The Kyoto Protocol (effective 2005) is an international treaty on the subject of global warming which broadens the scope of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). 1 Its unique contribution to climate action and ecological sustainability is that it lays down the first legally binding obligations for 37 developed countries to reduce emissions of six greenhouse gases (GHGs).
This get-tough attitude followed the publication of the Second Assessment report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which stated that global warming was being caused by man-made GHG emissions from the burning of fossil fuels, like coal, peat, petroleum, and natural gas.
NOTE: See also the IPCC’s later Special Report on Global warming of 1.5°C, published in 2018.
The Kyoto Protocol was adopted in Kyoto, Japan, in December 1997 and entered into force on 16 February 2005. The Protocol’s first commitment period – the period of emission-reductions – started in 2008 and ended in 2012. A second commitment period was agreed in Doha (Qatar), but failed to gain sufficient ratification. The Kyoto Protocol was superceded by the Paris Climate Agreement signed in December 2015.
With hindsight, one can say that the Kyoto Protocal contained several flaws:
(a) It avoided imposing any emission reductions on developing nations. But since China, India and other developing countries in Asia had become the world’s new manufacturing centres, this meant that a large percentage of global emissions were not regulated.
(b) It adopted a top-down approach to emission reductions. It added up the emissions needed, then divided it between the 37 developed countries. This is contrary to the ethics of climate that say developing countries need to increase emissions.
(c) It excluded international aviation and shipping from all emission calculations.
The Protocol’s successor – the Paris Agreement – is also in trouble, following a fractious and unproductive U.N. climate conference in Madrid (COP25), in December 2019.
For details of UN conferences on global warming, see: UN Climate Talks and Timeline.
Adoption And Workings Of The Kyoto Protocol
The Kyoto Protocol was adopted in December 1997 at COP 3 – the third session of the Conference of Parties to the UNFCCC – and came into force on in February 2005. There are currently 192 signatories. The Protocol initially covered a 5-year period ending in 2012.
In December 2012, in Doha (Qatar), a second commitment period was agreed, known as the Doha Amendment to the Kyoto Protocol. The Doha Amendment was ratified by 135 parties, 9 short of the number needed (three-quarters of 192) for it to come into force. Technically speaking the Kyoto Protocol lasted until 2015 when all UNFCCC participants signed yet another pact, the Paris Climate Agreement, which superceded and effectively replaced the Kyoto Protocol.
The Kyoto agreement is actually an extension of the original UNFCCC parent treaty, adopted at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. The parent treaty pledged to stabilize greenhouse-gas concentrations “at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system“. To put teeth into that pledge, the Kyoto Protocol introduced legally binding targets for greenhouse-gas reductions. These reductions are in addition to the limits on industrial gases like chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), which are covered by the 1987 Montreal Protocol on Ozone Depletion.
In other matters, the Kyoto Protocol fully reflects the core principles of its parent. Thus, it acknowledges that signatories have “common but differentiated responsibilities”, which means that the onus is on the industrial nations to reduce their emissions of carbon dioxide as they are the countries that caused it in the first place. Furthermore, it expects the greenhouse gas emissions of non-developed countries to rise in order to help sustain essential economic progress and development.
The main get-together of all signatories to the Kyoto Protocol is the official Meeting of Parties of the Kyoto Protocol (CMP), held alongside the meetings of the Subsidiary Body for Scientific and Technological Advice (SBSTA) and the Subsidiary Body for Implementation (SBI). The Kyoto get-together is held every year as part of the UN Climate Change conference – the UNFCCC’s annual “Conference of Parties” (COP) – which also serves as the formal annual meeting of UNFCCC. The first of the Meetings of Parties of the Kyoto Protocol was held in 2005 in conjunction with the eleventh Conference of Parties to UNFCCC (COP).
New Features in the Kyoto Protocol
Despite its weaknesses, the Kyoto Protocol is the first climate change agreement between nations to mandate country-by-country reductions in greenhouse gases. In addition, it introduces three innovative mechanisms – the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM), Joint Implementation (JI) and International Emissions Trading (IET).
For example, the Clean Development Mechanism, which became operational at the beginning of 2006, has already been responsible for more than 1,650 projects and is anticipated to produce carbon credits (called Certified Emission Reductions) worth more than 2.9 billion tonnes of CO2 equivalent during the first phase of the Kyoto Protocol, 2008–012.
