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Q&A: Kyoto and climate change

Scientists blame fossil fuel emissions for global warming
Scientists blame fossil fuel emissions for global warming  

The Kyoto Treaty, considered crucial in the battle against global warming, has been dealt a severe blow by U.S. President George W. Bush's decision to abandon its principles.

Q: What led to the Kyoto conference?

A: The 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro expressed concern about the effects of climate change -- such as the movement of agricultural zones, the melting of polar ice caps and rising sea levels.

Q: What were the aims of the Kyoto Protocol?

A: Signed in December 1997, it called for a worldwide reduction of emissions of carbon-based gases by an average 5.2 percent below 1990 levels by 2012. Different countries adopted different targets: The EU committed to a cut of eight percent, the U.S. to seven percent and Japan to six percent. Russia and the Ukraine agreed to stabilise at 1990 levels.

Q: What is in dispute?

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A: Many campaigning groups are concerned about a technical detail in the Kyoto protocol, which allows countries to offset their domestic emissions, allowing a participant meeting its emissions reduction target to trade their surplus with another country.

Q: Who is involved in this?

A: The USA, Canada, Japan, New Zealand and Australia want to reduce the impact on their economies of the Kyoto agreement. They want most of their emissions targets to be fulfilled by these emissions-trading mechanisms. But environmentalists say the mechanisms amount to loopholes that would allow large polluting countries to continue polluting.

Q: Anything else?

A: There has always been concern over how the Kyoto treaty would be enforced. The U.S. opposed fines for countries failing to meet the legally binding cuts in emissions under the Kyoto.

Q: What level of fines was considered?

A: One suggestion was a figure of $30 (21) a ton, which could have cost the U.S. billions of dollars.

Q: What are the effects of climate change?

A: It is predicted that, if current trends persist, air temperatures could rise by between 1 and 3.5C by 2100.

Q: How bad would that be?

A: As the planet warms, the average sea level is expected to rise -- by between 15cm and 95cm by 2100 compared to 1990 -- as a result of thermal expansion of the oceans and melting of polar ice. We can also expect long dry spells, frequent hurricanes and extremely high temperatures sometimes.

Q: Pretty bad -- what is the worst-case scenario?

A: The "runaway greenhouse effect" in which all the factors that cause global warming would eventually override the factors which work against it. Forests, for example, are thought to counter carbon dioxide emissions, because plants absorb carbon dioxide.

Q: What causes climate change?

A: Energy from the Sun in the form of short-wave radiation reaches the Earth's surface undisturbed and warms it. Most of this energy is emitted back into space in the form of long-wave radiation, but some of this radiation is trapped in the atmosphere by greenhouse gases.

It is predicted that air temperatures could rise between 1 and 3.5C by 2100
It is predicted that air temperatures could rise between 1 and 3.5C by 2100  

Q: What are greenhouse gases?

A: There are two types: naturally occurring greenhouse gases, such as water vapour, carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4) and nitrous oxide (N20), and greenhouse gases created by industrial processes, which are artificial chemicals called halocarbons (CFCs, HFCs and PFCs) and long-lived gases such as sulphur hexafluoride (SF6).

Q: Which is the biggest threat?

A: Carbon dioxide is the most important man-made greenhouse gas, accounting for about two-thirds of the human-derived greenhouse effect. Carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere have increased by about 30 percent in the last 200 years.

Q: How is it produced?

A: Mostly by burning fossil fuels in power stations. It is naturally converted to oxygen by plants, but deforestation is reducing the planet's ability to absorb CO2. Friends of the Earth forecast that if we continue to burn fossil fuels at our current rate, atmospheric carbon dioxide will be at twice pre-industrial levels by 2030, and three times that figure by 2100.

Q: Is there a link between climate change and greenhouse gases?

A: Depending who is asked, there is and there isn't. On the one hand, scientists and environmentalists says there is, while vested interests in the leading industrial nations claim there is not.

Q: Is there any evidence?

A: Earlier this month a team of scientists announced satellite data they claim provides the first "direct observational evidence" that the greenhouse effect is producing long-term changes in the Earth's atmosphere. Comparing satellite observations from 1970 and 1997, the Imperial College of London team said accumulating greenhouse gases have limited the amount of infrared radiation escaping into space. Drew Shindell, an atmospheric physicist at NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies, said: "One of the main things that cause people to be sceptical of global warming is the lack of that real, definite connection between greenhouse gases and the planet getting warmer. This really gives concrete evidence for the first time that greenhouse gases are changing the energy balance of the planet."

• Kyoto Protocol
• The White House
• Climate Change
• Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change
• U.N. Climate Change
• Earth Summit Watch

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