For many environmentalists, Feb.16 will be a day to pop open a bottle of champagne as the Kyoto Protocol, the first significant international accord created to mitigate global warming, finally takes effect.

The one important guest missing from the celebration will be the biggest emitter of greenhouse gases — the United States. Although the United States signed the 1997 Kyoto Protocol during former President Bill Clinton's administration, in 2001, Congress decided not to ratify the agreement. Despite the absence of the United States, however, environmental leaders around the world are in high spirits.

“This is the most important global environmental agreement to come into force,” said Human Biology Prof. Armin Rosencranz.

The legally-binding Protocol requires 36 countries to reduce greenhouse gas emissions at least five percent from their 1990 levels between 2008 and 2012, the first commitment period.

“Although the Kyoto [Protocol] targets seem small, when one considers how quickly carbon emissions have increased since 1990 — over 20 percent in the United States — an undertaking to reduce even five percent from 1990 levels is huge,” Rosencranz said. “And it’s a beginning: like Confucius said, ‘A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.’”

Global warming: The reality

The recent movie “The Day After Tomorrow” caused some to think that the effects of global warming will be sudden and catastrophic. While Los Angeles is unlikely to be swallowed by a tidal wave in the near future, gradual warming over the next century will create irreversible changes that may have significant economic consequences.

Since the Industrial Revolution, high concentrations of gases, such as carbon dioxide and methane, have accumulated in the atmosphere as the result of burning fossil fuels. These gases have created a layer that traps solar radiation and warms the earth like a greenhouse.

Global temperatures are predicted to increase 1.8 to 5.8 degrees Celsius over the next century, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a body created by the United Nations to assess scientific, technical and socio-economic information relevant to climate change.

The effects of global warming are still uncertain, but geologists predict that sea levels will increase, possibly flooding coastal regions. Rising temperatures may also disrupt many ecosystems, leading to an extensive decrease of biodiversity.

As a result of the many consequences of global warming, international leaders have congregated for many years to work on an agreement to curb greenhouse gas emissions. After holding numerous conferences, scientists and politicians created the Kyoto Protocol in 1997.

Skeptical Environmentalists?

Not everyone believes that human activity has led to global climate change. Bjorn Lomborg, author of “The Skeptical Environmentalist: Measuring the Real State of the World,” claims that there is so much uncertainty in climate data that environmental groups and governments are misleading people with worst-case scenarios. In his book, Lomborg writes that the money spent implementing the Kyoto Protocol would be better spent on improving conditions for the world’s poor.

Biology Prof. Stephen Schneider, co-director of the Stanford Center for Environmental Science and Policy, writes on his Web site that the media and many governments — particularly George W. Bush's administration — are willing to entertain the claims of contrarians such as Lomborg.

“[T]hese contrarians are given disproportionate representation in the media and by certain governments, especially the Bush administration, so far,” Schneider said.

Reducing emissions around the world

The Kyoto Protocol allows parties to reduce their emissions through three different methods: the cap-and-trade system, the Clean Development Mechanism and joint implementation. The cap-and-trade system will grant each country “carbon credits,” which they can buy and sell in a controlled market.

The Clean Development Mechanism and joint implementation both allow developing countries to become involved: Developed nations can implement cleaner-burning projects in developing and still have them count as part of their greenhouse gas reductions.

For now, only developed countries and economies in transition (such as the former Soviet bloc) are required to reduce emissions. However, thus far, the United States has refused to ratify the Protocol unless developing countries are involved in cutting emissions. Large developing nations, such as India and China, are predicted to be major emitters of greenhouse gases in the next few decades.

“[China and India] are going to engage in vast economic expansion,” said British Prime Minister Tony Blair recently, according to the Associated Press. “The question is can they do so in a way that is environmentally sustainable? That is where we need the dialogue. They need access to the latest science and technology to do that.” The United Kingdom has ratified the Protocol and is committed to a 12.5 percent reduction of greenhouse emissions.

While the United States will not participate in the first commitment period of the Protocol, Rosencranz predicts that the United States will eventually join the effort to mitigate global warming.

“The United States can’t stay out,” Rosencranz said. “Post-2012, the U.S. will undoubtedly want to participate. Meanwhile, U.S. corporations as well as individual U.S. states will continue to be actively engaged in reducing carbon emissions. The federal government will simply follow their lead.”