The international negotiations


The atmosphere is a shared global resource and responsibility. Whatever the response of individual countries, ultimately climate change can be prevented only if all major greenhouse gas polluters agree to make reductions. The United States produces 25% of global emissions and so US reductions are crucial. By 2020, half the new global emissions will be coming from the developing countries, so their involvement becomes ever more important.

Following increasing warning through the 1970's of the potential threats of climate change, serious scientific research started in the early 1980's. The landmark World Climate Conference in 1988 created the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). This has three working groups which report on 3 yearly basis on the science of climate change (WG1), the impacts (WG2) and the possible solutions (WG3). The IPCC currently involves over 2,000 scientists and is the main source of information on the science and impacts of climate change. WG3 however has become a source of dubious and politically influenced data on the supposed "excessive" economic costs of major cuts in emissions.

An exhausting round of negotiations led to the Framework Convention on Climate Change which was signed by governments attending the 1992 Rio Conference on the Environment. US President George Bush refused to attend the conference and was only persuaded to attend once the Climate Convention had been stripped of all commitment to stabilising the concentration of greenhouse gases.

The Convention was, then, a weakly worded statement of concern and vague intent to do something about it. The Conference of Parties (COP) meetings that started in 1995 tried to reach agreement on tangible targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions amidst much horse trading and the constant agressive intervention of the Fossil Fuel Lobby, the US, and oil producing nations. This depressing tale is described in Jeremy Leggett's very readible book "Carbon Wars".

In 1997, consensus was reached at the last hour of the the COP 3 meeting in Kyoto, Japan. The resulting Kyoto Protocol contained actual tangible goals for the developed nations listed in Annex One. They pledged that by 2010 they would have reduced their Greenhouse Gas emissions by an average of 5.2% below the 1990 levels. Each country had different targets- the US pledged 7%, the UK 7%*- some (including Australia and Norway) demanded increases. The negotiations accepted the principle that the developed countries had the primary responsibility to start the process of cutting emissions and that developing countries, especially India and China, would join the process only after 2010.

However, agreement was only reached by allowing dangerous loopholes into the protocol which allowed countries to reduce their cuts:

    • Article 3.3 allowed countries to claim carbon absorbed by domestic tree plantations and agriculture as an offset on their cuts.
    • Article 12 proposed a Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) under which if countries invested in measures to reduce emissions in developing countries they could offset these reductions against their own targets.
    • Critics are concerned that this will subsidise a rash of environmentally and socially destructive power and plantation projects.
    • Article 6 proposed Joint Implementation (CDM) under which Annex One countries could buy reductions from other Annex One countries as carbon credits and count them as contributions towards their own targets. Critics point out that the Russian economy has declined so dramatically that its emissions are 30% below 1990 levels providing a source of meaningless carbon credits called hot air.

Environmental and development/aid organisations have been extremely critical of JI and CDM. They say the proposals continue a pattern of neo-colonial exploitation of the Third World with the rich world controlling large new speculative markets in carbon credits. These carbon trading markets are therefore an extension of the north dominated control of global finance. The prospect of a new market in carbon has become one of the main motivators behind the international support for Kyoto. Since Kyoto, most discussion in the annual COP meetings has centred on how to implement the carbon trade. COP6 in The Hague in November 2000 broke down because America insisted on exploiting Article 3.3 to halve its reductions target.


Even if there were no loopholes, reductions of 5.2% are woefully inadequate in the face of the scientific data. The IPCC estimated that cuts of 60-80% on global emissions at 1990 levels were needed to stabilise the concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere-which would still entail higher global temperatures. The 20 year delay in making major reductions has increased the size of the reductions that will ultimately be needed, and the level of climate change that will now be inevitable. The reductions are also feeble in the face of the immediate reductions that could be achieved simply through greater efficiency. The argument that the Kyoto reductions are economically impossible is simply untrue.


Given these two points, environmentalists are split. No one is happy with Kyoto. However, most major groups believe that we cannot afford years of delay from restarting the process and that agreeing Kyoto, however weak the results, is vital to as a foundation for major reductions after 2010. More radical groups say that Kyoto is fatally weakened by the loopholes and is neither effective in the short term nor a desirable foundation for future action. These disagreements are not a major problem in themselves- they reflect a healthy diversity in the growing climate movement.


Unless it is ratified by enough Annex One countries to account for over 55% of the 1990 emissions, the protocol does not become legally binding. In reality this means US ratification is almost vital. Although all countries agreed the text of the protocol and continue to negotiate the details, not one annex one county has yet ratified it. The implementation is therefore chaotic. The UK and many European countries have already implemented policy changes and will probably meet their reductions targets by 2010. Japan is slightly over target. The US has increased its emissions by 11% over 1990 levels and will not achieve its target of 7% reduction. In March US President George Bush declared that the US would not ratify the protocol under any circumstance.


Even if Kyoto is ratified and implemented, a new agreement will be needed after 2010. This must involve major emissions cuts and, given the rapidly increasing emissions of the developing world, must involve all countries. So far the only serious alternative to a further meaningless fudge is the Contraction and Convergence model developed by the UK based Global Commons Institute.

This model allocates national emissions targets on the basis that everyone in the world has an equal emissions allowance. This would would be socially just and offers the only realistic chance to obtain the agreement of the developing nations. Although this would require huge emissions reductions in the developed world it has achieved surprising governmental support from European government. International negotations would be concerned with timescale of convergence and any carbon trading would be subservient to this timescale.


The only proposal that begins to address issues of social equity is the "Contraction and Convergence" initiative produced by the London based Global Commons Institute. This proposes that all countries are allocated carbon rations based on an equal allocation per person (per capita). This ration would be set by scientific opinion of the level of emissions which will stabilise atmospheric concentrations. Once a date is set by which time all countries will "converge" on the same per capita emissions, negotiations can concern mechanisms for achieving the "contraction" required in the rich world.

There has been some criticism from environmentalists that these mechanisms would entail carbon trading, but the principle of equal per capita emissions is widely supported and regarded as the only equitable and politicallly viable means to bringing Third World countries into the process. The proposal has the support of several Third World governments, senior politicians and the UK Royal Commission on Pollution. But, until rich countries are prepared to accept the need for deep cuts in their emissions (75% or more in the UK, 90% in the US), the proposal will stay on the shelf.


It is wise not to dwell too long in talks on the international process. It is complex, technical, and, because it is so hard to influence, ultimately disempowering to people. You should usually aim to keep it down to no more than 10 minutes, which is best achieved by starting discussion with Kyoto. It is important to touch on the international process, though, because people may believe that the international process makes personal action is irrelevant, or that the collapse of the Kyoto protocol is a disaster.

Stress the following conclusions:

      • Achieving international agreement is important but we shouldn't see the success of the Kyoto protocol as it stands as the sole measure of success. It is not the model for the real changes we need to make.
      • Governments are corrupted by powerful industrial lobbies and made apathetic by the indifference of voters. Real international action will only come when we demand it. The failure of the international process makes local action all the more urgent.

Rising Tide – Speaker Training Factsheet June 2001-