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You are here: Home / What we do / climate justice and energy / frequent questions about climate change

frequent questions about climate change

  1. What is climate change?
  2. A few facts about climate change
  3. What are the problems with climate change?
  4. What are the solutions to climate change?
  5. Who's involved in climate change?
  6. What is happening on the official level?
  7. What is the Kyoto Protocol?
  8. What is the European Climate Change Programme ?
  9. What is the EU Emissions Trading Scheme?
  10. What are the 'flexible mechanisms'?
  11. What are 'carbon sinks'?
  12. What is the position of developing countries in the climate negotiations?
  13. What can I do about climate change?


1. What is climate change?

Climate change refers to changes in our weather and environment caused by increasing levels of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases that we are releasing into the atmosphere. The burning of fossil fuels for cars, buildings, industry and electricity generation emits increasingly large amounts of these gases.

Greenhouse gases trap heat in the earth's atmosphere. Over time, more and more heat is retained, leading to an increase in the earth's average surface temperature - global warming. There is mounting evidence that our climate is changing rapidly and it is getting warmer.


2. A few facts about climate change

  • The atmospheric levels of greenhouse gases, particularly CO2, have increased by 30% over the past 200 years. If the current rate of emissions continues the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will double during this century and continue to rise in the future.
  • The average temperature of the earth's surface has risen by 0.6 degrees C since the late 1800s. It is expected to increase by another 1.4 to 5.8 degrees C by the year 2100. Due to the level of greenhouse gases already released into our atmosphere, a further rise of 0.7 degrees C is predicted. Even if the minimum predicted increase takes place, it will be larger than any century long trend in the last 10 000 years
  • Sea level rose on average by 10 to 20 cm during the 20th century and an additional increase of 9 to 88 cm is expected by the year 2100 (According to IPPC Third Assessment report, 2001. The Synthesis report is available on: ) .
  • Global warming could lead to dangerous weather patterns such as unexpected droughts, cyclones, and sudden snowstorms.
  • Industrialized countries, with 20% of the world's population, are responsible for more than 60% of current and past greenhouse gas emissions.


3. What are the problems with climate change?

Climate change brings enormous risks and human costs. Rising sea levels, droughts, flooding and extreme weather as a result of global warming will result in massive human suffering and disruption of food and water supplies. We can't predict all the effects, but it is clear we are vulnerable to climate change.

In January, FoE Europe put out a press release stating that Europe and many other parts of the world are increasingly being stricken by serious drought. The overall percentage of land area affected has doubled in the last thirty years, with climate change singled out as the key factor, according to a new report from the US National Center for Atmospheric Research. This new scientific evidence increases the urgency for European leaders to agree drastic cuts in emissions, according to FoE Europe


4. What are the solutions to climate change?

Conservation, increased energy efficiency and investment in renewable energy sources are the best short-term solutions to reduce greenhouse gases and stop climate change. Greater public awareness and better international agreements and ambitious national programmes are needed to solve the problem.


5. Who's involved in climate change?

As with many global environmental issues, we are all affected, but certain vested interests are more involved than others. The most forceful opposition to reduced emissions comes from oil and coal-exporting nations and most of the big energy companies, which will find their profits diminished when fossil fuel exploration and exploitation is reduced. The biggest polluters at the moment are the industrialized countries. Within industrialized countries, the JUSCANZ group (Japan, USA, Canada and New Zealand) is the most resistant to doing anything to stop climate change.


6. What is happening at the official level?

  • At the international level:
    The Kyoto protocol came into force the 16 th of February 2005 . The USA , under President Bush, has refused to ratify the Protocol, as have Australia . However, the USA , with 4 per cent of the population, produces around a quarter of the world's annual greenhouse gas emissions.
  • At the European level:
    The Kyoto Protocol was ratified by the European Union and its Member States on 31 May 2002 . The Kyoto Protocol commits the EU to reducing its greenhouse gas emissions by 8% below 1990 levels during the first "commitment period" 2008 to 2012. Under the "Burden-Sharing Agreement", this became legally binding for the Member States. When the EU ratified the Kyoto Protocol in 2002 (Council Decision 2002/358/EC of 25 April 2002 concerning the approval, on behalf of the European Community, of the Kyoto Protocol to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and the joint fulfilment of commitments there under [Official Journal L130 of 15.05.2002] ), this target is shared between the 15 Member States (Cf. Graphic of the Burden sharing).


7. What is the Kyoto Protocol?

The Kyoto Protocol is currently the only international treaty to address climate change. However, it is only a small step compared to the radical reduction in greenhouse gas emissions that is needed. It is just the beginning of efforts to change how we use our energy and where it comes from.

The Kyoto Protocol sets up legally-binding targets to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions. It imposes to the industrialized countries who have ratified it and who figure to Annex I of the Convention to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions of at least 5% from 1990 levels in the commitment period 2008-2012.

Friends of the Earth International is calling for deeper, longer term cuts and wider participation beyond the treaty's original deadline, 2012 [2]. We need specific targets and timetables for reducing greenhouses gas emissions. We also need to address our historical responsibility. A common idea promoted by Friends of the Earth and others is that a country's share of global emissions shouldreflect its share of the world's population. Emission limits should be agreed on this 'per capita basis'. Industrialised countries would have to cut their emissions by far more than the global average. Meanwhile, for a time, developing country emissions could grow whilst renewable energy sources are developed. At the same time, rich nations should help developing countries adapt to dangerous climate. This idea is based on the polluter-pays principle and "common but differentiated responsibilities" It reflects the rich nations' overwhelming contribution to emissions in the past.


