Mitigation to reduce or prevent climate change

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Mitigation refers to actions that are taken to reduce the emissions or enhance the sinks of greenhouse gases. Mitigation can be achieved in several ways. National and international policies (including those of the European Union) centre around reducing emissions of greenhouse gases. Few policy measures address strategies to reduce the actual or projected effects of climate change.

Scientific evidence linking greenhouse gas emissions caused by human activities with the risk of global climate change began to arouse public concern in the 1980s. Governments held a series of international conferences that issued urgent calls for a global treaty to address this problem. The United Nations General Assembly responded in 1990 by establishing the Intergovernmental Committee for a Framework Convention on Climate Change. The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change was adopted at the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (the Earth Summit) and came into force on 21 March 1994.

As of December 1999, 181 countries had ratified or accepted the Convention, including the European Union and its 15 members. Several countries in the eastern part of the European Region have accepted but not ratified the Convention. The ultimate objective of the Convention and any related legal instruments that the Conference of the Parties may adopt is to stabilize, in accordance with the relevant provisions of the Convention, greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous human interference with the global climate system.

The Third Session of the Conference of the Parties was held in Kyoto in December 1997. For the first time, governments of industrialized countries committed themselves to legally binding restrictions on emissions by adopting the Kyoto Protocol. Industrialized countries that are Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change agreed to reduce their emissions of six greenhouse gases, including carbon dioxide, by 5% from the 1990 levels in the commitment period, 2008-2012 (168-170). Of the 84 countries that signed the Kyoto Protocol, only 22 had ratified it by January 2000. The European Union as a whole is committed to reduce emissions by 8%, the countries of central and eastern Europe are committed to reductions of 5-8%, and the Russian Federation and Ukraine are committed to stabilizing their emissions at 1990 levels.

Some countries have also set voluntary targets for reducing emissions that are in excess of their obligations under the Framework Convention. The United Kingdom, for example, has set a domestic target of reducing emissions by 20% by 2010. Global economic mechanisms need to change before greenhouse gas concentrations can be effectively stabilized. Many countries that have no incentives for legally or voluntarily reducing their emissions also have a supply-driven energy market that is opposed to the use of energy sources other than fossil fuels.

The Fourth Session of the Conference of the Parties took place in Buenos Aires, Argentina, in November 1998. The Conference agreed on a two-year deadline for strengthening the implementation of the Convention and preparing for the future entry into force of the Kyoto Protocol (171).

A total of 165 countries and 3000 other participants attended the Fifth Session of the Conference of the Parties in Bonn, Germany, in October and November 1999. The Fifth Session focused mainly on the issues relevant to preparing the entry into force of the Kyoto Protocol, such as the clean development mechanism, joint implementation, emission trading, compliance, technology transfer and capacity-building, carbon sinks, and emissions from international air and maritime traffic.

The long lifetime of greenhouse gases and the latency in the climate system mean that action taken now will have little effect on future warming before 2050. Further, the Kyoto commitments are insufficient to avert serious effects from climate change. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change expects the mean global temperature to rise by 1.4 °C by 2050, assuming a standard noninterventionist scenario for greenhouse gas emissions (6). About 0.25 °C of this warming had already been realized by the 1990s. Parry et al. (172) have estimated that full implementation of the Kyoto targets would reduce the anticipated global warming by only 0.05 °C and would not significantly reduce the effects of climate change on populations at risk of hunger, coastal flooding or water shortage (Table 6). This means that governments must take action to adapt to the potential or actual health and other effects of climate change.

Table 6. Worldwide effects of climate change, estimated for the year 2050 under different scenarios for the emission of greenhouse gases, for Annex I countries of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change

Table 6. Worldwide effects of climate change, estimated for the year 2050 under different scenarios for the emission of greenhouse gases, for Annex I countries of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change

Emissions scenario

Global warming compared with 1961-1990 (°C)

Additional population (millions) at risk from the effects of climate change on:

water shortage

coastal flooding

hunger

No mitigation

1.39

1053

23

22

Kyoto targets

1.33

1053

22

20

20% reduction

1.22

909

21

17

30% reduction

1.19

891

20

16

Since local emissions of greenhouse gases and ozone-destroying gases contribute to processes of global atmospheric change, preventive policies must be part of a coordinated international effort. Mitigation is not possible on a local or regional basis. European countries, like all other countries, have a moral obligation to contribute to this preventive effort on behalf of human wellbeing and health everywhere. Taking local action to reduce effects, in the absence of such mitigation attempts, entails an unethical decision to protect local populations from the effects when more distant populations may be less able to protect themselves.

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