget also set aside $370 million over two years for a new tax credit that would benefit commuters who buy monthly transit passes.

In September 2006, Environment Minister Rona Ambrose said Canada had no chance of meeting its targets under the Kyoto Protocol. She accused the Liberals of wasting $1 billion on emission-reduction efforts without keeping the country on track to meet its promises under the international agreement. "Kyoto did not fail this country," Ambrose said. "The Liberal Party of Canada failed Kyoto."

Ambrose said the government would instead act on greenhouse gases and other pollution with new targets in a proposed clean air act, announced in October 2006.

The Clean Air Act targets would be "intensity-based," meaning that environmental emissions would be relative to the economic output of various industries. That means even though individual emission limits for each barrel of oil or piece of coal could be lowered, if production increases, the overall amount of greenhouse gas emissions and air pollutants could grow.

Critics of intensity-based targets say the approach allows heavily polluting industries, such as Alberta's oilsands, to continue to grow and pollute while remaining under government-imposed limitations.

The bill does not set short-term targets to cut greenhouse gas emissions, and its emissions regulations on large polluters don't take effect until 2010.


What happens if a country fails to reach its Kyoto emissions target?

The Kyoto Protocol contains measures to assess performance and progress. It also contains some penalties. Countries that fail to meet their emissions targets by the end of the first commitment period (2012) must make up the difference plus a penalty of 30 per cent in the second commitment period. Their ability to sell credits under emissions trading will also be suspended.

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