The Kyoto Protocol on Climate Change: History & Highlights

Feature by Jay Makarenko || Feb 1, 2007

The Kyoto Protocol on Climate Change, which formally came into effect on February 16, 2005, represents a significant political and environment international regime. This article provides an introduction to the Kyoto Protocol, with a particular focus on the history of its negotiation and implementation, its central elements as a regime of governance, and key opportunities and challenges faced by the Protocol.

What is the Kyoto Protocol on Climate Change?

Protocol as an International Regime

History of the Kyoto Protocol

Negotiation & Ratification of the Protocol

Central Elements of the Kyoto Protocol

Targets, Flexibility & Enforcement

Kyoto Protocol: Opportunities & Challenges

Some Key Issues Surrounding the Protocol

Sources & Links for Further Information

List of Article Sources and Links for More on this Topic

What is the Kyoto Protocol on Climate Change?

Protocol as an International Regime

International Regime on Greenhouse Gas Emissions

The Kyoto Protocol is an international system of governance, implemented under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change for the purpose of regulating levels of greenhouse gases in the earth’s atmosphere. The Protocol was first adopted in principle at a 1997 United Nations-sponsored meeting held in Kyoto, Japan (hence, the name “Kyoto Protocol”), and officially came into force in 2005, after being formally ratified by the required number of nations. As a system of governance, the Protocol is underwritten by national governments and is operated under the aegis of the United Nations. Participating nations have agreed to meet certain greenhouse gas emissions targets, as well as submit to external review and enforcement of these commitments by United Nations-based bodies.

Objectives of the Protocol: Stalling Global Warming

The objective of the Protocol is the stabilization of levels of greenhouse gases in the earth’s atmosphere in order to stall global warming. Global warming has become a global concern; the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a United Nations agency, has predicted the earth’s average temperature will increase between 1.4 and 5.8 degrees Celsius between the years 1990 and 2100, with potentially significant environmental and social consequences. Moreover, the IPCC has linked the global warming phenomenon to human actions, and specifically, to increased levels of greenhouse gas emissions by humans through such activities as the burning of fossil fuels, deforestation, and industrial and agricultural production. The Protocol is meant to serve as a framework by which participating countries work cooperatively to stabilize concentrations of greenhouse gases in the earth’s atmosphere.

For more on global warming and its potential consequences for Canada:

National Participation in the Kyoto Protocol

As of July 2006, 164 national governments, including Canada, had ratified the Kyoto Protocol (United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change: 10 July 2006). Ratification means that these nations have formally adopted the Protocol in their domestic political institutions. As such, these nations are formally committed to meeting their specific greenhouse gas emission targets and are open to external review and enforcement by United Nations-based bodies. There are, however, notable “non-ratifying” nations, in particular, the United States and Australia. While both nations have signed the Protocol, neither has passed the agreement in their respective national legislatures. This means that they are neither bound by Kyoto emission target commitments, nor subject to external review and/or enforcement of those commitments.

For more information on Protocol ratification by nation:

History of the Kyoto Protocol

Negotiation & Ratification of the Protocol

The Kyoto Protocol involved a process of inter-governmental negotiations over a 13-year period. The following provides an historical overview of these negotiations, from the original meeting of nations in 1992, to the Protocol’s coming into force in 2005.

United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (1992)

In the 1980s & early 1990s, the issue of global warming came to the forefront of international politics. In 1992, 154 countries, including Canada, signed the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The central element of the Convention was a commitment to stabilize greenhouse gas levels in the atmosphere within a timeframe that would be sufficient to allow ecosystems to adapt naturally to climate change.

Nations agreed, moreover, that developed countries (countries with modern, fully developed economies) were to take a leadership role in reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Implicit in this understanding was the recognition that developed nations had been the primary greenhouse gas emitters over the last century, and that emission stabilization would be more problematic for non-developed or developing countries. (It was believed emission stabilization could come at the cost of economic development for non-developed and developing countries, something they could not easily afford.)

The 1992 Convention was only a general agreement in principle aimed at stabilizing greenhouse gas emissions. The Convention did not provide any of the important specifics for action, such as precise emission reduction targets, a timetable by which nations were to meet their targets, or a penalty system to punish violators. These issues were to be addressed at subsequent “Conferences of the Parties” (or COP), which were regular meetings that include all of the Protocol’s participating members.

Berlin Mandate (1995) & Ministerial Declaration (1996)

Between the signings of the UN Convention and the Kyoto Protocol, two Conferences of the Parties were held (referred to as “COP-1” and “COP-2”). At the first Conference, held in Berlin in 1995, nations adopted the Berlin Mandate, a commitment by developed nations to set specific targets and timeframes for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and to outline explicit policies and measures to meet these targets.

At the second Conference, held a year later in Geneva, Switzerland, nations adopted the Ministerial Declaration. This Declaration firmly stated that the science of climate change was compelling, and that legally binding commitments on greenhouse gas emissions were warranted. The Declaration was a response to the charge that the science of global climate change was uncertain, and that action was unwarranted.

