7.3.10 International Agreements


7.3.10  International Agreements

Bringing Into Being the Future We Wish to Live In


The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC)


In 2003, the world consumed 78,112,000 barrels of oil per day.

Emissions of heat-trapping carbon dioxide from burning fossil fuels per year worldwide are currently 24.5 billion metric tons.

Paying Attention to Global Warming – The 1980s

In the 1980s, wide-spread concern arose among the world’s nations about “global warming.” Scientists were reporting an increase in the concentration of “greenhouse gases” especially carbon dioxide (CO2) in the Earth’s atmosphere. They were also tracking a corresponding increase in global average temperatures.

Greenhouse gases keep some of the sun’s energy on Earth from escaping back into space. This makes them essential to life on Earth, because they allow our planet to stay warm and habitable. But greenhouse gas concentrations were rising. Scientists warned that this increase might lead to a warming of the Earth that could have unpredictable consequences.

But was this increase from human activity? Was it because of human use of fossil fuels since the Industrial Revolution? Was there something governments and industry could do about it?

Scientists set out to study the impacts of human activity on the atmosphere. They looked for evidence of a connection between burning coal, oil and gas, and the change in CO2 concentrations. Being a bit warmer might seem pleasant and harmless. But changing the balance of the Earth’s systems isn’t a simple thing. Much work was needed to see what might be the wider consequences of changing the composition of the Earth’s atmosphere.

Canada and Kyoto: a Moving Target

Canada set as its agreed Kyoto Protocol Target to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions to 6% below 1990 levels by the period between 2008 and 2012.

By 2004, US greenhouse gas emissions had risen 14 per cent since 1990, the base year for the Kyoto Protocol.

Canada, despite signing the Kyoto protocol, has seen its emissions grow 20 per cent since 1990, according to figures from both governments, reported Canadian Press (August 2004).

Moving Towards Action

The Toronto Conference on the Changing Atmosphere, held in October 1988, was the first major international meeting of governments and scientists to discuss action on climate change. This meeting was important in the creation of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The IPCC involved hundreds of scientists from around the world in studying climate change. They were charged with examining its impacts, the latest science and possible responses. It was the task of this international team of scientists to produce reports to guide government decision-making about what could or should be done.

The IPCC issued its First Assessment Report on climate change in 1990. In it, they concluded that emissions from human activities were indeed increasing the greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere. Their report found that carbon dioxide emissions would need to be reduced by 60 to 80 percent to keep greenhouse gases at the 1990 level.

These findings led to a general agreement among countries that they would need to work out an agreement on climate change. In December, the U.N. General Assembly began the process of negotiating an international climate convention to be ready for countries to sign at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro.

  • In its 1995 report the IPCC stated for the first time “The balance of evidence suggests a discernible human influence on global climate.”
  • In the second report in 2001, the statement from over 2,000 IPCC scientists was stronger: “It is likely that increasing concentrations of greenhouse gases have contributed substantially to the observed global warming over the last 50 years.”

Emissions and Temperatures Continue to Rise What is the Carbon Dioxide Connection?

One way of tracking greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere is to measure a specific gas. Carbon dioxide (CO2) is one of the principal greenhouse gases. In the mid-1950s a young scientist named Charles Keeling decided to work out a way to calculate the carbon dioxide content of the atmosphere. He began his measurement work in Yosemite National Park (in the US), and later settled on the clean-air site of the Mauna Loa volcano in Hawaii, at a 4,200 metre altitude. He soon established a base figure for carbon dioxide of 315 parts per million. And then he noticed that this “base” concentration was going up. The rising concentrations of CO2, which Keeling has continued to plot from then until the present day, have been given the name the “Keeling curve (see Resources).” The amount of carbon dioxide in the Earth’s atmosphere has risen steadily from 315 parts per million (ppm) in 1958 to 379 ppm in 2004.

