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 Kyoto Protocol and Carbon Sinks

  • In the early 1990s, scientists and governments were negotiating the key article of the UN’s 1992 climate change framework: “the stabilization of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic [human-caused] interference with the climate system”. 

  • How to achieve that stabilisation has occupied climate scientists and negotiators ever since.

  • From the outset, scientists and governments recognised reducing greenhouse gas emissions was only one side of the equation. 

  • Finding ways to compensate or offset emissions would also be necessary.

  • The subsequent negotiation of the Kyoto Protocol backed the role of forests in the global carbon cycle as carbon sinks.

  • It also provided the means for well-forested developing countries to participate in the emerging carbon offset market, and to play their part in reaching the carbon accounting goal of “carbon neutrality”

  • Under those terms, the industrialised countries subject to the Kyoto Protocol could pay developing countries to offset their own emissions as a form of low-cost mitigation.

  • The Kyoto Protocol is an international agreement linked to the UNFCCC, which commits its parties by setting internationally binding emission reduction targets.

  • The Kyoto Protocol was adopted in Kyoto, Japan in 1997 and entered into force in 2005.

  • It recognized that developed countries are principally responsible for the current high levels of GHG emissions in the atmosphere as a result of more than 150 years of industrial activity.

  • The detailed rules for the implementation of the Protocol were adopted at COP-7 in Marrakesh, in 2001 and are referred to as the Marrakesh Accords.

  • Kyoto Protocol Phase-1 (2005-12) gave the target of cutting down emissions by 5%.

  • Phase- 2 (2013-20) gave the target of reducing emissions by at least 18% by the industrialized countries.

Net Zero

  • The Kyoto Protocol was unable to curtail soaring global greenhouse gas emissions, and a successor agreement appeared uncertain. 

  • As a result, interest turned in the late 2000s to the possibility of using highly controversial geoengineering techniques to remove greenhouse gas emissions

  • These proposals included sucking carbon dioxide out of the sky so the atmosphere would trap less heat, or reflecting sunlight away from the planet to reduce heat absorption. 

  • The focus on carbon sinks, whether through forests or direct air capture, would appear again in the idea of net zero

  • By this point, policymakers and advocates were shifting away from emissions reductions goals 

  • Instead, temperature targets became more popular, such as limiting warming to no more than two degrees above pre-industrial levels

  • The European Union had already adopted the 2°C threshold in 1996 and argued successfully for its relevance as a long-term objective for climate action.

  • What changed was scientists now had better ways of tracking how long carbon dioxide emissions would stay in the atmosphere, allowing better projections of our carbon budget.

  • These findings allowed the IPCC’s 2014 report to clearly state limiting warming to below 2°C would require “near zero emissions of carbon dioxide and other long-lived greenhouse gases by the end of the century”.

  • The concept of net zero offered a simple metric to assess mitigation efforts and hold parties legally accountable – an instrument she and colleagues proposed for the negotiation of a new legally binding agreement to succeed the Kyoto Protocol.

  • By late 2014, net zero had gained traction, appearing for the first time at a UN climate conference, the UN’s Emissions Gap Report, and in a speech by World Bank Group President Jim Yong Kim that stressed “we must achieve zero net emissions of greenhouse gases before 2100”.

  • These efforts culminated in the 2015 Paris Agreement, which in addition to its well-known temperature targets of 1.5°C and 2°C, also added a complementary goal: To undertake rapid [emissions] reductions … so as to achieve a balance between anthropogenic emissions by sources and removal by sinks of greenhouse gases in the second half of this century.

  • This is what “net zero” means – a “balance” between carbon emissions and carbon sinks

  • It was subsequently enshrined in the IPCC’s Special Report on the importance of keeping warming under 1.5°C, in which 195 member states agreed to get to net zero emissions by 2050.


  • Countries such as India have questioned what it means for fairness and equity between developing and developed nations, Instead, they favour the well-established approach of “common but differentiated responsibility” to mitigation

  • This justifies India’s aim to reach net zero emissions by 2070, as developed nations should lead the way and provide developing countries with funds and technologies necessary to support their mitigation ambitions.

  • The UN, by contrast, has warned the flexibility of net zero as a concept could make it a mere slogan for greenwashing by corporations and other non-state entities rather than a concrete objective.

  • Given the chasm between pledges and practice documented in the 2023 UN Emissions Gap Report, there is a very real likelihood we will shoot past the temperature limits of the Paris Agreement.


  • Net zero isn’t the only approach to tackle climate change. 

  • Other concepts are growing in popularity

  • Momentum has been building for a Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty since 2022, when Vanuatu called on the UN General Assembly to phase out the use of fossil fuels.



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Learnerz IAS | Concept oriented UPSC Classes in Malayalam: Net Zero UPSC NOTE
Learnerz IAS | Concept oriented UPSC Classes in Malayalam
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