International Agreements and Cooperation Examples: UNFCCC / Kyoto Protocol

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The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change arose out of the Earth Summit, an international gathering in Rio de Janeiro in June 1992.  As the preeminent international climate change framework, the Kyoto Protocol is its most important component.  The Kyoto Protocol was adopted in 1997 in Kyoto, Japan, and entered into force in 2005.  Kyoto tasks 37 developed countries with cutting their carbon emissions in various proportions (accounting for their populations, economic output, and growth trajectories) by the year 2012.  The goal is to reduce emissions in those countries by 5.2 percent below 1990 levels by 2012, although compliance so far has been less than uniform, with some nations lagging substantially as the deadline for the first phase approaches.  Although Russia and Australia originally held out, both eventually signed (in 2004 and 2007, respectively), leaving the United States as the only major non-signatory.

Developing countries do not have binding emission targets under Kyoto, but are incentivized to cut emissions anyway through the Clean Development Mechanism.  Incorporating binding targets on developing countries (some of which—especially China, India, and Brazil—are now some of the world’s largest carbon emitters) has become a fundamental point of contention in negotiations for a successor agreement.  Thus far, attempts to draw up an internationally palatable successor agreement (most recently, in Copenhagen in 2009) have failed.

As an international agreement without a supranational enforcement authority, one of the primary issues surrounding Kyoto is the perceived lack of a credible enforcement mechanism.  (The current punishment for failing to meet the 2012 targets is a more stringent target in future negotiation periods.)  Other key issues include: (1) the distributional and welfare effects of various emission targets (and the method by which the targets are set, especially their susceptibility to political pressure); (2) competitiveness concerns, especially the extent to which the lack of binding targets on developing countries will lead to carbon leakage, thus undermining environmental goals; (3) the extent to which the Kyoto Protocol might be a useful exercise—in raising awareness and promoting dialogue—even if its environmental goals are not immediately achievable; (4) the potential tradeoff between more stringent targets and broader participation; (5) the extent to which the presence of ‘hot air’—overly lenient emission targets for post-Soviet countries based on their economic collapse in the early 1990s—undermines the international framework; and (6) the relationship between Kyoto and global economic growth.