Signing of the Kyoto Protocol on Climate Change (1997)

At the third Conference of the Parties, held in Kyoto, Japan, member countries signed the Kyoto Protocol. The 1997 Protocol document was a comprehensive agreement that included precise greenhouse gas emission targets for each member country, the general framework of a greenhouse gas emissions-trading program, and a commitment to hold future Conferences of the Parties to round out important details of the new regime (such as establishing the penalties for failure to meet targets and the rules of the new emissions-trading program). 

The 1997 agreement also provide a specific procedure for bringing the Protocol into full force and effect. The Protocol would have to be formally ratified by at least 55 industrialized nations accounting for a minimum of 55 percent of the total global greenhouse gas emissions produced in 1990. “Ratification” required nations to formally adopt the Protocol in their domestic political institutions. In Canada, for example, the Protocol received majority support by both the House of Commons and the Senate, and was formally ratified in 2002.

Negotiating Implementation of the Kyoto Protocol (1997-2002)

Following the signing of the Kyoto Protocol in 1997, participating nations held a string of COP meetings in order to work out the Protocol’s details. In 1998, nations adopted the Buenos Aires Plan of Action, which established a list of 140 items that necessitated agreement before countries could ratify the Protocol. These items ranged from working out an enforcement regime to establishing the rules for an emissions-trading system.

Most of the high-profile issues that remained outstanding were finally resolved in the Bonn Agreements and the Marrakech Accords, signed at the sixth and seventh Conferences of the Parties (both held in 2001). Under these agreements, participating members committed to comprehensive schemes governing flexibility mechanisms under the Protocol, such as the operating rules for emissions trading, emissions “sinks,” the Clean Development Mechanism, and Joint Implementation Projects. Nations also agreed to a general framework for enforcing compliance with emissions targets.

  • See the Central Elements of the Kyoto Protocol section of this article for more information on emissions trading, the Clean Development Mechanism, the Joint Implementation Projects, and the Protocol’s compliance framework.

The Bonn and Marrakech agreements effectively completed the work began under the Buenos Aires Plan of Action, setting the stage for participating members to ratify the Kyoto Protocol and to bring it into force.

US & Australian Rejection of the Kyoto Protocol (2001-2002)

In 1997, the Clinton Administration committed the United States to the Kyoto Protocol agreement, both as a signatory and as an active participant in its implementation negotiations. In 2001, following the election of George W. Bush in 2000, the Bush Administration announced a change in direction for the US; the US would no longer be formally ratifying the agreement. While accepting the general principles of global warming, and the need for international cooperation to reduce levels of greenhouse gases in the earth’s atmosphere, the Bush Administration was highly critical of many of the Protocol’s components, in particular the exemption granted to China, the second largest emitter of greenhouse gases (after the United States). Under the Protocol, China is recognized as a “developing nation” and is, accordingly, exempt from emission reduction targets. The Bush Administration has also expressed concerns over uncertainty in the precise impacts of global warming, as well as the potential impacts of the Protocol on the US economy.

For more information on the Bush Administration’s position on the Protocol:

In 2002, Australia also announced it would not ratify the Kyoto Protocol, even though it had signed the agreement in 1998. Publicly, Australian Prime Minister John Howard expressed concern over the potential effectiveness of the Protocol, considering the United States was no longer participating, and because the agreement did not impose any emission reduction targets on developing nations, in particular, China and India. The Howard government also expressed concern over the potential impact of the Protocol on the Australian economy.

Rejection by the US and Australia placed the entire Kyoto climate control process in doubt. The Protocol would only come into force with ratification by at least 55 members of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Control, representing a minimum of 55 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions in 1990. Given that the US alone produced approximately 36 percent of the total 1990 greenhouse gas emissions, its non-participation would make it extremely difficult to meet this ratification threshold. While Australia did not represent nearly the same level of emissions as the US, its non-participation, nevertheless, made reaching the ratification threshold that much more difficult.

Kyoto Protocol Comes into Effect (2005)

By January 2004, several countries had ratified the Kyoto Protocol, including Japan, Canada, New Zealand, and most European signatories. Collectively, these ratifying countries represented approximately 44 percent of the total greenhouse gas emissions produced in 1990 – only 11 percent shy of the 55 percent target cited in the Protocol’s terms. The deciding factor in the eventual implementation of the Protocol was Russia, which represented 17 percent of total 1990 emissions.
Russia had been unclear about whether it would ratify the Protocol, However, in November 2004, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced his government would indeed pass the agreement, ensuring the Protocol would come into effect in 2005. Russian support was due, in large part, to its desire to become a member of the World Trade Organization (WTO); Russia agreed to ratify the Protocol in exchange for European support for Russia’s WTO entry. This development was pivotal; without Russia’s support, the Protocol would not have met the 55 percent threshold and would have failed accordingly.

On February 16, 2005, the Kyoto Protocol formally came into effect, committing key industrialized countries, including Canada, to specific targets for reducing or limiting their greenhouse gas emissions between 2008 and 2012.

