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The Kyoto Protocol
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Last Updated:
16 January 2003

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Eric Bond

Climate Change and the Kyoto Protocol

The Kyoto Protocol


Over the past decade, as the evidence of climate change became clearer and better understood, a strong international movement for action has emerged. In 1992 at Rio de Janeiro, more than 180 countries signed the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, which outlined the need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions as a global response to climate change. The UNFCCC came into effect in March, 1994, but despite this establishment, very little action was taken around the world.27

The Kyoto Protocol; which was agreed upon on December 11, 1997, at a meeting of the UNFCCC in Kyoto, Japan; was created as an effort to force action on the international community.28

Overview of the Kyoto Protocol

Under the Kyoto Protocol, industrialized nations agreed to cut their greenhouse gas emissions to a certain percentage below 1990 levels. The year 1990 was chosen as a baseline because that was the year when the UN first launched negotiations on climate change. These total cuts in emissions would have to be accomplished by the target period of 2008-2012.29


The Kyoto Protocol applies to industrialized nations only. Developing countries, including India and China, were not required to commit to reductions because their per-capita greenhouse gas emissions are much lower than those of developed nations. This decision also took into account the fact that the poorer economies of the developing countries would be unable to absorb the costs of switching from a fossil fuel based system to cleaner fuels. The plan is that poorer countries will be brought more actively into future climate change agreements as cleaner technologies develop and become less expensive.31

Reduction Targets and Ratification Status

Eighty-four countries, including the United States, the European Union, Japan, Russia, and Canada, signed the Protocol. These signatures indicate a desire to participate in the program and work towards the agreed reductions.

The European Union agreed to cut its emissions by 8% below 1990 levels, Japan by 7%, the United States by 7%, and Canada by 6%. Russia agreed to stay at 1990 levels, which still represents a significant reduction. The targets differentiate because some countries will find it easier to make cuts than others.32

None of these targets are meaningful until a country ratifies the Kyoto Protocol and agrees to put the appropriate measures in place to achieve the reductions. In order for the Kyoto Protocol itself to come into effect, 55 countries, together producing at least 55% of the world's 1990 carbon dioxide emissions, must ratify the Protocol. This is known as the 55/55 target.33

The Kyoto Protocol suffered a major setback in March, 2001, when the United States, which produces 36.1%34 of the carbon dioxide emissions of the Protocol's Annex I countries, decided not to ratify the Protocol. This meant that in order for the Protocol to come into effect, it became absolutely crucial for countries such as Russia, which produces 17.4%35 of emissions, to ratify in order for the 55% target to be achieved.36

Geopolitics of the Protocol

The European Union and Japan, which are the two large players that firmly support the Protocol and have ratified it, have been working frantically to keep support for the Kyoto Protocol in place. Both are relatively small, densely populated, developed countries that do not have access to their own low-cost sources of fossil fuel or hydro power. Setting aside environmental considerations, they see economic advantages for themselves if the Protocol were put into effect.

The most reluctant supporters of the treaty are the large, sparsely populated, developed countries such as the United States, Australia, Russia, and Canada. All of these countries have relatively cheap energy supplies and, in the short run, their economies and businesses would likely be at a disadvantage if the Protocol were implemented without added incentives.37

Points of Controversy

The Kyoto Protocol was created in 1997, but it has still not been put into effect since the 55/55 target has not yet been achieved. There has been a general reluctance to accept the agreement since controversy surrounds a number of issues. The UNFCCC has held annual conferences to discuss and address these issues and the individual concerns of some countries, but little progress has been made. This has lead some to state that the Kyoto Protocol is fundamentally flawed, but before passing this judgement, the points of controversy should be examined individually:

  • Penalties for Non-Compliance / Withdraw

    At present, no penalties exist for a country that ratifies the Protocol and fails to meet its reduction targets. Possibilities under consideration include financial penalties, trade sanctions, and emissions penalties under future climate change agreements. The details for such penalties have not been established and negotiations have been very slow and difficult.38

    Furthermore, any country can withdraw from the treaty after ratifying it by simply giving one year's notice. This part of the treaty, coupled with the lack of penalties for non-compliance, has come under harsh criticism from the scientific community: as it stands, the Kyoto Protocol is completely unbinding and seems to embody something that does not need to be taken seriously since there are no consequences for non-compliance.39

  • What constitutes an "emissions reduction?"

    Although all countries that signed the Kyoto Protocol agreed to greenhouse gas "reductions," they did not agree on what exactly is to be counted as "reductions."

