By Paul Sussman for CNN
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LONDON, England (CNN) -- Troubled, flawed and shunned by the United States, the Kyoto Protocol remains to date the most comprehensive attempt by the international community to tackle, at a governmental level, one of the defining issues of our age: global warming and climate change.
Negotiated in December 1997 and eventually brought into legal force five years later in February 2005, the Protocol's so-called "First Commitment Period" is due to expire in 2012 (it is not, as some reports have suggested, the treaty itself that expires).
This week marks the start of a fortnight-long meeting in Bonn, Germany, of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate, where 1700 diplomats, scientists and NGOs from 166 countries will attempt to start hammering out draft proposals for moving Kyoto forward into a second commitment period.
Those proposals will then be put to a larger meeting in Bali, Indonesia, in December, when the U.N. will launch formal negotiations on a revised and expanded climate treaty, with officials hoping to have such a treaty in place within two years.
"The Bonn conference is essentially a stepping stone on the way to Bali," John Hay, Spokesmen for the U.N. Climate Change Secretariat, told CNN.
"It is part of an ongoing process aimed both at developing proposals to replace Kyoto, but also at continuing the work of the existing treaty.
"It's actually more of a technical meeting and won't be dealing with issues such as the setting of specific greenhouse gas targets -- that will be dealt with at another round of talks in Vienna in August.
"That said, there will be discussion of mitigation options to try to reduce the effects of those gases, as well as on issues such as de-forestation.
"The conference also offers the first opportunity for delegates to discuss on masse the recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report presented in Bangkok earlier this month."
Reduction in emissions
The 1997 Kyoto Protocol was an amendment to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC), agreed five years earlier in 1992 at the Rio Earth Summit.
Consisting of 28 articles, the Protocol set mandatory, legally-binding limits on the emission of six separate greenhouse gases -- including carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide -- by signatory nations.
Specifically, the world's major industrialized nations -- known in the treaty as Annex 1 Parties -- agreed to a collective reduction by 2012 of 5.2% on their 1990 greenhouse gas emission levels.
Developing nations such as India, Brazil and China -- referred to as Non-Annex 1 Parties -- were exempted from such reductions, although required to present annual statistics on their greenhouse gas emissions, and also to develop national climate change mitigation programs.
The avowed aim was the "stabilization of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system."
Good intentions, deep flaws
Although a crucial piece of legislation with good intentions, the treaty nonetheless experienced difficulties from the outset.
Built into it was a stipulation that it would become legally binding only once it had been ratified by 55 separate countries, but also by enough Annex 1 countries to collectively account for 55 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions.
In 2001, however, President George Bush withdrew the U.S. -- the world's largest greenhouse gas polluter, responsible for approximately 25% of global emissions -- from the Protocol (Australia also withdrew).
Describing the treaty as "fatally flawed" Bush argued that not only would it have a profoundly detrimental effect on the U.S. economy, but also criticized it for not binding developing nations such as China -- currently the world's second largest greenhouse gas emitter -- into a formal agreement to cut pollution levels.
Instead of Kyoto Bush argued for a reduction in emissions through voluntary action, a position he has stuck to despite criticism from the scientific and environmental community.
"We're all supposed to have faith that major corporations are going to line up and cut their global warming pollution," Phil Clapp of the U.S. Environmental Trust said of Bush's proposals at the time.
"They haven't been willing to do that for the last ten years; there's no reason to believe they'll do that for the next ten years."
The withdrawal of the U.S. was a huge blow to Kyoto. The treaty did eventually become legally binding, in February 2005, when the 55 percent emissions stipulation was met by Russian ratification (the 55 countries stipulation had been met in 2002).
Even with that, however, the treaty has still fallen short of its avowed intentions.
Those Annex 1 countries that ratified the accord only managed to reduce their gas emissions by three percent from 1990-2000 (in real terms their emissions actually increased by 8 percent, although that figure was offset by a sharp decrease in emissions from the collapsing economies of the former Soviet Union).
According to the U.N., the world's major industrialized nations are now severely off-target, with experts predicting a 10 percent rise in 1990 greenhouse gas emissions by 2010 rather than the hoped for 5.2 percent reduction.
Even in the European Union, where advocacy of Kyoto is at its strongest, results are poor. Sweden, France, Germany and the UK are just about on track to achieve the 8 percent reduction to which the EU committed itself in the Protocol.
Other EU nations such as Spain, Portugal, Ireland and Italy, however, are well behind, with the result that by 2004 the EU as a whole had only made a collective reduction of 0.9 percent of emissions.
Devices such as carbon trading have slightly improved the picture. Given that from the outset the accord was criticized by environmental groups for setting its greenhouse gas reduction targets way too low, however, the fact that even the limited targets it did impose are now unlikely to be met suggest that, while not an absolute failure, the Kyoto Protocol is still far from being a success.
An important first step
Despite that, Kyoto remains, to date, the only viable, legally-binding pan-national vehicle for confronting the causes of global warming, and as a result criticism of the accord should, according to its supporters, be tempered with an acknowledgement that a flawed treaty is better than no treaty at all.
"Kyoto was always perceived to be just a first step," says John Hay. "What it does is to provide the architecture and the pillars for a future climate change regime."
Catherine Pearce, International Climate campaigner with environmental lobby group Friends of the Earth agrees.
"As it stands Kyoto is not tackling global emission at any adequate level," she told CNN. "Its targets are way too low.
"That said, a lot of the criticism needs to be leveled not at the treaty itself, but rather at those Annex 1 governments who are trying to backtrack on their commitments.
"Kyoto is something to work on and work with. It's much easier to improve something that is already in existence."
Which is why meetings such as those currently taking place in Bonn are so important, laying the groundwork for a more robust, workable and hopefully effective Second Commitment period.
What will that second period -- its length has yet to be set -- actually involve?
Although no specifics have been decided, higher greenhouse gas emissions targets will certainly be high up on the agenda.
"The current regime will have to be replaced with a regime that is much more ambitious in terms of reduction targets," says John Hay.
"Scientists are telling us that we need emission reductions of up to 85 percent by industrialized countries by 2050. The current Protocol demands a reduction of just 5 percent."
"We need to negotiate a second phase in which emissions targets are adequate to meet the challenge of climate change," says Catherine Pearce.
"As with the first phase we would expect the countries that have done the most to contribute to climate change to do the most to improve it."
"We wouldn't expect countries such as China and India to be tied into legally binding targets like the Annex 1 countries. Instead they can contribute through mitigation actions and the implementation of sustainable policies internally."
And what about countries such as Australia and the U.S., huge polluters whose withdrawal from the original accord did so much to undermine its success? Will the second phase negotiations bring them back into the Kyoto fold?
"I actually think it is entirely possible for these countries to get it together and come back in," says Catherine Pearce.
"I think the pressure that is building at national level in many parts of the world mean that governments have to be seen to be taking action on global warming, and Kyoto is the only realistic framework that exists for such action."
The Kyoto Protocol is intended to combat the factors that lead to climate change.