Developing policy on climate change

Making international agreements on limiting greenhouse gas emissions
Ratifying climate conventions

Emissions of greenhouse gases cannot be cut overnight. Sound policies are the result of a learning process, long negotiations and trial and error.

A number of approaches on a global framework for climate stability based on precaution and equity have been proposed, including the: (1) 'historical' method, under which a nation's future emissions goals would be determined by its past GHG output; (2) carbon-intensity approach, in which future emissions goals would be indexed to GDP; and (3) Contraction and convergence", which would aim to achieve equal per capita emissions for all nations by an agreed date.


At the UN Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro in June 1992, 155 states signed a Framework Convention on Climate Change that sets as a goal the stabilization of atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations at a level that does not interfere with the climate system. As a first step, developed countries acknowledged the importance of returning to 1990 greenhouse gas emission levels by the year 2000. The Convention came into force on 21 March 1994, after it was ratified by 50 states.

The Third Session of the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP3) was held in Kyoto, Japan, in December 1997. COP3 was perhaps the most important environmental conference since the Earth Summit, where countries negotiated emission targets in greenhouse gases. These targets dealt with issues at the very heart of development, such as energy and new technologies. The conference followed two others, COP1 in Berlin (March 1995), and COP2 in Geneva (July, 1996). COP4 was in Buenos Aires in November 1998.

At COP3, the world's governments took a first step in the world's struggle to slow down global climate change. They adopted the Kyoto Protocol which agreed to reduce emissions of 6 main greenhouse gases by 2012. These gases are considered to be the main culprits for the current change in the global climate. As such, this Protocol is one important step in a long process to construct a collective global response to climate change. Its birth was made possible by the scientific work of scientists of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a UN body of about 2500 scientists working to elaborate a scientific consensus on climate change, and by years of awareness raising by environmental organizations and concerned citizens, scientists and politicians. Its survival and success will likewise depend on continued interest and political support.

But COP3 was marred by a very public display of disagreement and many observers felt that the loopholes left by the Kyoto Protocol could seriously undermine the agreement. Three strands emerged during the meeting as major sources of disagreement. First, there was the question of what level of emissions reductions would prove acceptable. The United States delegates proposed a target of stabilization by around 2010. The European Union argued for an emissions reduction of 15% by that time. The related question of the baseline year, 1990 or 1995, also proved contentious. The suggestion that 1995 should be adopted was vigorously opposed on the ground that it rewarded those nations who had not honoured the original obligation in the Convention to 1990. There was also disagreement over the issue of flexibility, with southern delegates seeing emission trading as a way for industrialized countries to avoid responsibility for their own emissions. The third area of tension was also between North and South. Whilst the Berlin Mandate explicitly excluded developing nations from any control commitment at this stage, US delegates were constrained by the Senate to make involvement of the major developing nations a condition of any emissions reduction agreement.

Nine months after the Kyoto Protocol was adopted it was noted that: (1) very few countries have put in place any policies to reduce their emissions; (2) none of the major polluting countries have yet ratified the Protocol; (3) emissions are going up, and the global climate is still changing; and (4) some very difficult questions remain to be resolved by the negotiators.

After a difficult and protracted period of continuing negotiations, a Modified Kyoto Agreement was agreed in Bonn in 2001, but without several large and important countries (USA, China, India etc). Thirty-eight industrialized nations had agreed to cut their emissions of six greenhouse gases linked to global warming. (Thirty-nine were to have been governed by the original agreement signed in Kyoto, Japan in December 1997, but the Bush administration in March 2001 said that the United States would not ratify the treaty.)
Whilst it was generally regarded as better than no agreement at all, the accord has been weakened considerably. In its currently diminished form, the degree to which it can offset global warming is small and generally insufficient. The withdrawal from Kyoto by the USA provided an opportunity for some countries, including Canada, Australia and Japan, to press for concessions in the form of extra carbon sink forests and reduced penalties for failing to meet emission goals. The final agreement now permits additional carbon sinks, and leaves details of emission-target penalties deferred to later talks.

The Kyoto Protocol will take effect when it is ratified by 55 percent of the nations responsible for at least 55 percent of the total carbon dioxide emissions for 1990. They must reduce emissions of carbon dioxide to an average of 5.2 percent below 1990 levels during the five year period 2008 to 2012. The emissions of developing nations such as China, India and Brazil will be controlled by subsequent negotiations under the climate treaty.


Policies to limit greenhouse gas emissions are unlikely to prevent global warming, since an increase in atmospheric concentrations over the coming centuries to 4 to 7 times current levels appears probable under most manageable policy options. Mitigating policies will buy time to adapt, but absolute and permanent reduction of emissions is also essential.

Counter Claim:

Joint implementation to achieve abatement of greenhouse gases is a new form of colonialism in which developed countries are absolved from reducing their own emissions by using their wealth to help developing countries reduce theirs – at just the time when they should be allowed to increase their emissions to complete their industrialization.

Degrading climate
Type Classification:
C: Cross-sectoral strategies
Related UN Sustainable Development Goals:
GOAL 1: No PovertyGOAL 2: Zero HungerGOAL 3: Good Health and Well-beingGOAL 4: Quality EducationGOAL 5: Gender EqualityGOAL 6: Clean Water and SanitationGOAL 7: Affordable and Clean EnergyGOAL 8: Decent Work and Economic GrowthGOAL 9: Industry, Innovation and InfrastructureGOAL 10: Reduced InequalityGOAL 11: Sustainable Cities and CommunitiesGOAL 12: Responsible Consumption and ProductionGOAL 13: Climate ActionGOAL 14: Life Below WaterGOAL 15: Life on LandGOAL 16: Peace and Justice Strong InstitutionsGOAL 17: Partnerships to achieve the Goal