Another unique feature of the Kyoto accord is the Adaptation Fund (AF) introduced in 2001. Negotiated at the UNFCCC’s 7th Conference of the Parties (COP7) at Marrakesh, Morocco, it is designed to finance practical projects that reduce the effects of global warming that impact on developing nations. As of October 2015, the Adaptation Fund had financed projects worth over US$330 million in 54 countries. 2
The main principles of the Kyoto Protocol – based on commitments agreed at the first UNFCCC Conference of the Parties in Berlin (COP 1) (April 1995), which was part of UNFCCC negotiations leading up to the Protocol – include the following:
• Binding Commitments to Reduce GHG Emissions Are Essential
Advisory limits on the discharge of carbon dioxide and other fossil fuel pollutants are no longer sufficient to control global warming, which the IPCC predicts will reach 1.5°C – 6°C by 2100. 3
• Developed Nations Should Reduce Emissions, First
Industrialized countries have caused most of the man-made atmospheric pollutants during their 150 years or more of industrial activity, and must therefore be the first to implement cuts in GHGs. 4 In addition, they should take steps to increase the absorption of these gases, via carbon capture and storage, and sustainable land use (LULUCF) activities. This principle ultimately led to the withdrawal of the United States from the Kyoto Protocol in 2001.
Why Did The USA Withdraw From The Kyoto Protocol?
The United States ratified the original Kyoto agreement, but withdrew in 2001. Why did it quit? Because it thought the agreement was unfair since only industrialized nations were required to limit emissions reductions, and it felt that such an approach would hurt the U.S. economy. This provided a precedent for President Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement on June 1, 2017.
• Kyoto also reaffirms the principle – originally enunciated by the UNFCCC treaty – that industrialized nations should proactively assist non-developed states to set up climate-related studies and projects by providing technical support as well as billions of dollars. One such support project is the “Adaptation Fund” (climate change adaptation is when we shield social and biological systems from the effects of global warming), set up to finance practical adaptation projects and programs in non-developed countries.
• Non-Developed Nations May Pursue Economic Growth
Because per-capita GHG emissions by non-developed countries were still relatively low in the late 1990s, the Protocol allowed them to rise in the near-term to enable economic development essential for national growth and prosperity. These countries were therefore not subject to emission reduction commitments during the first Kyoto period. However, the general assumption was that these countries would face reductions during subsequent periods.
• Carbon Credits May be Used to Offset Emissions
Processes such as the clean development mechanism and emissions trading should be used to build carbon credits with which to offset greenhouse gas emissions at home. Under the Kyoto Protocol, a Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) allows any developed country to establish an emission-reduction project (e.g. a rural electrification project using solar panels) in a developing country in order to gain “certified emission reduction (CER) credits”, each equivalent to one tonne of carbon dioxide, which can be counted towards emission reduction targets. 5 The first global, carbon-offset scheme of its kind, the CDM aimed to stimulate sustainable development, while giving industrialized countries a degree of flexibility in how they achieve their climate change mitigation targets.
What Does The Kyoto Protocol Say?
The main goal of the Kyoto Protocol is to control emissions of anthropogenic greenhouse gases (GHGs) in ways that are compatible with underlying national differences in wealth, and capacity to make the reductions. 6 The Protocol lays down a series of emission reduction periods, the first of which covered the years 2008-2012. This period committed 36 industrialized states to legal binding reductions in GHGs – averaging 5.2 percent of their 1990 emission levels.
It also set a timetable starting in 2006 for negotiations for a second period to cover 2012-2020. 7 The Doha Amendment to the Kyoto Protocol, an agreement on a second period (2012-2020) was agreed in 2012, but was not ratified.
The reductions in CO2 and other GHGs required by the first period of the Kyoto agreement (2008-2012) applied only to developed countries and those with ‘economies in transition’, as defined in the original UNFCCC treaty of 1992. They included: the EU, Australia, Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Monaco, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Russian Federation, Spain, Slovakia, Slovenia, Sweden, Switzerland, Ukraine, UK and the USA. 8
Under the Doha Amendment to the Kyoto Protocol, a second period was agreed in 2012, during which the following countries were issued with binding emission-reduction targets: the European Union (and its 28 member states), Australia, Belarus, Iceland, Kazakhstan, Liechtenstein, Norway, Switzerland, and Ukraine. Unfortunately, the Doha Amendment never came into operation because it was ratified by an insufficient number of countries.