But is carbon dioxide absolutely linked to temperature? The next step in climate change research was to conduct research in that relationship, by measuring CO2 concentrations in some ancient air. Russian and French teams drilled down through ice cores until they reached frozen snow that dated back 420,000 years. This snow contained tiny bubbles from the atmosphere of that long-gone time. By studying the patterns of historic temperatures and CO2 concentrations, they noticed a direct connection between them. They concluded that a combination of carbon dioxide levels and the Milankovitch “wobbles” in the Earth’s orbit (which affect the degree of solar radiation) accounted for temperature fluctuations over the Earth’s history. http://www.newscientist.com/hottopics/climate/climate.jsp?id=22354400

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicts that if it continues to rise at these rates, it will reach nearly 1,000 ppm by the end of the century. As a result, the scientists estimate, average global temperature would probably rise by 1.4 to 5.8 degrees Celsius (2.7 and 10.4 degrees Fahrenheit) between 1990 and 2100. The amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is closely related to the way climate systems act. Too much of these gases in the atmosphere could change the weather, temperature ranges, and disrupt life as we know it on Earth. We have some serious thinking to do about how much more carbon dioxide we can safely add to our current growing concentrations.

Climate Change and Feeding the World

A key issue in climate change discussions is agriculture. Crops in the world’s different food-producing regions depend on a stable climate. Longer growing seasons due to warmer temperatures might offer the possibility of annual second crops. But changes in weather patterns, temperature ranges, heavier rainfall, and droughts can have unpredictable effects on soils and crops. The potential effects of climate change on agricultural systems are being closely studied as they relate to global food security the continuing production of enough food for all.

Agriculture is both affected by and contributes to the growing concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Canadian agriculture (not including transportation, chemicals used or food processing) is calculated to be responsible for about 10% of Canada’s greenhouse gases. Work is now being done to see how modification of farm practices can contribute to reducing current greenhouse gas contributions, and even adapting farm practices to help remove CO2 from the atmosphere (sequestering carbon in “carbon sinks” such as vegetation and soil).

Where staple crops such as rice are already close to their maximum temperature tolerances, as in South Asia, and increase in temperatures could have a devastating effect on the annual yield on which millions of people depend.

Warming temperatures can reduce the water available to crops, requiring additional irrigation. This could cause increased competition between agriculture and industry for already-shrinking water resources.

The more extreme weather events related to warming temperatures can have a negative impact on soil heavy rains followed by droughts can increase soil erosion, causing loss of soil for agriculture. Warmer temperatures are also more favourable to agricultural pests, and longer warm seasons allow them to go through more breeding cycles, increasing their numbers.

Another concern with increased temperatures is the melting of glaciers and sea ice accompanied by the thermal expansion of oceans. Agriculture in coastal areas, low-lying areas and on islands is threatened during growing seasons by the rise of sea levels. For more details on the consequences to agriculture of climate change, see http://www.gcrio.org/CONSEQUENCES/summer95/agriculture.html

The Goals of the Climate Change Convention

Negotiations for United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) finished in the spring of 1992. 154 countries (including Canada) signed the Framework Convention at the World Summit in Rio de Janeiro that same year. Industrialized countries agreed to “aim” to bring their CO2 emissions back down to 1990 levels by the year 2000. Except for the United States, the world’s number one greenhouse-gas emitter. It refused to commit to making either the target (the amount of CO2 reduction) or the timeline (the 2000 date) a legal requirement. The US decided that reducing greenhouse gases should be a voluntary effort by industry, not a legislated program that would cost industry money and risk lost jobs.

The Convention set up a group called the Conference of the Parties, or COP, to keep the agreement under review. One of this group’s key tasks is to make sure that countries negotiate and make decisions to support efforts at reducing greenhouse gases.

In addition to greenhouse gas emission targets, the agreement sets out ways that countries can trade emission allowances and emission credits granted for investing in clean energy. This means that countries that invest in reducing greenhouse gases can sell “credits” to countries that have not yet done so.

In signing the agreement, Canada set as its goal to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 6 percent below 1990 levels by the period between 2008 and 2012. This target is similar to the targets set by others of Canada’s trading partners.

In order for the Kyoto Protocol to become legally binding meaning that countries must begin to work to achieve their set targets 55 countries, with a total responsibility for 55 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions must ratify it. As of late 2004, Russia has not signed the agreement. But if Russia does agree to ratify the Protocol, there will be enough members to move forward with its provisions. Just as there are in the United States, there are both supporters and strong opponents to the Kyoto Protocol in Russia.

