The Impact of Environmental Issues on Politics

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Environmental impact is a difficult issue for those who are responsible for making decisions in the countries around the world. Politicians around the world face a dilemma – to focus on the popular environmental protection or to concentrate on industrialisation and economic development. Reducing emissions and imposing tougher restrictions does not result in immediate benefit, but there is an instant and clear cost with it. The decision is dependent on how much restraint can the present generation follow so that the future generations can benefit (Anderson, 1998).

The first significant political step in emission reduction can be traced back to the 1992 Rio Conference, which was followed by the 1997 Kyoto Protocol and the 2009 Copenhagen Climate Conference. The goal of Kyoto Protocol was to reduce the emissions from developed economies and stabilise them to a mean level of 5.2% below than that in 1990, which is the reference level for Kyoto Protocol. Despite the sincere and significant efforts to reduce the global emissions, the global emissions were 50% higher in 2014 than that in 1990 (Korhola, 2014).

A new agreement was drafted in 2015 in Paris as part of a coordinated international effort to reduce emissions. The agreement was drafted after 6 years of failure of 2009 Copenhagen Climate Conference amidst intense international pressure (Streck et al., 2016). This essay analyses how it will fare in comparison to the Kyoto Protocol.

Flexible mechanisms of Kyoto Protocols

Global emission has evolved from an environmental to an international issue and involves a machinery of bureaucrats and experts, and it includes political and cultural aspects as well (Korhola, 2014). Flexible mechanisms were designed to reduce the cost of achieving the emission targets as set by the Kyoto Protocol. These mechanisms include Clean Development, Emissions Trading, and Joint Implementation. The rationale behind placing these mechanisms was that the cost associated with limiting emissions that varies across countries, but the principal benefit remains the same. The Emissions Trading mechanism offered the parties to purchase emission permits (Kyoto Units) from other countries to achieve the emission reduction targets. Joint Implementation Mechanism and Clean Development Mechanism (jointly known as Project-based mechanisms) allowed for the parties to meet the reduction targets by acquiring credits. The credits could be acquired by financing emission-reducing projects in other countries (Joint Implementation) or by purchasing credits from other countries (Clean Development) (UNCC, n.d).

The rationale behind such mechanism was that the high emitting countries would want to achieve targets at the lowest possible cost and the concept of credit will allow them to acquire credits from countries having low emission targets at a low cost. Despite the cost-effectiveness offered by the mechanisms, numerous concerns were raised about the flexibility.The first one was that the emission reduction should be led by the developed countries as they are capable of developing low-emission technologies which can later be shared with the developing countries. The second concern was that the developed countries would take the low-emission credits from developing countries either by buying or financing projects. Thus, the emission problem in developed countries will not be solved and the cost of reducing emissions for developing countries will increase, once their commitment grows. The third concern was that while flexibility promotes efficiency, it is not a fair practice. As expected, developed country such as the US supported flexibility and this mechanism was incorporated in the Kyoto Protocol, and it was stated that the focus should be on the domestic emission reduction and not obtaining credits from developing countries. However, the difference between the reductions achieved at domestic fronts and through flexibility mechanisms was not quantified. After implementation, the concerns about the flexibility mechanisms turned out to be true as the CDM projects were focused on profitability, they adversely impacted the local communities, and not much development was observed in the poor regions of the world (Fournier, 2017).

Appropriateness of the Solution

The fundamental problem with Kyoto Protocol was its lack of focus on the difficult questions (such as the role of developing nations) and it neglected these concerns. The Kyoto Protocol followed the logic of addressing those issues which could be agreed upon and ignoring those issues that could not be concurred (Korhola, 2014). The targets also did not make much sense as the burden was only passed to certain regions such as EU, Japan and the US. While the US was asked to reduce its emission by 7%, Russia was not needed to lessen any emission and Iceland had an opportunity to increase their emissions by 10% (United States Senate 2016). Lately, the decarbonisation by the global economy is slowing (Prins & Caine 2013) and the intensity of energy is increasing that could be attributed to the increasing emissions per tonne attributable to the industrialisation in countries such as India and China (Pielke et al. 2008). These industrialising countries have a carbon intensity which is 4-5 times higher than that of the US and 13-18 times than that of Sweden, which was the best performer.  Despite this, not many restrictions were imposed on these industrialising countries (Prins & Caine 2013).

The US plays a major role in any international decision, and had a major role in implementing Kyoto Protocol. The US was expected to cut its emission by 7% in comparison to the level in 1970. However, the US Senate had earlier voted to refuse any agreement, which does not involve big emitters such as China. Thus, it could not be presented for ratification. Later, under President Bush, US formally announced to withdraw from the Kyoto Protocol, which derailed the entire ratification as the US was responsible for 25% of global emissions (United States Senate 2016). Kyoto Protocol could only come into force after Russia ratified it and the required conditions were fulfilled in 2005. However, its insufficiency was soon visible and postponing the key issues was not possible anymore as the countries had different interests and a common solution could not be found (Victor, 2011).  The underlying issue was the economic burden had to be shared by the participating countries. Each country tried to negotiate for the minimum reduction target and the lowest economic burden. In addition, there was an internal burden-sharing by the EU (Helm, 2009). Kyoto acted as an economic pain especially to the EU as the high energy costs impacted the growth in Europe. Concerns are being raised about the future of the manufacturing sectors of the European economy. The first commitment period for the Kyoto Protocol started in 2008, and from 37 countries which had a target to reduce emissions, 17 failed to meet their targets. Some countries were able to meet their targets, but these nations were not the top emitters (such as Latvia, Romania, and Lithuania) (United States Senate 2016).

