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The human enhancement of global warming

Policy Responses to Climate Change

(Updated June 2017)

  • The human enhancement of global warming leading to climate change is seen as a worldwide problem.
  • Policy responses have been led by international negotiation, but have been qualified or indecisive at the national level, and so far largely ineffective, despite strong international agreement on the matter. 
  • The principal focus is on reducing carbon dioxide emissions.
  • Nuclear power is seldom acknowledged as the single most significant means of limiting the increase in greenhouse gas concentrations while enabling access to abundant electricity.

Emissions of greenhouse gases have a global impact, unlike some other forms of pollution. Whether they are emitted in Asia, Africa, Europe, or the Americas, they rapidly disperse evenly across the globe. This is one reason why efforts to address climate change have been through international collaboration and agreement.

The principal forum for international climate change action has been the United Nations, which has led to the Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and the Kyoto Protocol. However, more recently other international approaches have been put in place, the Asia Pacific Partnership and agreements under the G8, starting with their 2005 meeting in Gleneagles, UK. In December 2015 the Paris agreement consolidated years of negotiations with agreement among 188 countries to limit carbon dioxide emissions.

Although climate change agreements emphasising carbon emission reduction have been reached through international approaches, the policy measures to meet the obligations and objectives set by such agreements have been implemented at the national or regional level. Here they are supplemented by policy instruments such as efficiency standards and incentives to invest in infrastructure which does not give rise to carbon emissions. Pricing carbon emissions is seen as putting a price on a major external cost from energy production and transformation.

The UN climate change negotiations, early phase

In 1988 the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) set up the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), an expert body that would assess scientific information on climate change. As a reaction to the concerns raised in the IPCC’s First Assessment Report the UN General Assembly established the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee for a Framework Convention on Climate Change. The UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) was adopted in May 1992 and entered into force in 1994. The convention included the commitment to stabilise greenhouse gas emissions at 1990 levels by 2000.

The first Convention of the Parties to the UNFCCC (COP 1) was held in 1995. Negotiations at this and two subsequent COPs led to agreement on the Kyoto Protocol in 1997. The Kyoto Protocol set out specific commitments by individual developed countries to reduced emissions by an average of 5.2% below 1990 levels by the period 2008-2012. However, it would take three further meetings until the “Marrakesh Accords” were agreed, which provide sufficient detail on the procedures for pursuing objectives set out in the Kyoto Protocol.

The Kyoto Protocol involved several decisions:

  • By 2012, developed countries would reduce their collective emissions by 5.2% from 1990 levels, each country being committed to a particular figure.
  • The emissions covered by the Protocol are not only carbon dioxide, but also methane, nitrous oxide, hydrofluorocarbons, perfluorocarbons and sulfur hexafluoride.
  • These commitments would be reckoned on a net basis, considering sinks as well as sources, and each country must credibly measure its contribution and meet its commitment.
  • Countries may fulfil their commitments jointly (such as with regional agreements) and they may improve the efficiency of compliance through “flexibility mechanisms”.

In order for the Kyoto Protocol to enter into force and become legally binding it had to be ratified by at least 55 countries and for those ratifying countries to include enough Annex I (developed) countries to represent at least 55% of the total emissions from those Annex 1 countries in 1990. In 2001 the US Government (which had earlier signed the Protocol) announced that it would not ratify the Protocol. As the USA emits more than a quarter of all greenhouse gas emissions from developed countries, this put the ratification of the Protocol in jeopardy. Australia also declared that it would not ratify, though it would pursue emission reductions as agreed.

Eventually, entry into force depended on the decision of Russia, another large greenhouse gas emitter. After some delay Russia notified the United Nations of its decision to ratify the Protocol in November 2004 and 90 days later, on February 19, 2005, the Protocol finally came into force. Australia subsequently ratified the Protocol in December 2007.

While countries that are party to the Protocol are expected to rely mainly on reducing their own emissions domestically, three “flexibility mechanisms” were identified to improve the economic efficiency of reductions and make it easier for parties to comply. The three mechanisms are emissions trading, Joint Implementation and the Clean Development Mechanism.

Emissions Trading: A market-based approach to achieving environmental objectives that allows those countries or entities reducing greenhouse gas emissions below what is required to use or trade the excess reductions to offset emissions at another source, inside or outside the country. In general, trading can occur at the domestic, regional (EU), international and intra-company levels. A precedent is the USA acid rain program, which successfully trades permits for sulfur dioxide.