From Kyoto to Copenhagen

Additional impetus to investigation of biogeochemical pathways and processes, and to development of mitigation measures to reduce emissions, has been provided by the adoption of the Kyoto Protocol. The Protocol was signed in 1997 but only came legally into force in 2005. By November 2009, 187 nations had ratified it.

Under the Protocol, 37 industrialized countries (the 'Annex I countries') committed themselves to a reduction of a 'basket' of four greenhouse gases (carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, sulphur hexafluoride) and two groups of gases (hydrofluorocarbons and perfluorocarbons) produced by them, by an average of 5.2 per cent below the 1990 level, by 2008-2012 (8 per cent by the 15 countries then members of the European Union). The most notable non-member of the Kyoto Protocol has been the US, although it is a signatory of the UNFCCC and was responsible for an estimated 36 per cent of the 1990 emission levels; however, the US does prepare an annual greenhouse gas inventory and report it to UNFCCC. Latest estimates by the European Commission show that the European Union as a whole is set to overshoot its reduction target, predicting a 13 per cent drop in greenhouse gas emissions below the base year of 1990, whereas some individual Union member states and other Annex I countries are failing to meet their targets.

There were high hopes that the recent climate change conference in Copenhagen (December 2009) would agree new, and much more drastic, reduction targets, and include for the first time commitments to lessen greenhouse gas emissions by major developing nations such as Brazil, China and India. In the event, the conference resulted in a document called the Copenhagen Accord, devised by a small group of countries - including the world's two biggest greenhouse gas polluters, China and the US. The conference as a whole did not adopt the accord, but voted to 'take note' of it. The accord unites the US, China and other major developing countries in an effort to curb global greenhouse gas emissions. There is a commitment 'to reduce global emissions so as to hold the increase in global temperature below 2°C' and to achieve 'the peaking of global and national emissions as soon as possible'. This is a step forward, compared with the Kyoto Protocol, which imposed no obligations on developing countries to restrain the growth of their emissions, and to which the US never acceded. The US is now committed to cut its absolute carbon emissions by about 17 per cent below 2005 levels by 2020, China to reduce its emissions growth by up to 45 per cent from 2005 levels by 2020, and India to reduce its corresponding emissions growth by up to 25 per cent. However, on the negative side, the summit did not result in a legally binding deal or any commitment to reach one in future. Furthermore, there is no global target for emissions reductions by 2050 and the accord is vague as to how its goals - such as the proposed US$100 billion of funds annually for developing countries - will be achieved.

Under the Copenhagen Accord, the EU has pledged to cut its carbon emissions by 20 per cent below 1990 levels by 2020, and to cut by 30 per cent if other nations agree to greater reductions. In fact decisions had already been taken in some individual countries, before the conference took place, that will sharpen the focus on each and every one of the greenhouse gases being emitted, and on possible mitigation methods that might be employed. For example, the UK Government adopted The Climate Change Act in 2008, which states:

The target for 2050:

(1) It is the duty of the Secretary of State [for Energy and Climate Change] to ensure that the net UK carbon account for the year 2050 is at least 80 per cent lower than the 1990 baseline.

(2) 'The 1990 baseline' means the aggregate amount of—

(a) net UK emissions of carbon dioxide for that year, and

(b) net UK emissions of each of the other targeted greenhouse gases for the year that is the base year for that gas.

Thus all the key greenhouse gases, including N2O, will be included in the calculations on the basis of their CO2 equivalents, derived from their GWP. The existence of the Act has already led to the commissioning of additional research, for example to improve quantification of agricultural emissions of methane and N2O, and to develop robust and verifiable mitigation options. Because of the high GWP of N2O - almost 300 times that of CO2 (Chapter 4) - a saving of just over 3kg of N2O will therefore be equivalent to a saving of 1 tonne of CO2, providing a considerable incentive to reduce N2O emissions as much as possible.

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