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International Programs News & Views Volume 6

Jan. 1998


Climate Change activities have been a very high priority for the Federal government in 1997 -- both domestically and internationally.  This issue of News and Views provides background information on the current state of UN-sponsored climate change negotiations, the US negotiating position, and current NRCS climate change activities.


The United States has signed and ratified the Framework Convention on Climate Change (FCCC). This United Nations’ (UN) environmental agreement required nations to reduce their total greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions to 1990 levels by the year 2000.  The agreement acknowledged that most of the world’s GHG emissions have come from developed countries, and they should take the lead in combating climate change and its adverse effects.  [The US, with only 5% of the world’s population, is the  largest GHG emitter, with over 20% of the world’s emissions.

The FCCC is an international treaty, but the actions taken by individual nations to reduce their GHG emissions to 1990 levels are voluntary.  In 1993, the US government developed a national  action plan outlining voluntary measures to be implemented by various federal agencies to help meet the GHG emissions reduction requirements of the treaty. NRCS and other USDA agencies participate in both the US Global Change Research Program and in GHG mitigation activities being implemented under this national action plan.  However, it is clear that the Climate Convention’s voluntary measures have not succeeded in reducing global GHG emissions.  Only two or three countries will meet the Convention’s non-binding “aim” (target) of lowering their emissions to 1990 levels by the year 2000.  The US will miss the aim by about 10%.

Status of Current Negotiations

Over 160 countries are now “Parties” (i.e., those who have both signed and ratified the treaty) to the FCCC.  In 1995, the Parties to the Climate Convention decided the existing treaty commitments were not adequate, and  began a negotiating process to  design a new legal instrument to deal with the threat of climate change in the post-2000 period.  This process is being coordinated by the “Ad Hoc Group on the Berlin Mandate”.  This instrument (it is a “protocol” under the framework Convention) was completed and adopted after 11 greuling days of negotiations at the UNFCCC Third Conference of Parties (COP-3), at Kyoto, Japan in early December, 1997.

Current NRCS Activities

NRCS participates in four activities which contribute to the current US Global Change Research Program (USGCRP) and the US Climate Change Action Plan (CCAP).

Since 1990,  the National Cooperative Soil Survey Program has annually devoted $1.5 million [CO-02 funds] to various studies on soil carbon which are carried out by states or universities.  These studies are considered to be a vital part of the USGCRP, since there is little information on how soil conservation practices either store or release carbon.  Since 1994, NRCS has devoted $3.0 million [CO-01] for three GHG emissions reduction initiatives which are part of the US Climate Change Action Plan (CCAP). The activities include:

  1. Improving nitrogen fertilizer use efficiency, thereby reducing the release of nitrous oxide to the atmosphere [Action #17].
  2. Working to implement AgStar, a cooperative program with EPA to reduce methane emissions from livestock waste lagoons and utilize methane to meet on-farm energy needs [Action #38].
  3. Improving animal production efficiency, and reducing the quantity of methane released by ruminant livestock into the atmosphere [Action #39].

Several NRCS employees also spend  some of their time working on climate change issues, either by representing USDA on the US interagency negotiating team, representing NRCS on USDA’s Global Change Task Force, managing NRCS-sponsored soil carbon studies, or implementing NRCS’s GCRP or CCAP programs.

The Elements of the Kyoto Agreement

Developed Countries:  Thirty-eight developed countries, including the United States, agreed to reduce their emissions of six greenhouse gases.  The six gases included carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, and three ozone-damaging fluorocarbons (hydrofluorocarbons, perfluorocarbons, and sulfur hexafluoride) not covered by the Montreal Protocol to Protect the Ozone Layer (the international agreement that banned global manufacture and use of chlorofluorocarbons).  Collectively, these developed countries agreed to reduce their emissions by a total of 5.2% between 2008 and 2012 from their 1990 levels.  

The United States agreed to a 7% emissions reduction, the European Union agreed to and 8% reduction, and Japan agreed to a 6% reduction below 1990 levels. Countries undeergoing a transition to a market economy (Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland, among others) but still considered “developed” , will face smaller reductions.  Some countries are not bound to make any reductions (Russia and Ukraine), while countries with smaller economies (Iceland, Norway, and New Zealand) are allowed to actually increase their emissions.

Developed countries that cannot meet their own emissions targets can arrange transactions with other developed countries that do better than required, to buy the excess quota -- a concept known as “emissions trading”.  Although the agreement includes provisions for setting up this emissions trading regime, the details of the system are expected to be worked out over the course of the next year, and submitted to the next Conference of Parties meeting in November, 1998.

Developing Countries:    Developing countries, including China and India, have no formal binding targets, but have the option to set voluntary reduction targets.

The Protocol, which was approved unanimously by participants in the Kyoto conference, becomes binding on individual countries only after their governments’ complete ratification (i.e., signature by the President and Senate approval in the US), and will enter into force 90 days after 55 countries (representing at least 55% of the developed countries emissions in 1990) have ratified it.  The Protocol will be opened for signature by heads of state from March 16, 1998 to March 15, 1999.  The United Nations Depositary will begin accepting national ratifications starting March 16, 1999.
Theoretically, the Protocol could enter into force without US ratification, but this is unlikely.

The next UNFCCC Conference of Parties meeting will be held in November, 1998 in Buenos Aires, Argentina, where participants will attempt to work out a number of unfinished details:  the format and scope of the “clean development” fund,  emissions reduction obligations of developing countries,  details of emissions trading between developed and developing countries among others.