(November 2000) On November 13, hundreds of environmental negotiators from around the world converged on The Hague in the Netherlands for two weeks of talks on greenhouse gases and climate change. The meeting — the sixth Conference of Parties (COP-6) to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) — is focused on how to implement the Kyoto Protocol. Established at COP-3 in 1997, the Protocol calls upon industrialized nations to meet specific targets for reducing emissions of six greenhouse gases. Overall, the Protocol would commit these countries to reduce their emissions by at least 5 percent from 1990 levels averaged over the commitment period 2008-2012.

Many issues surrounding the implementation of the Kyoto Protocol are under discussion at COP-6. Some of the key questions include:

  • Carbon sinks: Since atmospheric carbon dioxide is absorbed and stored by forests and certain kinds of agricultural activities, a number of countries (particularly ones with large swathes of forest such as Canada and the United States) have argued that national initiatives that promote the expansion of such "carbon sinks" should receive the same credit as reductions of greenhouse gas emissions. At the same time, scientific uncertainty surrounding the workings of sinks has raised questions concerning their definition and the role they should play at this stage.
  • Emissions trading: Negotiators will discuss the creation of a trading regime that would allow industrialized countries to buy and sell emissions credits amongst themselves, affording them greater flexibility in how they comply with the Protocol. In particular, negotiators need to address the extent to which such trading can be used to satisfy the Protocol's requirements. They will also have to consider the question of liability: If a country sells emissions permits and later discovers a need for them, should the purchasing country be obligated to repatriate the permits or should the selling country be liable? If buyers of permits are liable, permit prices are likely to vary in an international market since different sellers will pose different risks. If sellers are liable, permit prices are more likely to be uniform.
  • Clean Development Mechanism (CDM): The CDM would allow industrialized countries to receive credit under the Protocol for investments in less developed countries that reduce or slow the growth of greenhouse gas emissions — financing cleaner power plants, for example. The parties must still determine, however, whether investments in such areas as nuclear power and carbon sinks in less developed countries should receive credit. Negotiators at The Hague will also work to establish an executive board for the CDM that will oversee the verification and monitoring of such projects.
  • Enforcement of compliance: Negotiators have reportedly made progress on developing rules and procedures for assessing compliance with the Protocol, but they must still determine which penalties — financial or otherwise — should be applied to countries that fail to reach the targets.

Prospects for progress at The Hague are mixed due to the complexity and number of issues that need to be resolved, as well as differences between the parties. The United States would prefer a substantial role for emissions trading and carbon sinks, while the European Union (EU) argues that emissions reductions should be the primary means of compliance. The U.S. government's concerns stem in part from the fact that U.S. emissions were 11.2 percent above the 1990 baseline in 1998 due to faster than expected economic growth. The EU has also proposed the creation of a compliance fund into which financial penalties for noncompliance would be paid, but Japan, Russia, Australia, and the United States have hesitated to support such an approach.

In a bid to promote compromise, UN Executive Secretary for Climate Change Zammit Cutujar has urged negotiators to accept the use of carbon sinks, while ensuring that such schemes are based on strict calculations of emissions to prevent cheating. He has argued against sanctions for countries that fail to meet emissions targets in the early stages, saying this would scare them away from ratifying the Protocol. Having coordinated the COP meetings as head of the UNFCCC secretariat since 1991, Cutujar has called COP-6 a "political deadline" and warned that failure to make significant progress at The Hague could cause the negotiating process to fall apart.

While the negotiators will no doubt work diligently to resolve these various problems, they will probably not address some of the longer-term issues surrounding the current debate, particularly the relationship between population and climate change. The Kyoto Protocol specifically targets greenhouse gas emissions in industrialized countries, since these countries yield high levels of per capita emissions and have accounted for the vast majority of man-made emissions to date. As a result, global population change has received little attention in the discussions surrounding the protocol's implementation. But as economic growth in the less developed world proceeds, the world's most populous countries and regions are becoming significant producers of greenhouse gases as well. China and India together accounted for more than 20 percent of worldwide carbon dioxide emissions in 1996, as opposed to 13 percent in 1980. Assuming this trend continues, population growth and rising per capita emissions in the less developed world could well receive more attention in the future.

Bingham Kennedy, Jr. is an associate editor at the Population Reference Bureau.

For More Information

For information concerning international agreements on climate change, including the Kyoto Protocol, go to the website of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change: www.unfccc.de.

For reports assessing scientific research on climate change, go to the website of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change: www.ipcc.ch.

For more data and information on climate change research, as well as more educational resources, go to the website of the U.S. Global Change Research Information Office: www.gcrio.org.