Compromises In Setting Greenhouse Gas Targets
All climate action – including the imposition of reductions in fossil fuel use – is an economic issue as much as it is an environmental one. Governments get nervous, as do workers in pollution-heavy industries, whenever Greens start hammering away at the need to ban cars or stop using oil in order to control global warming. Developing countries who need to grow their economies to feed and safeguard their populations do not like being told that their coal-fired power plants must be scrapped, or that their old factories must be shut down. The West may be able to afford the changeover to clean energy, but many Asian and African countries cannot. And they want their opinions to be heard.
This is one of the reasons for the rise of the G77 group – a coalition of less developed nations, including China and India, which was set up to promote its members’ economic interests in the United Nations. In the negotiations leading up to the Protocol, the G77 were in favour of deep cuts in GHGs across the developed world, while the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS) pushed for even more stringent reductions. Meantime, the EU wanted only three GHGs to be included – CO2, CH4, and N2O – with other pollutants like HFCs regulated separately.
Not surprisingly, the final targets were a compromise. They ended up less stringent than the targets proposed by some the Alliance of Small Island States and the G-77, but more stringent than those sought by others, like the EU and the United States.
Kyoto Protocol – Success Or Failure?
Following the failure of its signatories to ratify the Doha Amendment – regulating Kyoto’s second phase (2012-2020), the Kyoto Protocol was put on hold from 2013 onwards, and effectively has now been replaced by the Paris Agreement. But a number of other problems had been building up. 9
- The Protocol’s fundamental weakness was that it only required industrialized countries to take action. As a result – given that the United States withdrew, and that Russia, Canada, Japan and New Zealand are not participating in Kyoto’s second phase – it ended up regulating less than 15 percent of the world’s GHG emissions.
- It’s true that developing countries, including China and India, have contributed a relatively small share of the build-up of CO2 since 1900. But now that most of the world’s manufacturing is being done in Asia, both China and India are burning very large quantities of coal and oil, and therefore emitting very high levels of carbon dioxide. Neither country, however, was required to curb emissions under the Kyoto Protocol.
- The United States withdrew in 2001; Canada withdrew in 2012; while Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine stated that they may withdraw or not ratify the Amendment. In addition, although Japan, New Zealand, and Russia took part in Kyoto’s first phase (2008-2012) – they declined to assume responsibility for any further cuts in emissions.
- On the face of it, Kyoto signatories reduced their GHG emissions by 12.5 percent. In reality, most of this was achieved before the first commitment period even started, and came about purely because of the rapid decline in heavy manufacturing industries across Russia and Ukraine, following the collapse of the USSR. Without these artificial reductions, the Kyoto Protocol accounted for no more than 2.5 percent. 10
- To put it all into perspective, the United States and China – neither of whom have any commitments under the Kyoto Protocol – have emitted more than enough extra greenhouse gas to nullify all the reductions made by other states during Kyoto’s first phase ending in 2012. Indeed, total global emissions soared by nearly 40 percent from 1990 to 2009. 11 12
In fairness, an international consensus-based organization like the United Nations is definitely needed to arbitrate between the various parties and maximize the global effort to stop the Earth from overheating. Unfortunately, the solution to our climate crisis is not going to be found in compromise and diplomacy. We have a climate emergency on our hands, so we need leaders who can inspire whole populations, not just the requisite number of delegates.
- K Protocol: UNFCCC
- Adaptation Fund
- IPCC Fourth Assessment Report (2007).
- “Industrialized countries to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 5.2%.” United Nations Environment Program. 11 December 1997.
- Article 12.
- Kyoto and the Future of International Climate Change Responses: From Here to Where. International Review for Environmental Strategies. 5. 15-38. Grubb, Michael. (2004).
- The Seven Myths of Kyoto. Climate Policy. 1. 269-272. Grubb, Michael & Depledge, Joanna. (2001).
- Kyoto Protocol – Targets for the first commitment period.
- “Compliance of the Parties to the Kyoto Protocol in the first commitment period.” Igor Shishlov, Romain Morel, Valentin Bellassen. Pages 768-782. 10 Jun 2016.
- “The Kyoto Protocol: Climate Change Success or Global Warming Failure?” Craig Jones. Circular Ecology. Feb 2, 2015.
- “Has the Kyoto protocol made any difference to carbon emissions?” Duncan Clark, The Guardian Newspaper, Nov 26, 2012.
- “The Kyoto protocol is not quite dead.” Fiona Harvey. The Guardian.