Climate change: international treaties, European and Italian laws and public opinion

After an in-depth analysis of the causes and the consequences of climate change, the United Nations understood that it was necessary to take action to prevent the deterioration of the planet’s climatic and environmental conditions.

It was necessary to force nations to respect the environment, limiting emissions of greenhouse gases and other harmful gases, without causing too much damage to the economy and industrial production.

To this end, starting in 1992, the United Nations organized international conventions on climate change in order to ratify various treaties about environmental protection.

From 1995 onwards, every year conferences on climate change have been held by the United Nations, in order to assess progresses made and the new challenges on this issue.

The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change

Among the first measures against global warming, in 1992 the United Nations held in Rio de Janeiro the first United Nations Framework Convention on climate change, also known as the “Earth Summit”.

This agreement was ratified by all the 196 countries belonging to the United Nations. The signatory states of the “Earth Summit” were divided into three groups:

  • industrialized countries; former socialist countries and the European Union;
  • industrialized countries that are not part of the first group;
  • developing countries.

Developing countries had the possibility to become “industrialized” once they met the necessary economic requirements; however, these countries were not required to respect the agreements until the industrialized nations invested in them with economic resources and technological means: nonetheless, technological progress was subordinated to the fight against poverty and social inequality.

The main objective was to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions of industrialized nations by 2000, and the signatories agreed that the nations had different responsibilities.

The ratification obliged governments to pursue the non-binding goal of reducing emissions.

The treaty came into force in 1994, and from that moment the negotiations for the Kyoto Protocol began.

The Kyoto Protocol

As a consequence of the 1992 “Earth Summit”, the 1997 Kyoto Protocol introduced a legally binding obligation to reduce greenhouse gas emissions (while the 1992 agreements were not legally binding).

The protocol came into force in 2005, and was ratified by 192 countries.

The United States, however, despite having signed the protocol, never ratified it.

The treaty obliged nations to reduce emissions by at least 8% compared to the levels recorded in 1985, dividing the policies into two operational periods: 2008-2012 and 2013-2020.

The signatory states were divided into two groups, “Annex B nations” (which included the United States, Canada, European Union, Switzerland, Australia, Japan, Ukraine, Belarus, New Zealand and the Russian Federation) and “non-Annex B nations” (all the other nations not included in the first group).

Countries adhering to the Kyoto protocol could use flexible mechanisms to reduce emissions to the lowest possible economic cost and obtain “certified emission reductions” (or “CERs”).

The CERs are generated by avoiding CO2 emissions with the implementation of sustainable development projects, and are measured in “metric tons of CO2 equivalent”.

Let’s make an example to better clarify this matter.

An industrialized nation carries out a sustainable development project in a developing nation, such as the building of a solar power plant, and thanks to this power plant the developing nation has avoided emitting 300 tons of CO2 during the year: these 300 tons of CO2 are the certified emission reductions earned by the industrialized nation, which in turn will have the right to release 300 tons of CO2 into the environment, or resell the CERs on the market.

The Kyoto protocol provides three flexible mechanisms for the acquisition of CERs:

  • Clean Development Mechanism: allows industrialized countries to carry out projects in developing countries, both for sustainable development and socioeconomic development, generating CERs for countries that invest in such projects;
  • Joint Implementation: allows industrialized countries to implement projects to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in another country of the same group and to use the resulting CERs, jointly with the host country;
  • Emission Trading: allows the exchange of CERs between countries: a country that has achieved a decrease in its emissions of greenhouse gases above its prefixed quota can thus give these “credits” to a country that has not achieved its goals in reducing its greenhouse gases emissions.

The purpose of flexible mechanisms is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions at the lowest possible costs, safeguarding both the environment and economic investments.

The UN considered an extension of the Kyoto Protocol as well, which would have extended its validity until 2020, the “Doha Amendment”, signed in 1997, which would have come into force in 2012

However, the Doha Amendment has never formally entered into force since it required the ratification by least 2/3 of the UN states (144 nations), but only 124 actually ratified it, including Italy.

The United States did not ratify the Kyoto Protocol, causing a great deal of controversy in the public opinion and among the United Nations: the United States made this choice to avoid economic losses.

Despite the decision of the US federal government, some US states spontaneously complied with the Kyoto protocol, by enacting laws to reduce pollution.

Canada’s withdrawal sparked controversy as well: this country ratified the Kyoto protocol, pledging to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 6% compared to 1990 levels by 2012; however they not only failed to achieve their goal, but even increased emissions by 17 %.

In order to avoid the heavy economic sanctions envisaged in the event of non-compliance with emission reduction obligations, at the end of 2011 Canada withdrew its membership from the Kyoto protocol.

Criticism of the Kyoto Protocol

However, the Kyoto protocol has received many criticisms in several respects.

The fact that developing countries such as China and India were exempt from the obligation to reduce their emissions, despite being responsible for most greenhouse gas emissions, raised many concerns; this is one of the reasons that prompted US President George W. Bush not to ratify the treaty.

