Question marks still hang over Kyoto accord

Experts estimate that temperatures could increase by up to 5.8% by the end of the century Keystone

It is ten years since the Kyoto Protocol on cutting greenhouse gas emissions was adopted – a major political decision in the fight against climate change.

This content was published on December 11, 2007 - 08:48

To help meet its targets, Switzerland, like many other countries, has opted for a carbon credit trading system to reduce pollution. But environmentalists have questioned the practice, saying it is little more than a licence to pollute.

The 175-nation Kyoto agreement requires 36 industrial nations to reduce greenhouse gases by an average of five per cent below 1990 levels by 2012.

But observers say measures to combat the problem in developed countries have been thin on the ground. The United States as well as new industrial powers India and China have still not signed up to the deal.

Even if the European Union and Switzerland – among the main promoters of Kyoto - hit their self-imposed target of an eight per cent reduction, most countries will have used so-called "flexibility mechanisms" to do so.

This enables governments to cut greenhouse gas emissions in other countries at a lower cost than would be possible at home. However, nations are still expected to take action themselves.

Under the system, countries can finance emission-reduction projects in developing countries, which helps boost sustainable environmental development. And they can buy unused credits from lower-emitting nations.

Companies and individuals can also make use of the scheme. The practice, which functions like a stock exchange, is expected to generate millions of francs over the next few years.

Environmental impact?

But not everyone is convinced of its benefits. According to non-governmental organisation WWF, which has examined 800 emissions reduction projects in developing countries, the environmental impact has been questionable.

"In the study we found that 40 per cent of the projects did not result in any extra reduction of greenhouse gases – this would have happened even if they were not included in the emissions trading exchange," said Patrick Hofstetter, in charge of environmental issues at WWF Switzerland.

"Furthermore, the effects in terms of sustainable environmental development have not been assessed in the countries in which these projects are taking place," he added.

The WWF is calling for emissions projects to be properly checked as well as being certified according to the Gold Standard, a carbon-offset quality label created by the WWF and around 40 other organisations.

Environmental organisation Greenpeace is also sceptical, according to its climate specialist Cyrill Studer.

"At first the credits were mostly intended as a way of including developing countries into the international climate policy process," explained Studer. "But now there is a multitude of credits and they mostly serve to help industrialised countries to get out of their emission reduction obligations."

Take responsibility

Greenpeace believes that big polluters should take responsibility for lowering their own emissions.

"By dumping these reductions abroad, they are, moreover, abandoning being a role model for emerging or developing countries," added Studer.

Greenpeace and WWF are among several environmental organisations that have launched a people's initiative – to be handed in shortly - aimed at forcing the Swiss authorities to reduce harmful emissions of CO2 by 30 per cent from 1990 levels by 2020.

"In terms of the Kyoto Protocol, Switzerland and other industrialised countries have been sleeping for almost ten years," said Studer.

"As the latest UN reports show, fast and incisive measures are needed to protect people from the effects of climate change. It's not we who are dictating these rules, they are laws imposed by Mother Nature."

swissinfo, based on an Italian article by Armando Mombelli

Switzerland and Kyoto

The Swiss parliament ratified the Kyoto Protocol on climate change in 2003. But some experts are doubtful that the country will meet its –8% target. In 1990 greenhouse gas emissions stood at 53.3 million tonnes; in 2000 they were 52.7.

A CO2 law came into force in 2000 to ensure that the Kyoto target was achieved. Around 1,000 enterprises have taken voluntary measures to reduce their emissions.

But it became clear by 2005 that these measures were not sufficient. It is proving difficult, however, to agree on how to strengthen them.

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International climate policy

1992: Rio Earth Summit: adoption of UN Framework Convention on Climate Change

1997: Adoption of Kyoto Protocol in Japan, the first real accord aimed at combating climate change.

2005: The Kyoto Protocol became a legally binding treaty in February after being ratified by 130 countries.

2007: An international meeting is held in Bali, Indonesia, from December 3-14 to start the process for a broader climate pact by 2009 to replace or upgrade the Kyoto Protocol, which expires in 2012.

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