It's an important first step toward tackling the greatest challenge ever to face humanity. Or maybe it's a complete failure. Maybe the United States sabotaged it. Al Gore wants to see it put in the grave as quickly as possible.
It's the Kyoto Protocol, and it turns 10 today.
On Dec. 11, 1997, delegates to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change approved the Kyoto Protocol, so named because the negotiations took place in Kyoto, Japan. It grew out of the Framework Convention itself, which had been adopted in 1992, and it wasn't until 2001 that the rules were written, and it won't be until 2008 that it actually takes full, enforceable effect.
The Kyoto Protocol was the first international treaty that required countries to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions (the Framework Convention only encouraged them to do so). But it applied only to industrialized countries, not developing nations, and Australia and the United States were notable industrial powerhouses that never ratified it. (Australia made up for it when new Prime Minister Kevin Rudd ratified it as one of his first official acts just last week.)
The nations that ratified the treaty committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 5% below 1990 levels by 2012. It's thought that a 50-90% reduction below 1990 levels by 2050 will ultimately be necessary to prevent a doubling of atmospheric carbon, and an average temperature increase of at least 2 degrees (C), which is enough to cause some catastrophic changes.
Because the world's largest producers of greenhouse gases, the U.S. and China (along with Indonesia, among others), aren't bound to reduce their pollution (the U.S. because it never ratified the treaty, and China and other developing nations because they could sign without committing to any pollution reductions) the treaty has been called a failure. Because Russia and other former Soviet nations met their obligations not through energy conservation or renewable energy investments but through the economic collapse of the Soviet Union, the treaty has been called a failure. Because emissions from industrialized nations even Kyoto signatories are at an all time high, the treaty has been called a failure.
Even Al Gore, as staunch a supporter of international agreements to address climate change as you will find, wants to see Kyoto buried almost before it learns to walk, so that a more aggressive treaty could take its place.
But Kyoto also got the world to where it is today. Delegates from more than 180 nations are in Bali. They have agreed to new efforts to help developed nations adapt to the inevitable changes that will result from global warming, and they are making headway on some other issues reducing tariffs on green energy technology and paying for forest preservation in developing nations, for instance. There's less agreement, in large part due to U.S. opposition, to setting a hard target of a 25-40% reduction in greenhouse gases by 2020.
The stakes are higher in Bali, because the world is warmer, the science clearer and the cost no lower. Kyoto could never achieve what Bali might. But Bali would have been impossible without Kyoto. The bigger test of Kyoto's success will be Bali's, and we may not know the results for another 10 years.
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