The Protocol then made almost all efforts on reducing carbon dioxide emissions, neglecting other harmful substances, such as hydro-fluorocarbons and ozone.

The Kyoto Protocol was accused of establishing short-term goals, while the solution to the problem of global warming requires decades, if not centuries.

The “CERs” aroused a great deal of criticism for the fact that they would not reduce emissions of greenhouse gases at all, but would stimulate the sale of emissions to the highest bidder, who in turn acquired the right to pollute.

CO2 emissions in 2013.
Total and per capita (expressed in ton per person) CO2 emissions in various countries in 2013, according to the data released by the European Commission’s Emissions Database for Global Atmospheric Research (EDGAR) (source: Wikimedia Commons).

The Paris Agreement

Over the years, many international conferences on climate change have been held, and assessments on the achieved goals and studies on new solutions to counter this issue have been made.

However, over time climate change has worsened and caused greater damage than before.

After the failed Copenhagen Accord of 2009, whose objectives and assumptions were judged by the international community as “ineffective” and “insufficient”, the Paris Agreement entered into force in November 2016 and was signed by 195 countries, but only 185 actually ratified it.

There are three main goals envisaged in the Paris Agreement:

  • avoid the increase of 2 degrees of the global temperature foreseen for the year 2100, determining a maximum threshold increase of 1,5 degrees;
  • diminish the greenhouse gases emissions;
  • funding alternative energy sources.

Every country has the obligation to draw up a yearly detailed report on its own efforts and objectives achieved in terms of reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Unlike the Kyoto protocol, the goals to be achieved are not established by the United Nations, but each country has the faculty to establish its own, without any legal obligations (except that of drawing up annual reports).

There are no distinctions between industrialized and developing nations, and the countries that ratify the treaty will have to contribute to environmental protection, while the Kyoto protocol provided for such obligations only for industrialized nations.

According to the principle of “common but different responsibility and respective capacities”, each nation must make a contribution based on its own greenhouse gas emissions and economic capacities, differentiating the objectives and trying to create more effective pollution reduction plans.

As happened in Kyoto, the United States withdrew from the agreement, causing outrage in the international community.

Criticism of the Paris Agreement

Some studies conducted by the prestigious journal Nature have shown that, as of 2017, the industrialized nations had not yet implemented the policies of the Paris Agreement, or that the measures taken were insufficient.

According to critics, the lack of legal constraints on emission reductions would give governments the possibility of not respecting the treaty, thus questioning the effectiveness of the Paris Agreement.

To overcome this problem, the industrialized nations asked the intervention of international institutions for the monitoring of greenhouse gas emissions, while the developing nations, in turn, asked and obtained that each country could independently monitor its own emissions.

The Agreement has not set a certain date by which CO2 emissions will have to cease or diminish substantially, with the consequence that the nations could take too long to reduce air pollution.

Finally, there is the unresolved issue about the international routes of planes and ships: in the treaty it is not clear which country should be considered as responsible for the emissions.

European laws on environmental protection

To fulfill the commitments made by the ratification of international treaties, the European Union has promulgated laws and directives to preserve the environment, defining certain terms within which the objectives must be achieved.

The European Council directive 406/2009 obliges the member states to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by a certain percentage compared to the emissions recorded in the year 2005, by 2020: Italy must reduce its own emissions by 13%.

Directive 28/2009 promotes the use of renewable energy sources (wind power, solar power, geothermal power, biomass, etc.), forcing member states to meet a percentage of their energy needs through clean sources by 2020: Italy must reach 17%, but renewable sources already make up about 40% of the total energy requirement.

Furthermore, although the Doha amendment did not come into force, the European Union complies with its provisions, prolonging the period of application of the Kyoto protocol until 2020, by means of Decision 1339/2015.

These directives serve to achieve the 20-20-20 goal, namely the 20% reduction of greenhouse gases compared to the emissions recorded in 1990, 20% of European energy from renewable sources and the improvement of 20% energy efficiency, by 2020.

By 2030, the European Union is committed to reducing emissions by 40% compared to the levels registered in 1990, achieving 32% of the total energy coming from renewable sources and the 32.5% improvement in energy efficiency.

Once the objectives set by the European Union have been analyzed, we wonder how many and which of these have actually been achieved.

The European Environment Agency is the institution that monitors the impact of human actions on nature, which in a 2017 report established that although the emissions of harmful gases have greatly reduced in the last few decades, in the metropolitan areas air quality is low, and concentrations of harmful gases exceed the limits set by law.

Among these gases are ozone (which, although essential in the ozone layer, is harmful to living forms when breathed), nitrogen dioxide and particulate matter, which cause respiratory diseases and serious damage to the respiratory system, if inhaled for prolonged periods.