As of July 2004, 84 Parties have signed, and 124 Parties have ratified or acceded to the Kyoto Protocol. http://unfccc.int/resource/convkp.html

Costs and Benefits

Working out measures to reduce our greenhouse gas contributions to the atmosphere requires detailed planning. Canada drafted an Action Plan 2000 to deal with climate change commitments http://climatechange.gc.ca/english/newsroom/2000/ap2000.asp. The government of Canada has invested $500 million in this plan. In the 2000 Budget, it also committed another $625 million over five years. This makes a total commitment of $1.1 billion to address climate change over the years from 2000-2005. These amounts are in addition to the $850 million that the Government of Canada spent during the five years prior to 2000. Planning to take action on climate change does not come cheap.

Planning costs money, and meeting greenhouse gas reduction targets present many challenges to the Canadian economy and Canadians themselves. There will need to be significant changes in the way we use energy at home, at work and in getting around. But new technologies and new ways of doing business and reducing carbon emissions will offer new benefits. Businesses that have already worked to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions have discovered that they can save money by using new systems and new technologies. Reducing waste gases released into the air can also have benefits, which include healthier ecosystems and healthier people. Doing business in ways that are good for the environment in proving to be good for business as well!

Carbon Sinks

The Kyoto talks agreed that countries could meet some of their greenhouse gas reduction targets in two ways:

  1. reducing greenhouse gas emissions at source
  2. providing “sinks” improving natural environments that can absorb excess carbon dioxide such as forests and soil.

How do natural carbon “sinks” work? As plants and trees grow and photosynthesize, they “breathe in” and store CO2 from the atmosphere. In the course of its life, a single tree can absorb many tonnes of carbon dioxide. A whole growing, healthy forest can absorb thousands of tonnes of carbon dioxide. Planting new trees and forests, and replacing trees when they are cut down, is one way of increasing carbon sinks.

Carbon is also stored in soil. Farmers can manage agricultural soils to store some of the CO2 that plants absorbed from the atmosphere during the growing season. This stored organic carbon does not return to the atmosphere. Farmers can adjust their agricultural practices to store carbon in soils by increasing crop yields, and changing the way they till the soil to minimize its disturbance.

Making Kyoto Work

Is the Kyoto Accord a success story yet? Beginning the complex international negotiations on something as essential as energy use is certainly an important start. Because energy consumption is such a large part of our lives, making changes in the way we use energy will be a major challenge in this century. Energy conservation at all levels, innovation in developing new technologies, and the development of new renewable sources of energy will help reduce greenhouse gases.

Citizen support for the Kyoto agreement, and insistence on continuing to work on climate change issues is one of the biggest contributions to making Canada’s participation in the Kyoto Accord meaningful. But only when governments agree to let the Kyoto Protocol enters into force will it truly become a success for controlling greenhouse gas emissions. And given the expense involved, there is still much heated debate on the certainty of success in mitigating climate change.

Citizens who are educated about the many aspects and effects of climate change are essential. They will make an enormous contribution to the new policies, practices, technologies, planning processes, fuels, vehicles and recommended lifestyle choices that will make dealing with climate change possible. If you are using this CD as a teaching/learning tool, you are one of those important Canadian citizens!


Canada and the Kyoto Protocol

Understanding Climate Change: A beginner’s guide to the UN Framework Convention and its Kyoto Protocol


The history of the Kyoto Protocol


The One-Tonne Challenge Reduce YOUR five-tonnes of carbon dioxide by ONE. Here’s how.


Canadian Agriculture and Climate Change


The Rising Use of Oil: World Petroleum Consumption, 1960-2002. A table that clearly shows Canada’s rising oil use (in millions of barrels per day) compared to that of other OECD and non-OECD countries.


The Keeling Curve. A brief history of the man who was the first to consistently measure carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere.




  1. In the 1980’s, what was the change that scientists began to notice in our climate?
  2. What happens to global temperatures as the concentration of carbon dioxide increases? What evidence do we have that this is true?
  3. Explain why climate change is a concern for the world wide agricultural industry?

AVTIVITY 2 – Research:

Why is it so difficult for countries to reduce their carbon dioxide?
See the One Tonne Challenge!!!

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