Good COP, Bad COP

Targets timetables – then and now
by -- December 12th, 2009

Targets and timetables in some ways lie at the heart of a global greenhouse gas agreement. This post discusses their role, how they were set in the Kyoto Protocol and what the implications are for a Copenhagen Agreement.

Targets and timetables quantify the depth of the greenhouse gas reduction commitment to be taken and the time allowed to meet it.  They are widely viewed as the meat of the international agreement.  The whole endeavor, after all, is about lowering emissions and, ultimately, atmospheric concentrations, which are the consequence of the physical volume of emissions over time.  Does this mean that there can be no agreement without targets and timetables?  Let’s look at the Kyoto Protocol to provide some context for Copenhagen.

The Kyoto Protocol specified unique targets and timetables for each signatory country. For instance, the UK’s Kyoto commitment is to reduce its emissions 8 percent below 1990 levels by 2008-2012; the U.S. commitment, before it withdrew, was 7%; Japan’s was 6 %; Russia’s was 0%; Australia’s was an allowable increase of 8 percent above 1990 levels.  How did these numbers get picked and what do they mean?

The UK number can be viewed among the most aggressive national targets adopted in Kyoto, but needs to be viewed in the context that the UK was quite coal dependent in 1990 and far less so in 1997, the year Kyoto was signed, for reasons that had more to do with labor policy and nothing to do with climate policy.  This made the 1990 target easier to achieve.  In contrast, the U.S. was in a recession in 1990, which it has fully come out of by 1997, making the 1990 baseline somewhat of a low-emission anomaly and relatively more difficult to achieve – both economically and politically, as it may have turned out.  And, in 1990, Russia was not even Russia.  As part of the Soviet Union, it possessed an antiquated, inefficient and highly polluting industrial sector that was significantly pared back after the collapse of the Soviet Union and emergence of the independent states.  This restructuring collectively reduced emissions dramatically, making 1990 an extraordinarily easy target for Russia and all former Soviet states, including East Germany subsequently reunified with West Germany, to achieve.  This has, rather famously, come to be known as Russian hot air.

The point here is that targets and timetables end up being the result of tough negotiations which can lead to less than perfect outcomes.  As much as anything with Kyoto, the timetable may have been at the heart of the problem.  Pegging the baseline to one year, 1990 – a year which had many different consequences for many different countries turned out to be problematic.  At minimum, picking a time period such as 1990-95, just like it did for the commitment performance period (2008-2012), would have smoothed out some of these issues – it would have captured part of the UK and Russian transition periods and captured both recessionary and economic boom times for the U.S. and other countries.  Eventually, it’s the future numbers that matter, not the past.  But when the future levels get negotiated using a past period as a barometer, the selection of the past period matters symbolically even if it can be dealt with substantively.

Where are we in Copenhagen?  No one really expects firm country-by-country specific percentage reduction targets to be negotiated in Copenhagen.  It is, for all intents and purposes, a bridge too far at this stage in the game.  But the draft text that has emerged from the Ad Hoc Working Group on Long-term Cooperative Action (AWG-LCA) – a horribly bureaucratic sounding name, but in essence the core of the “Copenhagen Agreement” – is to set broad and conditional targets for the global community.  The draft text (as of Dec 11) now reads:

(a)  Parties shall cooperate to avoid dangerous climate change, in keeping with the

ultimate objective of the Convention, recognizing [the broad scientific view] that the

increase in global average temperature above pre-industrial levels ought not to

exceed [2o] [1.5 o]C


(b)  Parties should collectively reduce global emissions by at least [50] [85] [95] per cent

from 1990 levels by 2050 and should ensure that global emissions continue to decline



(c)  Developed country Parties as a group should reduce their greenhouse gas emissions

by [75–85] [at least 80–95] [more than 95] per cent from 1990 levels by 2050;        


the bracketed terms represent options to be negotiated.

So if this text survives the negotiations this week and an agreement is signed, it will establish in a strict sense, targets and timetables.  But these are collective targets, not individual ones.  Any specific targets for signatory countries – if they are required – will presumably have to be worked out in subsequent negotiations.  And it appears that 1990 still reigns as the year supreme…

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