CO2 emissions in 2015.
CO2 emissions in the most industrialized countries in 2015. “EEA” stands for “European Economic Area” (source: Wikimedia Commons).

Italian laws on environmental protection

Laws on environmental protection can be found in the Italian legal system as well, besides the application of European norms and international treaties.

One of the first Italian regulations on environmental protection is the law 1497 of 1939, which protects natural landscapes, as well as gardens, villas and parks that “stand out for their uncommon beauty”, punishing whoever damages them.

In 1948 the Italian Constitution was promulgated, and in article 9 there’s a provision for the “protection of the landscape”, which establishes that: “The Republic promotes the development of culture and scientific and technical research. It protects the landscape and the historical and artistic heritage of the Nation.”

In 1966 the Parliament approved one of the first laws against air pollution, the law 615, also known as the “anti-smog law”, that regulated the emissions of cars and thermal and industrial plants, which should not have exceeded a certain emission threshold, expressed in Kilo-calorie per hour (the amount varied according to the size of the city and the type of plant taken into consideration), under penalty of monetary fine.

In 1986 the law 349 established the Ministry of the Environment, which still deals with environmental protection.

Law 61/1994 established the ARPAs (Agenzie Regionali per la Protezione dell’Ambiente, Regional Agencies for Environmental Protection), which have the task of monitoring, processing and disseminating data on the state of health of the various regions.

In 2008, thanks to law 133, ISPRA (Istituto Superiore per la Protezione e la Ricerca Ambientale, Higher Institute for Environmental Protection and Research) was established, which has functions similar to those of ARPAs, and cooperates with the European Environment Agency and other international institutions.

As for criminal law, in 2015 a new section was added to the Italian Penal Code: Title VI bis, titled “On crimes against the environment”, which extends the cases of article 452 (“crimes against public health”).

Article 452-bis punishes with imprisonment from two to six years and a fine from 10 thousand to 100 thousand euros “anyone who illegally causes significant and measurable impairment or deterioration of: water or air, or of extended portions […] of the soil and subsoil […]”.

Article 452-ter punishes with imprisonment anyone who causes injuries to third parties following pollution actions.

Article 452-quater provides for the crime of “environmental disaster”, that is “the irreversible alteration of the balance of an ecosystem”.

To counter the undergoing climate change, in 2016 the Ministry of the Environment approved the “National Strategy for adaptation to climate change”, in order to minimize the damage caused by climate change, protecting the health of citizens and preserving the territory, as well as promoting the establishment of a “permanent information campaign” that deals with information campaigns for citizens, and a “National Observatory”, which identifies territorial priorities in terms of environmental protection.

This shows that even Italy is working to hinder the causes and effects of climate change and pollution.

Environmental associations, political parties and Greta Thunberg

There are hundreds of environmental associations that are fighting to protect the environment and preserve nature, but WWF and Greenpeace are among the oldest and best known.

In 1961 the WWF (Worldwide Wildlife Fund) was founded, and since the 1990s it has also begun to deal with issues concerning pollution and climate change.

At the end of the 1960s, following a protest against some US nuclear tests carried out in Alaska, Greenpeace was established. Similarly to the WWF, initially the purpose of the association was to safeguard biodiversity, only to focus also on the issues of sustainable development, clean energy and climate change since the early 1990s.

In 1980 in Italy was established Legambiente (a portmanteau of the words “lega”, which means “league”, and “ambiente”, “environment”), with the same objectives as the other environmental associations. This organization, following the Chernobyl disaster of 1986, promoted the referendum that caused the ban of nuclear energy in Italy in 1987.

Between the ’70s and ’80s in many nations environmentalist parties were founded (so-called “green parties”) which, together with the associations, promoted laws to reduce air pollution and protect biodiversity, in addition to organizing information campaigns for citizens; these parties, although with different names, leaders and slogans, still exist nowadays.

The action of environmental associations and environmentalist political parties has had enormous influence on societies in every part of the world, and therefore there is currently an ever greater awareness and sensitivity towards environmental issues and climate change.

The most concerned group on environmental issues are young people, who will inherit the planet and will have to cope with climate change and its consequences.

Currently in Europe there are peaceful demonstrations in defense of the environment, led by the Swedish student Greta Thunberg, who first decided to call a “school strike” for the climate: this initiative has aroused the attention of the media, politicians and even the United Nations.

Greta Thunberg delivered a speech at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Katowice (Poland), in which she highlighted how climate change is causing extinction and loss of animal and plant biodiversity. Recently he also had a meeting with Pope Francis, with whom she briefly discussed the future of the planet.

Thanks to a widespread media coverage, Greta’s initiatives have highlighted the problems linked to climate change, which will be destined to worsen quickly if all of humanity does not take immediate action, forcing world leaders to ratify and promptly execute all those treaties, agreements, resolutions, directives and amendments that they have signed.

Although we are risking an environmental disaster, fortunately the restoration of our planet is still possible, but only if everyone cooperates to achieve this goal.

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