Module 4 – International Negotiations

By | August 17, 2017


If you have ever tried organising a group of friends to do something on the weekend and encountered great difficulties trying to reconcile one person’s preference for the movies with another’s preference for the beach, spare a thought for the 2,500 scientists who form the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

It is their task to consider scientific research from dozens of nations and thousands of scientists around the world and channel it into one report that is agreed to by all.

The IPCC was established in 1989 by the United Nations and the World Meteorological Organisation. In 1990, it released its First Assessment Report that highlighted concerns about global warming and its environmental impact.

The report was extremely influential because, for the first time, thousands of scientists from around the world had reached a consensus on the existence of climate change and the likelihood that humans caused the problem.

In other words, the conclusions of the report had been agreed to by all the scientists involved, conclusions that could not be agreed to were not included.

The United Nations was founded in 1945 at the end of World War II in the hope that it would intervene in conflicts between nations to prevent future wars. Based in New York, it now has 192 members and numerous agencies that address a range of global issues including the environment.

In 2007 the IPCC and former US Vice-President Al Gore shared the Nobel Peace Prize for “their efforts to build up and disseminate greater knowledge about man-made climate change, and to lay the foundations for the measures that are needed to counteract such change”.


Since the release of its First Assessment Report, the IPCC’s Assessment Reports have grown in significance and influence.

Indeed two years after the first report, the United Nations-sponsored the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro where countries from all around the world signed onto the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

This agreement set out the broad principles and objectives that kicked off the years of negotiations that created the Kyoto Protocol in 1997.


In 1997 representatives from countries around the world came together in Kyoto, Japan, to develop a plan to deal with global warming. The result was the Kyoto Protocol, a historic agreement that reflected over a hundred years of scientific research.

The Kyoto Protocol is a legally binding agreement made under the UNFCCC. It aims to avoid dangerous climate change. The first step was to set emission targets for developed nations to achieve between 2008 and 2012. It was always expected that later agreements would build on this, so the Kyoto Protocol was the first, not the last step.

Figure 1 Emission targets under the Kyoto Protocol, selected countries

As Figure 1 shows, each developed nation received individual emission targets, which were expressed as a percentage of their emissions in 1990.

Although three countries (including Australia) received a target that allowed emissions to increase from their 1990 levels, the combined effect of the Protocol, if all countries meet their targets, will be that average annual emissions will decrease by five percent below 1990 levels between 2008 and 2012.

Most of the countries that initially signed the Kyoto Protocol also ratified it. That is, they formally agreed to be bound by its obligations. Australia signed in 1998, but it did not ratify the Protocol until 2008.

By the start of 2008, 176 countries had ratified the Kyoto Protocol and the only developed country not to have ratified the Protocol is now the United States.

As far back as 1896, the Swedish chemist Svante Arrhenius claimed that increasing levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere could cause the planet to warm. He was the first person to warn that human activities could lead to changes in the Earth’s climate.


Although developed countries like the United Kingdom and Australia have been given emission targets, developing countries like China and India have not.

This may seem strange given that China is the second largest emitter of greenhouse gases after the United States. However, the decision is based on the principle of ‘common but differentiated responsibility’.

The first part of this principle recognises that while all countries share a common responsibility to reduce their emissions, historically it is developed countries that were the main contributors to the greenhouse gas emissions during the industrial revolution that is causing climate change today (see Module 5).

The second part of this principle recognises that rich industrialised countries are better able to introduce measures to reduce emissions than developing countries.

As a result, developed countries like Australia and the United Kingdom are to act first to reduce emissions, and developing countries will receive emission targets after that.


In December 2007, the newly elected Labor Government ratified the Kyoto Protocol, and as a result, Australia is legally bound to meet its target – see Figure 1.

For this to occur, Australia’s average annual emissions between 2008 and 2012 must be no higher than 567 Mt CO2-e, or 108 percent of the 1990 level.

The Government has stated that it is committed to meeting this target, but the most recent evidence indicates that Australia’s emissions will exceed the target level unless new policies are introduced quickly.

There has been controversy in Australia and internationally about Australia’s position towards Kyoto. Until December 2007, the previous Coalition Government, which had been in power since 1997, had refused to ratify the Protocol. Three main reasons were given for the decision.

  1. Kyoto is not in Australia’s economic interests.
  2. Developing countries like China and India are exempt from the Protocol.
  3. Australia will meet its Kyoto target anyway, so it does not need to ratify the Protocol.

The response from people who support ratifying the Protocol is as follows.

1. The costs from the Kyoto Protocol will be higher for countries that stay outside the Protocol because they will miss out on the economic benefits from carbon trading (this is explained in Module 8).

Environmentalists also point out that economic interests are not always the same as national interest especially when the likely impacts of climate change are taken into consideration.

2. Developing countries like China and India have ratified the Protocol, and the reason they do not have emission targets is that of the principle of common but differentiated responsibility (see above).

3. If Australia will meet the target, why not ratify the Protocol and gain the economic bene ts of participation?

Also, if Australia ratifies the Protocol, it will have a greater say in future negotiations that will have a big impact on Australia after 2012.


The attention of the international community is now turning to the agreement that will follow the Kyoto Protocol once it expired in 2012.

It is likely that the UNFCCC will continue to be the framework for reaching such an agreement, despite the past efforts of some countries (including Australia and the US) to set up different frameworks.

There is much more certainty about the science of climate change than there was in 1997 when the Protocol was signed, and greater urgency in finding solutions. Disturbingly, global greenhouse gas emissions are also much higher than they were in 1997.

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