Explained: Climate targets set, missed

Synopsis: Response of the developed world to the climate change issue, the erosion of Kyoto protocol and impact of three decade long climate diplomacy in addressing challenges related to climate change.


The annual climate meetings have succeeded in inspiring the world into taking collective action against climate change, but they have not been able to prevent the crisis from worsening in the last two decades.

Countries have missed their targets, gone back on promises made, and delayed their actions.

How has developed world responded to the problem of climate change?

Between 1990 and 2010, when climate change emerged as an issue, very little action was taken to curb growing emissions.

The first target, for the developed countries to return to their 1990 levels of emissions by 2000, was never taken seriously.

– Kyoto protocol: As per the Kyoto protocol 1997, a group of 37 rich and industrialized countries were to collectively achieve a modest 5% reduction in their emissions from 1990 levels during the ‘first commitment period’ of 2008-2012. The protocol couldn’t be operationalized until 2005 in the absence of the requisite number of ratifications. The US didn’t ratify it. Canada also, withdrew later.

Except for the European Union, and some of its individual member countries such as Germany and the United Kingdom (which was then in the EU), most of the countries did not achieve the target.

Data from the World Resources Institute show that the emissions of the US in 2012 were marginally higher than they were in 1990, meaning there was no reduction. However, the halving of emissions in Russia because of the collapse of the economy compensated for this to some extent.

Australia’s emissions went up by about 15%.

Global emissions went up by 40% between 1990 and 2012, mainly to the rapid rise of China and India.

China overtook the United States as the world’s leading emitter around 2007. Its current emissions are more than 4 times the 1990 levels.

India’s emissions have grown over 3.5 times from 1990.

What were the objections of developed nations against the Kyoto protocol?

Under Kyoto Protocol, developing countries like China, India, Brazil, were not given any emission reduction targets because over 90% of the accumulated greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, the reason for global warming, had come from the rich and industrialized countries over the last 150 years.

This is what gave rise to the principle of Common But Differentiated Responsibilities and Respective Capabilities (CBDR-RC). But gradually there were demands from developed nations for dilution of the distinction between developed and developing countries when it came to mitigation commitments. This was driven largely by the huge three-fold increase in emissions from China between 1990 and 2010, making it the largest emitter of carbon.

Thus began a systematic effort to erode the Kyoto Protocol and replace it with an architecture that put some constraints on the emissions of India and China as well. It was achieved with the finalisation of the Paris Agreement in 2015.

Further, it led to a shift from globally agreed commitments under the Kyoto protocol to nationally determined pledges. This was driven by the US, which could not accept treaty obligations that would require Senate approval. This political shift culminated in the Paris Agreement of 2015.

What has been the impact of climate diplomacy in addressing the challenges of climate change?

Rise in awareness: In 1990, there was ignorance and scepticism about climate change and the anthropogenic responsibility for it. That has changed and climate scepticism, though not gone, is treated as an exception. UNFCCC process that brought scientists from around the world, forged a consensus on facts and projections regarding climate change.

– Increased participation by pvt sector: This rising awareness has had a deep impact on the corporate sector with many large companies joining in a net-zero commitment.

– Increased research: It also played a role in driving research on renewables, which has led to such dramatic cost reductions that they now count for more in energy investment than fossil fuels. 

Spread of NGOs: Yet another consequence of rising awareness has been the rapid spread of global non-governmental organisations, which are adding greatly to understanding, information dissemination, and effective advocacy.

Source: This post is based on the article “Explained: Climate targets set, missed” published in  The Indian Express on 26th Oct 2021.

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