The problem of climate change was first noticed several decades ago, and since then moves have been made by the international community to address it. The first agreement in 1992 encouraged developed nations to aim to have stabilised their emissions at 1990 levels by the year 2000.
The most significant agreement, known as the Kyoto Protocol, was agreed in 1997, and was more ambitious in its scope. At that meeting it was agreed that emissions should be cut by an average of 5% from 1990 levels by the year 2010. As CO2 emission levels generally increase with economic growth this suggested an ambitious cut from what levels would expected to have been by 2010.
The burden of this cut was supposed to fall on the major industrialised economies (known as Annex I countries) while poorer non-Annex I countries had no target imposed.
Although signed in 1997 the Kyoto Protocol could not officially come into force until 2005 as it required ratification by countries which together represented at least 55% of global emissions. This was finally achieved when Russia agreed to be involved in the scheme.
The record so far by participants has been mixed. The UK is on course to easily meet its target, largely because the 1990 base level represented a high point in emissions for it. Soon after this point the UK faced a recession and liberalised its power stations, moving from coal to lower carbon gas, both of which naturally reduced CO2 emissions.
Given this natural advantage the UK has set itself a personal target of a 20% reduction in CO2 by 2010, and a 50% reduction by 2050, both of which are challenging and the short term target, at least, will almost certainly be missed.
Germany and Eastern Europe will also comfortably meet their Kyoto targets as the fall of Communism brought with it a decline in heavy industry and CO2 emissions. However most other European nations look likely to miss their targets.
The USA and Australia have remained outside the Kyoto Protocol, suggesting that the burdens of compliance in terms of economic and social costs outweigh the benefits. This is perhaps most surprising for Australia which was actually allowed to increase its emissions by 8% from 1990 levels, while almost everyone else was supposed to cut their emissions.
The share of the blame has, however, been shouldered largely by the USA, and by the Bush administration in particular. Given the inarticulate withdrawal from the Protocol, and a lack of innovation in suggesting alternatives, this is perhaps understandable. In their defence, impartial economic calculations suggest that the vast majority of the cost of Kyoto would have fallen on the USA if they had complied.
However this does not excuse their lack of effort in finding a more feasible solution. Domestically they have encouraged a reduction in CO2 emissions for every unit of economic growth, but given that the economy has been growing this still implies a rise in overall emissions. Whilst perhaps justly complaining that major developing nations such as China and India have no targets imposed on them, there has been no proposals on what targets could or should be imposed.
The Kyoto Protocol is far from perfect but it does represent a welcome first attempt in addressing greenhouse gas emissions by international agreement. It is only bound to run until 2012, after which time a new agreement will be required. If it is to find acceptance it will require substantial revision from the original.