8. What is the European Climate Change Programme?

The Commission adopted in June 2000 the European Climate Change Programme (ECCP - Communication from the Commission on EU policies and measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions: Towards a European Climate Change Programme (ECCP), COM (2000)88). The ECCP's goal is, with all the relevant stakeholders, to identify and develop cost-effective measures that will help the EU meet its 8% Kyoto target, complementing the efforts of the member states. The ECCP led to the adoption of a range of new policies and measures, among which the EU Emissions Trading Scheme.


9. What is the EU Emissions Trading Scheme?

Under this scheme, companies from the power and industry sectors are restricted on the amount of carbon dioxide they are legally allowed to emit. Industries have to conform either by cutting emissions or buying permits from others.

As part of the Kyoto Protocol, the scheme is a tool designed to help governments meet their Kyoto targets. It is up to national governments, guided by the European Commission to decide the limits upon industry. The system currently covers the power sector (all fossil fuel generators over 20 MW), oil refining, cement production, iron and steel manufacture, glass and ceramics, and paper and pulp production. It currently represents about 50 per cent of all European carbon dioxide emissions.

These industries must meet their targets by reducing emissions or by buying allowances which can be surrendered against their target. Installations without sufficient allowances to cover their emissions will pay a direct financial penalty (40 euro per tonne CO2 from 2005-7, 100 euro thereafter) and have to make up the deficit in subsequent commitment periods.

The first phase of the scheme runs from 2005-7 and went live in January 2005. The second phase runs from 2008-12. The effectiveness of the system depends critically on member states imposing credible and ambitious reduction targets.

Visit the EU emissions trading homepage


10. What are 'flexible mechanisms'?

Three main market-based mechanisms were established in the Kyoto Protocol:

  1. International (carbon) Emissions Trading (IET)
  2. Joint implementation (JI) programs among developed countries Under JI, an Annex I Party may implement a project that reduces emissions in the territory of another Annex I Party, and count the resulting emission reduction units (ERUs) against its own target.
  3. Clean development mechanisms (CDM) ("carbon sinks" are part of the JI and CDM mechanisms.) Under the CDM, Annex I Parties may implement projects in non-Annex I Parties (developing countries essentially) that reduce emissions and use the resulting certified emission reductions (CERs) to help meet their own targets. The CDM also aims to help non-Annex I Parties achieve sustainable development

These mechanisms were set up to exploit the fact that climate change is a global problem. Reductions in levels in any one country will affect the global emission level. The problem with this approach is that industrialized countries can buy emission credits from other countries and avoid taking any action to reduce levels at home. This saves them money and allows them to claim to meet their targets. The US and Canada insisted upon the inclusion of these mechanisms before agreeing to binding targets.

Friends of the Earth argues that the overwhelming majority of reductions must be made at home in industrialized countries. Industrialized countries should only be allowed to use the mechanism for a maximum of 20% of their reduction targets. Otherwise sustainable development and equitable use of the atmosphere for all will never become reality.


11. What are 'carbon sinks'?

Carbon sinks are one of the flexible mechanisms of the Kyoto Protocol that will allow countries to meet their targets without actually reducing carbon emissions in their own countries. Carbon sinks are based on the idea that there are systems in the biosphere (forests and oceans, for example) that store carbon dioxide. Countries with large forests or willing to plant forests could count the carbon-storing capacity of their lands when calculating their allowed emissions.

There are many problems with using carbon sinks as measures to meet emission targets. For example, how do we determine the amount of carbon that a forest will absorb and guarantee it will continue to produce benefits over time?

In addition, carbon sink 'projects', in the form of monoculture plantations, are not environmentally friendly. They may absorb carbon, but at a cost to biodiversity. Reforestation activities are insufficient as a tool to meet the targets. Large-scale monoculture and fast growth forests can be funded as "sustainable development projects" in Southern countries under the Kyoto Protocol. In this way, industrialized countries avoid making changes to consumption patterns, industrial structure and energy technology, while threatening biodiversity in the South.

What is needed is less burning of fossil fuels.

Friends of the Earth is opposed to the inclusion of carbon sinks in the Protocol and believes that we must make sure that reducing fossil fuel emissions remains the main focus of the treaty.


12. What is the position of developing countries in the climate negotiations

Developing countries are the most vulnerable and will be the most affected by climate change. They will require assistance and environmentally sound technology transfer from industrialized countries to address climate change without sacrificing their right to economic and social development.

In the Kyoto Protocol it has been agreed that industrialized countries should take the first significant cuts, according to the "common but differentiated responsibilities" principle These efforts are then followed, after a period of 10 years, by similar steps on the part of developing countries.

Some of those countries, such as China and India, have tremendous levels of poverty. They have much lower per capita emissions than industrialized countries, and there is a huge ecological debt from industrialized countries in terms of past and present emissions. It is therefore important to acknowledge the legitimacy of the claims of the developing countries, that they cannot be expected to sacrifice economic growth to achieve the same level of cuts in greenhouse gas emissions as industrialized countries. This position is supported by international environmental principles, such as the "polluter pays" and "common but differentiated responsibilities".

Despite those unquestionable principles, USA has attached conditions to the ratification of the Kyoto Protocol on the assumption of commitments from China (the world second largest in terms of emissions) and other developing countries.


13. What can I do about climate change?

You can help out by reducing your personal energy consumption. Here are some simple ideas to get your started: ride a bike, take the train, car pool, and if you must buy a car, buy an energy-efficient one. Hang the washing out to dry instead of using a clothes dryer, and put on a sweater instead of raising the thermostat. Teach your children and your neighbours to do the same.

You can also invest in renewable solar and wind energy for your family's needs or push your local power company to invest in renewable energy for your community. Contact your government representatives and make your position on climate change known. Volunteer your time and energy to a local environmental organization. Contact your local group to find out more.

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