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Introduction to GHGs
Greenhouse gases play a crucial role in maintaining a climate conducive for human existence on Earth. The natural greenhouse gases trap and hold heat ensuring that the earth does not lose its heat during the night. The greenhouse gases absorb infrared radiation when the sun is shining and emit this heat when the sun is not shining therefore contributing to temperature stability.
However, various human activities such as transportation, agriculture, fossil fuel use, power generation, and industrialization have added to the concentrations of GHGs at a rapid rate. These human activities have contributed to rapid atmospheric changes. While the earth’s temperature remained constant for millenniums, GHG emissions have led to significant changes in global temperatures in a matter of a century.1 Scientists have demonstrated the link between global warming and GHG emissions from human activity. The climate change caused by GHGs is responsible for the increase in frequency and severity of natural disasters in some parts of the world.
In addition to this, reports indicate that global GDP will experience reductions of up to 20% because of the impacts of climate change.2 There is therefore a broad consensus between scientists and policy makers that action should be taken to curb GHG emissions. Over the past two decades, calls have been made for countries to reduce their annual emissions and therefore mitigate the adverse effects of GHGs.
Actions taken to reduce GHG Emissions
Starting from the year 1990, countries started adopting standards for new factories. Plants built after 1990 were required to demonstrate a reduction in GHG emissions. A target emission level was stipulated and the plant was required to comply with this target. In some cases, plants were penalized for adding to the country’s total emissions.
This acted as an incentive for factories to take measures to reduce their GHG emissions.3 This arrangement ensured that factories were built with climate change in mind. Unlike in the past where emissions were not given any consideration, the new approach emphasized on the environmental impact that plants have.
Nations have engaged in some proactive actions aimed at reducing GHG emissions. Many of these actions have involved the adoption of low-carbon energy technologies.4
This approach is based on the understanding that up to 70% of the current global GHG emissions are related to energy with fossil fuels for transportation, heating of buildings, and power generation contributing the biggest share.5 Power generation is one of the areas where great reductions can be made.
By moving to low-carbon energy sources such as solar, nuclear, and wind, industrialized countries can significantly reduce their carbon emissions. Policies are already in place to increase the role that this low-carbon energy sources play in total power production in the US and EU countries.
The UK has taken up steps aimed at reducing demand for energy and increasing energy efficiency among individuals and businesses. The government provides incentives for the adoption of energy-efficient technologies by the public and private sector. Financial incentives are offered to encourage the use of low carbon and renewable electricity.6
In addition to this, the UK has set an ambitious goal of reducing its GHG emissions by 80% by 2050. To demonstrate its commitment to achieving this ambitious goal, the UK parliament enacted the Climate Change Act in 2008. By codifying the climate change targets in law through the passing of this bill, the UK made its ambition legally binding. It can therefore be expected that there will be noticeable political will to ensure that the UK reduces its GHG emissions by 80%.
Most developed nations have also adopted strategies to offset carbon emissions by use of carbon sinks. Carbon sinks are “areas of forests and farmland which can absorb carbon though the process of photosynthesis”.7
This approach is favoured by industrialized nations that feel that the emission cuts impose significant burdens on the global economic system. Carbon sinks allow the country to continue with its normal level of industrial activity as long as forests and farmland areas are created to absorb the excess GHG emissions and therefore ensure that the overall target emission levels are met.8
Reduction Targets and Conferences
A notable development in combating climate change was the formation of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) by the US and the European community in 1992. This convention was charged with reporting on greenhouse gas emissions and proposing ways to mitigate climate change.
The UNFCCC was adopted at the Rio Earth Summit in 1992 with 175 countries becoming official participants when it entered into force in 1994. However, the UNFCCC took on a voluntary approach to reducing emissions and industrialized nations were not under a legal obligation to reach the emission targets stipulated.
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UNFCCC members therefore reached a consensus that a more binding agreement had to be reached by the nations.9 This legally binding agreement would place limits on emissions from industrialized countries.
The legally binding agreement was formulated as the Kyoto Protocol, which was the first legally binding international agreement on GHG emissions. The agreement was signed in 1997 and it set binding targets for industrialized nations.10 This agreement amended the UNFCCC by setting limitations on GHG emissions.
The provisions of the Kyoto Protocol stipulated that developed countries should reduce their GHG emissions by 5% from their 1990 levels before the 2008-2010 deadlines.11 The countries with the highest CO2 emissions were required to reduce by a scale of 6-8%. One hundred and forty governments worldwide participated in Kyoto and they made commitments to reduce their GHG emissions.