    Some countries, particularly Canada and Russia with their large forests, argued that they should receive credits towards their reduction targets for these "carbon sinks" that absorb greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere from across the globe. Other countries argued that integrating the planting of forests as a part of regular industrial projects should count in the same sort of way.

    Unfortunately, no real method exists for quantifying the actual benefits of either proposal, and while some allowances have been made, all of the parties involved claim that they have not yet been credited enough.40

  • The Kyoto Mechanisms

    Under the Kyoto Protocol, there are three Mechanisms that allow countries and companies to buy, generate, or trade "emissions credits." These credits then count towards the country's reduction target.

    The Mechanisms are known as International Emissions Trading - buying credits from other industrialized countries who have exceeded their reduction targets, Joint Implementation - investing in emissions reduction projects in other industrialized countries, and Clean Development - investing in clean energy and other emission reduction projects in developing countries. The logic behind all of the Mechanisms is that the planet as a whole does not care where the reductions in emissions are achieved, simply that they are achieved somewhere. As such, by investing in a reduction project on the other side of the globe, a country is still contributing to its own reduction quota.

    The controversy concerning the Mechanisms surrounds the fact that the methods for their actual use have yet to be finalized. If implemented, a new global market would emerge surrounding energy credits, and they would be traded much in the same way as other commodities such as oil or coffee. Prices would fluctuate with supply and demand, and there would certainly be ample opportunities for profits and losses.

    No methods for regulating this market have been finalized, and some argue that it detracts the Kyoto Protocol away from its true goal. By creating a global marketplace out of emissions trading, the treaty would essentially transform the act of reducing emissions into a game of economics from its true meaning of achieving goals that will improve the quality of life on the planet.41

Shortcomings of the Protocol

In addition to having controversial flaws that impede the implementation of the Protocol, there are a number of fundamental shortcomings with the ideas behind the treaty that question its benefit as a whole.

  • Exclusion of Developing Countries

    While many argue that it would not be viable to require developing nations to meet reduction targets under the Kyoto Protocol, their exclusion raises serious questions about the overall effectiveness of the agreement.

    Many developing countries make use of older, dirtier technologies or simply lack the infrastructure and policies to develop environmentally-friendly alternatives. As such, by not including such countries, they will continue to rely on these older technologies as their economies and populations grow. Their emissions will continue to grow without being limited by the Kyoto Protocol, so any gains made by the nations under the Protocol could be easily offset by the growth of emissions in the developing world.

    This shortcoming is best shown by the fact that China and India, which together represent one third of the world's population and are growing rapidly in terms of industrial capacity, are left completely unchecked in terms of greenhouse gas emissions.

    If the Kyoto Protocol is to achieve its goal of reducing global emissions, it will have to be changed to include all countries of the world, each contributing accordingly.42

  • Costs and Economic Implications

    A global reduction in greenhouse gas emissions provided by the Kyoto Protocol might be beneficial in the future, but a comparison of its immediate benefits to its costs is hardly favourable.

    The costs of implementing the treaty, when considered in terms of direct costs, loss of jobs, and long-term economic implications, are of such a magnitude that many experts think there are far more important immediate global priorities to be considered. While no finite estimate of how much the Kyoto Protocol would cost has been prepared, projects such as providing clean water to the world's population, which would save millions of lives annually, could be realized for a fraction of the cost and have far more immediate benefits.43

Result: Too Little, Too Late.

The final, and perhaps most important, criticism of the Kyoto Protocol is that it simply represents too little, too late. When it initially presented its findings to the United Nations in 1990, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) charged that a drastic reduction of greenhouse gas emissions in the range of 60 to 80 percent was necessary just to slow the process of climate change to an acceptable rate that would allow ecosystems to adapt. Even if it were implemented at 100% effectiveness, the Kyoto Protocol barely represents any progress at all, both because its reduction targets are low and emissions in developing countries will continue to grow unchecked.44 The following charts represent forecasts made comparing various levels of emission reductions for the next century:

Graph: What If Carbon Emissions Were Reduced?45

Concluding Remarks

While international agreements such as the Kyoto Protocol are certainly a step in the right direction in that they raise awareness about the severity of global climate change, they are not a complete solution and will not solve the problem alone. Real results and improvements will be seen when fundamental reductions in energy consumption and changes in lifestyle are achieved on an individual level across the globe. Continue by reading about What You Can Do to contribute towards reducing greenhouse gas emissions and improving your lifestyle.