By Katy Greco, Deputy Editor
So now we know all about the UNFCCC and what the COP actually is, you might be wondering what, if anything, does it all achieve? The truth is, like many (multinational) relationships, it’s complicated.
The purpose of the UNFCCC was to “stabilise greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system” – but despite this, time and time again over the last 27 years, we have failed. Human-caused greenhouse gas (GHG) concentrations have consistently risen. For example, CO2 concentrations rose from 358.83 ppm in 1994 (1994 being the year the UNFCCC officially entered into force) to a whopping 416.96 ppm as of July 2021. To give you a little perspective, we’re currently adding around 40 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere per year.
So, it appears that the UNFCCC has failed to meet its central goal… or has it? One important aspect to remember is that while the climate crisis has indeed worsened since the birth of the UNFCCC in 1992, we must consider where we might be if the treaty had never seen the light of day. Things are bad yes, but perhaps, in an alternate universe where there is no global climate agreement or annual COP, it could be much, much worse? Well, in order to measure the potential success (or lack thereof) of the UNFCCC, we need to evaluate the success of its outcomes. So, to answer the question of what the UNFCCC achieves (or doesn’t achieve), let’s look at its two most famous brainchildren: the Kyoto Protocol and the Paris Agreement.
The success of the Kyoto Protocol is widely disputed. If we take the numbers at face-value, the Kyoto Protocol looks like a huge achievement. The goal was for the 38 involved parties to reduce GHG emissions by an average of 5.2% relative to 1990 levels from 2008 to 2012. In total, the parties to the Protocol collectively managed to overachieve their yearly emission reductions by 2.4 gigatonnes! In fact, most parties to the Protocol reduced their emissions much further than their targets, and only 9 exceeded their emission commitments. However, as explained in analyses by the New Scientist and the Institute for Climate Economics, the outcomes of the Protocol are less than satisfactory if we take into account that a) emissions by Soviet states were already decreasing regardless of the treaty, b) that 10 parties only managed to achieve their goals by buying carbon credits, c) that the 2008 financial crisis likely caused a non-Kyoto-Protocol-related fall in emissions, d) that some emissions were being shifted to developing countries as a result of carbon leakage (when emissions-reduction policies in one country lead to the displacement of GHG emissions to another country, typically for economic reasons – for a study on the Kyoto Protocol and carbon leakage, see here), and e) that the apparent ‘success’ of the treaty was also affected the non-participation of the US and Canada, who would have likely made emission numbers look far worse. Indeed, studies show that between 2004 to 2008 global CO2 emissions increased by 32%. So, accounting for all these factors suggests that the Kyoto Protocol pretty much failed. Although according to some, it was doomed from the start. But why?
Well firstly, the Kyoto Protocol was implemented with particular consideration to the “common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities” (also known by the acronym ‘CBDR’) principle of the UNFCCC. The CBDR principle basically says that all parties’ responsibilities are in the same vein (essentially, to cut greenhouse gas emissions), but that some parties are more responsible and more capable than others to make bigger contributions to the global effort. Basically, because Annex I and II parties are more industrialised and wealthier, the CBDR principle says that they are more responsible and more economically capable of taking greater climate action than LDCs (least developed countries) and Non-Annex I parties. Because of this, the Kyoto Protocol only legally obligated ‘developed’ countries to reduce their GHG emissions. In principle this makes sense. If certain countries are more to blame AND also have greater economic means to address the problem (largely gained in ways which caused the problem…), then of course they should be the ones to put the most effort in. However, according to some critics, this adhesion to the CBDR principle limited the effectiveness of the Kyoto Protocol because it let major GHG emitters off the hook solely due to their ‘developing’ status (indeed, one of the world’s leading GHG emitters was exempt from the treaty for this very reason). Even if the critics are wrong and exempting developing countries did not directly constrain the effectiveness of the Protocol (which is particularly feasible if we consider per capita, rather than total, emissions), it’s undeniable that it indirectly negatively impacted its success because it was used by the Bush administration to justify why the US (the world’s second biggest GHG polluter) chose not to ratify the treaty – in George Bush’s own words “[He] oppose[d] the Kyoto Protocol because it exempts 80% of the world, including major population centres such as China and India, from compliance, and would cause serious harm to the U.S. economy […] the Kyoto Protocol is an unfair and ineffective means”. And when a nation as influential as the US makes such a decision, it inevitably has a ripple effect. Indeed, in 2011 when Canada withdrew from the Protocol, the Canadian Environment Minister cited the lack of involvement from the US and China as the reason why the treaty “cannot work”.
Another major criticism is that even if all parties perfectly committed to their targets, the numbers laid out by the Protocol were inadequate to begin with. According to the 2007 IPCC report, to limit global warming to 2°C compared to pre-industrial levels, ‘developed’ countries (ie. those bound by the Kyoto Protocol) should have cut emissions to 10-40% below 1990 levels – which is to say that the average target reductions of 5.2% set by the Protocol were miserably insufficient regardless of whether parties succeeded. And we add insult to injury when we consider that not only were the targets a pretty low bar to beat, but many countries seriously struggled to fulfil them.
Moreover, the ‘legally binding’ aspect of the Protocol was rather pathetic. If parties failed to meet their targets in the first commitment period of the Protocol (which covered 2008 to 2012), the penalty was to make up the difference between their actual versus target emissions from the first period in the second period (2012 to 2020) plus an additional 30%. But if a party decided not to sign up for the second period… well, that was the problem the penalty was basically optional. This renders the phrase ‘legally binding’ nice but ultimately hollow. Essentially here, critics argue that if there’s no real enforceable consequences then any incentive to comply (besides wanting to save the planet, of course) is null and void.
But was it really all bad? Certainly not! It’s important to note that the Kyoto Protocol was the first internationally binding climate agreement. In many ways, it was ground-breaking. So perhaps it’s forgivable that targets were tentative, and the commitments were a little clumsy. Indeed, for many countries the Protocol ignited an unprecedented awareness of climate change and facilitated important global conversations surrounding the issue. Furthermore, experts argue that the Protocol helped boost countries’ domestic (national and regional) climate policies, along with increasing the emphasis on monitoring and overall reporting transparency for emissions. Additionally, the Protocol introduced an international carbon trading market, whereby countries can buy and sell carbon emission credits. Although carbon trading has its own issues and been subject to criticism, it’s still significant in that it was a major multinational emissions-reduction mechanism aimed at the global economy, which is by no means an easy feat. And regardless of how they did it, many of the parties to the Protocol managed to uphold their commitment, which is important because it showed that countries can take climate targets seriously and set a precedence for future treaties.
Arguably, what makes the Kyoto Protocol so significant (despite, and maybe even because of, its pitfalls) is that it laid the foundations for future international climate treaties. It was the first quantifiable, international emissions reduction plan – it showed that it is possible for climate commitments to be made on a global scale. And the failures of the Protocol have been an important learning curve that have put the world in the right direction. So perhaps the true power of the Kyoto Protocol is that it paved the way for what the Guardian called “the world’s greatest diplomatic success” – the Paris Agreement.
But how successful has the Paris Agreement been? In next week’s article, we’ll explore the ups and downs of one of history’s most monumental environmental agreements, and finally see whether the UNFCCC has the potential to solve the climate crisis or if it’s too little too late…
If you’re interested in global climate negotiations (or just want to get a better understanding of how it all works) the Warwick Climate Negotiating Forum is Warwick’s very own simulated version of COP. WCNF is a fantastic event that puts teams of students in the shoes of the national delegations that attend COP, and challenges them to save the world by negotiating to make national and global climate commitments! To learn more about how you can be involved, click here!