European nations including the UK have shown great commitment to playing a part in GHG emissions. As of 2007, these nations were already negotiating on new agreements that would be implemented once the Kyoto Protocol expired in 2012. In 2007, EU leaders led by the German Chancellor Angela Merkel endorsed proposals for the reduction of GHG emissions by a minimum of 20% by the year 2020.
The community also agreed to make binding targets for the adoption and use of energy sources that are renewable in nature. The EU has already set a 10% minimum target for the use of biofuels for transport by the year 2020. This target is aimed at significantly reducing fossil fuel usage in the continent.12
What is the current situation?
In spite of the grand plans formulated by governments to mitigate GHG emissions, the results have been uninspiring. The countries that committed themselves to the Kyoto protocol have collectively reduced their emissions by 16%. EU countries have demonstrated a high commitment and they have met the Kyoto protocol targets.
However, most of these cuts have been because of the decline in GHG producing industries in Eastern Europe and a slowdown in industrial activities among the Kyoto Protocol signatories.
Efforts to reduce GHG emissions have been hampered by the lack of commitment by the US. When most of the other industrialized nations were committing themselves to the Kyoto Protocols by ratifying it in 2001, the US under President Bush refused to participate in this binding agreement. This was a major blow to the goals of cutting GHG emissions since the US is the world’s largest polluter. The US has performed very poorly in meeting its GHG emission reduction goals.
The US has been responsible for 29% of global carbon dioxide emissions since the mid-19th century making it the greatest single contributor of GHG emissions.13
The Environmental Protection Agency reports that in spite of the drive towards lower carbon emissions by industrialized countries, the US increased its carbon dioxide emissions by 17% between 1992 and 2007.14 In spite of the fact that the US is one of the largest contributors to global warming, it ranks low in taking steps to fix the damage done by mitigating GHG emissions.15
While the current emission cuts are commendable, they will not halt global warming. The continued economic and population growth in all countries means that more energy will be required. As it currently stands, the economic growth in China, India and Brazil have contributed to a significant rise in global GHG emissions since 1990. As the other developing countries increase their industrial activities, the global GHG emissions can only be expected to rise.
Allocation of Emissions cuts Developed and Developing Nations
The current allocation of emission cuts between the developed and developing nations is asymmetrical in nature. The reason for this is the general consensus that the industrial activities of the developed nations are to blame for the current environmental crisis being faced by the world. Decades of uninhibited GHG emissions by developed nations have led to the climate change being experienced today.16
All the economically advanced nations are required to show demonstrable progress in GHG emissions while there are not binding limits or timetables for the developing countries. The International Environmental Agreements and Associations contend that the rationale for this distinction between developed and developing nations is the fact that most developing countries do not emit as large an amount of GHGs as the industrialized countries.17
Developing nations are given a smaller allocation since most of them do not have the economic capability to achieve larger reduction in their GHG emissions. This consideration is supported by Principle 15 of the Rio Declaration, which states that all “countries should take precautionary measures to protect the environment in accordance to their capabilities”.18
This implies that countries do not have an equal obligation in their duty to mitigate GHG emissions. The richer countries have the bigger obligation to engage in actions to reduce GHG levels in the atmosphere.
How the Cuts Should Be
The principle of justice demands that industrialized countries have an obligation to make larger cuts in their GHG emissions since their actions are largely responsible for the pollution of the environment. These nations have been using fossil fuels that emit GHGs to fuel their economic growth for decades. Currently, developed nations have a higher GHG emissions cut allocation than developing nations.
This asymmetrical arrangement is meant to favour the developing countries that are economically weaker.19 By allocating lower cuts, industrial growth can be promoted in the developing nations. However, there is strong opposition against an asymmetrical treatment to emission cuts among developed and developing. This opposition arises from the fact that it would be impossible to achieve the target global emission reduction if developing nations are allowed to continue engaging in unrestrained pollution.
Instead of allocating less emission cuts to developing nations, the industrialize countries should offer incentives for developing nations to adopt green technologies. The Practical action organization asserts that developed nations have no moral authority to demand that the developing nations slow down their economic progress without offering them incentives for doing this.20
Wealthy nations should therefore offer assistance to poorer nations for them to be able to reduce their pollution levels without incurring significant costs.
Many developing nations argue that they have a right to exploit their resources and achieve the same level of development as the developed nations. While a nation has a sovereign right to exploit its own resources and stipulate its own environmental policies, it also has some international obligations.