In addition, there has been wide criticism on the way emission is treated as a problem - the Climate change should be treated as an economic issue and forums such as WTO (World Trade Organisation) should be involved as well (Victor, 2011). In addition, it also requires social involvement as without considering the societal impact this problem cannot be solved (Prins et al., 2010). The overall approach was based on the degree of willingness by each country to reduce its emissions and not on how much reduction is needed to save the environment. Whatever targets were achieved cannot be deemed to be a success as the targets did not have provision for air and maritime emissions. However, Helm (2012) credits the Krypto Protocol to provide a forum for discussion on emission.

The Effectiveness of the Paris Agreement

Despite Kyoto Protocol being supported by more than 150 countries, it took seven years for many countries to sign and ratify. Countries that signed and ratified the agreement acted in their best interests and had the option of withdrawing if it became difficult to comply. The countries that adopted emission reduction ended up harming their own economies. Most of the countries have not expressed interest in committing to the second round of Kyoto Protocols and had shown hesitance in joining the Paris Agreement (United States Senate 2016).

However, the 196 members of the UNFCC (UN Framework Convention on Climate) agreed to the Paris Agreement in December 2015. It came against a background of the failed 2009 Copenhagen Conference. Unlike the Kyoto Protocol, the targets were not set for individual parties, instead, it emphasised on the overall goal of climate change and asked the parties to contribute so that this goal can be realised. The countries are allowed to decide their contribution based on their responsibilities, capabilities, and circumstances. This agreement is a matter under international law, therefore, the countries which ratify are bound by the terms. However, there are only a few provisions which are mandatory and can be enforced. Many of the provisions are more political in nature rather than a legal obligation. The Paris Agreement entrusts the parties, process, and procedures to achieve the desired results. In comparison to its predecessors, the Paris Agreement is much more detailed and acknowledges that despite developed countries being the global leaders, they cannot solve the climate change problem on their own. However, for the desired result to be achieved several obligations, compliances and global participation are needed, which complicates the situation (Streck et al., 2016).

The supporter of the Paris Agreement present it to be different than its predecessors, but in reality, the difference is only cosmetic. The primary purpose which Paris Agreement serves is to highlight the importance of climate change and the success stories will spread in the name of unrealistic expectations from few countries while the other nations will continue to industrialise (United States Senate 2016).

The US, under the leadership of President Trump withdrew from the Paris Agreement in 2017, which makes the compliance of the Paris Agreement really difficult (Haas, 2017). Second, the withdrawal by the US has left a gap at the leadership level which is expected to be fulfilled by the EU and China (Kemp, 2017) and the absence of the US from future negotiations has opened an opportunity for China to emerge as the global leader; if China can fulfil the role or not is yet to be seen (Hilton & Kerr, 2017). In addition, if few other countries follow the US and delay their efforts for 8 years, then it will be difficult to attain the goals of the Paris Agreement (Sanderson & Knutti, 2017). There are multiple reasons why Trump Administration withdrew from the Paris Agreement. First, the US politics are influenced by the interest groups and the fossil fuel manufacturers (such as Koch Industries) have strong connections with the current administration (Mayer, 2017). President Trump does not acknowledge the fact that climate change is a common problem but requires a different level of responsibilities by countries. He is known to be a hard negotiator and it is difficult to change his perception. While Trump’s predecessor Obama focused on foreign relations, Trump concentrates on America first as he believes the Paris Agreement will adversely impact the growth and employment in the US (TWH, 2017). Trump has been observed to be focusing only on the economic costs and not the environmental and economic benefits, as part of his isolated view of the US (Zhang et al., 2017). In addition, it is well-known that Trump has personal issues with Obama and wants to destroy Obama’s political legacy, with the withdrawal from the Paris Agreement being a step in that direction (Liptak & Jones, 2017).

However, President Trump softened his stance in January 2018 (Sampathkumar, 2018) and expressed his concern for the environment and talked about being open to renegotiation. Since the accord is voluntary, US has much flexibility in complying with the agreement without losing its competitive advantage and increasing its economic burden. However, countries such as France, Germany, and Italy have firmly stated that there is no scope for negotiation the way Trump wants as the Paris Agreement is crucial in saving the environment and planet (Sampathkumar, 2018). The social polarisation promoted by Trump has left little room for cooperation from both sides (Jonathan & Sam, 2017), which has put serious doubts on the success of the Paris Agreement.


The Paris Agreement similar to its predecessors is not expected to be successful primarily due to the weak legal framework and requires the involvement of organisations such as WTO for it to succeed. A determining factor for it to work is the involvement of the US, which will only happen if the economic burden is shared by the industrialising countries as well and the current US administration needs to feel that their competitive advantage is not being stolen from them and their growth is undermined.


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November 13, 2023
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