Next month, international talks for a successor treaty to the Kyoto Protocol will kick off in Poland. But whatever happened with the last treaty? First, the good news: According to new U.N. data, the world is on pace to meet its Kyoto targets—right now, the 39 signatory states have reduced their greenhouse-gas emissions, on average, about 17 percent below 1990 levels. (The treaty calls for the states to be, on average, 5 percent below 1990 levels between 2008 and 2012.) Sounds good, huh? Well, there's also an unsightly snag: Much of this dramatic plunge came about because of the collapse of the Soviet Union and the subsequent downturn in Eastern and Central Europe during the 1990s. Lately, though, those countries have been roaring back to life, spewing up carbon galore, while emissions in richer nations and—especially—developing countries outside the treaty, like China and India, are still skyrocketing. Insofar as Kyoto can be dubbed a "success," it's an uneven one at best.
But a couple of comments. First, it's not at all clear that the wealthier EU countries are actually going to miss their targets. Some countries, especially Sweden and Britain, are doing quite well. And, as a recent European Environment Agency report laid out, the EU-15 is working to implement a new plan to ratchet down overall emissions in the next 48 months. Much of this will come from tightening its cap-and-trade regime, though they're also planning to plant trees and use (dubious) offsets to inch under the finish line. Plus, of course, a global recession could make the jobs easier, since energy use will shrink. On the flipside, the European Parliament, currently led by Nicholas Sarkozy, might only be able to move forward stronger climate rules by adding a few concessions—especially for coal-heavy Poland.
Meanwhile, Japan just announced that its greenhouse-gas emissions rose to a record high in 2007, leading most onlookers to predict that it could miss its targets entirely over the next four years. Part of the carbon leap came because the country's biggest nuclear plant had to close last year after being rocked by an earthquake. But Japan also doesn't have a mandatory cap or tax on company emissions—steelmakers and manufacturers have resisted one. Instead, various sectors make entirely voluntary "pledges" to cut emissions—an approach that's likely not sustainable going forward.