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The Kyoto Protocol

In 1992, at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, New Zealand and other countries, including the United States of America, signed the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (FCCC).  Among other things, the convention required member governments to estimate and report their countries’ greenhouse gas emissions and to aim to reduce their emissions to 1990 levels by the year 2000.

However, this emission reduction target was voluntary, and it was clear by the mid-1990s that few countries would meet the objective by 2000. Governments decided that legally binding emission targets were needed and embarked on negotiations that led to the signing of the Kyoto Protocol in December 1997 in Kyoto, Japan.

The full texts of the FCCC and the Kyoto Protocol, and other information, can be obtained on the FCCC website.

The Kyoto Protocol provides legally binding emission reduction targets for all developed countries for the period 2008-2012, and anticipates that developing countries will adopt emission commitments for subsequent periods.

Emission targets

Emission targets, taken as an average for the period 2008-2012, are expressed as percentage changes compared to a country’s emissions in 1990. Targets vary by country. The European Union’s target is –8% (i.e. an 8% reduction), the USA’s is –7%, Canada and Japan have targets of –6%, while Australia negotiated a target of +8%. This meant that Australia could increase its emissions compared to 1990 levels, but this would still be a reduction on “business as usual”, i.e. emissions that would occur in the absence of any measures to reduce them. New Zealand’s target is 0%, i.e. no change from 1990 levels.

Overall, the emission reductions during the first commitment period (2008-2012) would amount to a 5.2% reduction in developed country emissions, but reductions of around 60% to 80% are expected to be necessary in the long term. So much steeper targets will need to be negotiated and met over the years ahead.

Countries can achieve their targets through a variety of mechanisms:

  • domestic emissions reductions;
  • planting new forests (which absorb carbon dioxide);
  • buying emission units from other countries ("international emissions trading");
  • undertaking projects to reduce emissions in other developed countries ("joint implementation"); and
  • undertaking projects to reduce emissions in developing countries (the “Clean Development Mechanism").

The Protocol became legally binding in February 2005, when ratification by Russia satisfied the requirement for the Protocol to be ratified by countries with 55% of developed country emissions. The New Zealand Government ratified in late 2002, joining the European Union, Japan and Canada as well as a number of other developed and developing countries. A total of 175 Parties have now ratified the Protocol, although the United States of America and Australia have so far refused to ratify.

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