Principle 21 of the Stockholm Declaration of 1972 asserts that states have “the responsibility to ensure that activities within their jurisdiction or control do not cause damage to the environment of other states or of areas beyond the limits of national jurisdiction”.21 Developing nations should therefore take precautions and limit their GHG emissions even as they seek industrial growth.
Another principle that supports the idea that developing nations should do more to mitigate climate change is the notion that “the costs of pollution should be paid by the polluter”. This notion, as articulated by Principle 16 of the Rio Declaration, asserts that the damages arising from pollutions should be paid for by the polluter. With regard to the climate GHGs emission problem, it is evident that developing nations are emitting more GHGs as industrial growth is achieved in these countries.
While it is true that the developed nations also engaged in the same rampant pollution in the past, this cannot be used as justification for continued emission of GHGs by countries such as China and India. Developing countries should therefore pay a larger equal penalty for climate change mitigation efforts as the.
This paper set out to discuss the issue of greenhouse gas emissions. It has argued that developing nations should be given a higher emission cut in order to increase the chances of achieving global GHG emission reduction. The paper began by explaining what GHGs are and it showed how the concentration of these gases in the atmosphere has increased dramatically over the last two centuries. It discussed the steps being taken by nations to reduce GHG emissions.
The paper has highlighted how the failure of voluntary initiatives to limit emissions led to the establishment of the legally binding Kyoto Protocol. The role of international conferences on climate change has been elaborated on. The paper has articulated the reduction targets of some nations and proceeded to note that the global reduction targets are still very low.
The asymmetrical allocation of emission cuts has not helped the situation since growing industrial powers such as China and India contribute significantly to the global GHGs emissions. The emission cuts for developing nations must be raised in order to mitigate GHG emissions and avoid the devastating effects of climate change on the planet.
Casper JK, Greenhouse Gases: Worldwide Impacts, Infobase Publishing, New York, 2008.
Enkvist, P & TA Naucler, ‘What countries can do about cutting carbon emissions’, McKinsey Quarterly, vol.12, no.2, 2008, pp. 34-41.
FitzRoy FR & Papyrakis E, An introduction To Climate Change Economics and Policy, Routledge, London, 2009.
Hansen J, Can We Still Avoid Dangerous Human-Made Climate Change? Social Research, California, 2006.
International Environmental Agreements and Associations, ‘International Policy Development in Regard to Global Warming’, Turkmenistan Review, vol. 11, no. 3, 2013, p. 212-226.
Kaplan, KH, ‘EU hammers out pact to cut greenhouse gas emissions’, Physics Today, vol.60, no.5, 2007, pp.26-28.
Malcolm NS , International Law, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 2008.
Practical Action, Climate Change Mitigation, 2012. Web.
Rolf F & Grosskopf S, ‘Technological change and timing reductions in greenhouse gas emissions’. J Prod Anal, vol. 37. No. 1, 2012, pp. 205–216.
Stern N, The Economics of Climate Change, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2006.
UK Government, Reducing the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions by 80% by 2050, 2013. Web.
1 J Hansen, Can We Still Avoid Dangerous Human-Made Climate Change? Social Research, California, 2006, p.1.
2 F Rolf & S Grosskopf ‘Technological change and timing reductions in greenhouse gas emissions’, J Prod Anal, Vol. 37, no. 2, 2012, p. 206.
3 FR FitzRoy & E Papyrakis, An introduction to Climate Change Economics and Policy, Routledge, London, 2009, p.121.
4 N Stern, The Economics of Climate Change, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2006, p.560.
5 P Enkvist & TA Naucler, ‘What countries can do about cutting carbon emissions’, McKinsey Quarterly, vol.12, no.2, 2008, p.34.
6 UK Government, Reducing the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions by 80% by 2050, 2013.
7 International Environmental Agreements and Associations, ‘International Policy Development in Regard to Global Warming’, Turkmenistan Review, vol. 11, no. 3, 2013, p. 214
8 Stern, p.351.
9 Ibid, 212.
10 FitzRoy & Papyrakis, p. 106.
11 Ibid, p.212.
12 KH Kaplan ‘EU hammers out pact to cut greenhouse gas emissions’, Physics Today, vol.60, no.5, 2007, p. 26.
13 Kaplan, p.26.
14 Rolf & Grosskopf, p. 205.
15 JK Casper, Greenhouse Gases: Worldwide Impacts, Infobase Publishing, New York, 2008, p.10.
16 Hansen, p. 4.
17 The International Environmental Agreements and Associations, p.213.
18 Malcolm, p. 867.
19 FitzRoy & Papyrakis, p.129.
20 Practical Action, Climate Change Mitigation, 2012.
21 Malcolm, p. 853.