Central Elements of the Kyoto Protocol

Targets, Flexibility & Enforement

Greenhouse Gas Emission Targets

The central element of the Kyoto Protocol is the agreement by participating nations to meet specific greenhouse gas emission targets. The Protocol covers the emission of six primary greenhouse gases: carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, hydrofluorocarbons, perflurocarbons, and sulfur hexafluoride.

It is important to note that nations do not have the same emission reduction targets under the Protocol. Instead, different groups of nations have different targets. Canada’s target, for example, is to bring greenhouse gas emissions to six percent lower than what its emissions were in the year 1990. Most European countries, by contrast, are obliged to reduce their emissions to eight percent below their 1990 levels.

The Protocol requires each participating nation to achieve its particular emissions targets by the period 2008-2012, with evidence of demonstrable progress by 2005. Countries undergoing the process of transition to a market economy, such as many Eastern European nations, were accorded some flexibility under the Protocol in meeting their emission target deadlines. (The understanding was that these nations should not sacrifice necessary economic development in order to meet their Kyoto obligations.)

For more information on the precise targets of each participating country:

Developed’ & ‘Developing’ Nations Under the Protocol

Under the Protocol, “ratifying nations” (those that formally adopted the Protocol in their domestic political institutions) are divided into basic two categories: developed nations and developing nations. This distinction is based on economics, with “developed nations” (referred to under the Protocol as “Annex 1” countries) representing economies that are well developed, such as Canada, Japan, Russia, and most European nations. “Developing nations” (referred to as “Non-annex 1” countries), by contrast, represent economies considered to be underdeveloped or in the process of developing, such as China, India, and the nations of Africa and South America.

Only Annex 1 nations have binding greenhouse gas emission targets, while Non-Annex 1 countries are currently exempt. This means that major greenhouse gas emitters, such as China and India, are not obliged to limit their emissions and may, in fact, increase their production of greenhouse gases without penalty. Non-annex 1 countries, however, do have an important role to play in the Protocol’s flexibility mechanisms (see below); developed nations (Annex 1 countries) receive emission credits for funding greenhouse gas reduction projects in developing nations (Non-annex 1 countries). Moreover, special funds, such as the Least Developed Countries Fund, have been committed under the Protocol to aid developing countries in dealing with greenhouse gas emissions and the potential impact of global warming.

The Protocol’s distinction between developed and developing nations stems from an early recognition that developed nations had been the leading contributors to increasing greenhouse gas levels over the last century and, as such, should take the lead in stabilizing the process of global warming. As noted earlier, negotiating parties further agreed that developing nations should not be required to sacrifice economic development in order to reduce or stabilize their greenhouse gas emissions – accounting for their exemption from emission targets. There is, however, the possibility that some developing nations, particularly China and India, may take on more formal obligations under the Protocol in the future.

Flexibility Mechanisms Under the Protocol

Another important element of the Kyoto Protocol is its flexibility mechanisms. These enable participating nations to achieve their emission targets by means other than simply reducing their own national emissions of greenhouse gases – hence, the term “flexibility mechanisms.” The Protocol provides for three such mechanisms:

  • Clean Development: This mechanism allows developed (or Annex 1) nations to receive emission credits towards their own emission targets by participating in certain projects in developing (or Non-annex 1) countries. These Clean Development projects must be approved by members of the Protocol and must contribute to sustainable development and greenhouse gas emission reductions in the host developing country.
  • Joint Implementation: This mechanism allows Annex 1 nations to receive emission credits towards their own emission targets by participating in certain projects with other Annex 1 nations. These Joint Implementation projects must be approved by all nations participating in the project, and must either reduce greenhouse gas emissions or contribute to enhanced greenhouse gas removal through emission sinks (i.e. reforestation).
  • Emissions Trading: This mechanism allows Annex 1 nations to purchase emission ‘credits’ from other Annex 1 countries. Some countries will be below the emission targets assigned to them under the Protocol and, as such, will have spare emission credits. Under the emissions trading system, other nations may purchase these spare credits and use them towards their own emission targets.

These mechanisms are meant to provide individual countries some flexibility in meeting their particular emission targets, while still ensuring an overall reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. Under the Clean Development Mechanism, for example, the Annex 1 nation receives emission credits for reducing greenhouse gas emission in a developing nation. Hence, while emissions in the Annex 1 nation have in actuality remained the same, overall global emissions have been reduced.

For more information on the Protocols flexibility mechanisms:

Protocol Compliance Mechanisms and Bodies

In addition to these flexibility mechanisms, the Protocol also provides for a compliance regime consisting of a Compliance Committee that is made up of two branches: a Facilitation Branch and an Enforcement Branch. The mandate of the Facilitation Branch is to provide advice to, and assist, participating nations in meeting their Protocol commitments. The Enforcement Branch, by contrast, has the power to assess whether or not nations have met their emission commitments, and to determine possible consequences for non-compliance. Under the Protocol, nations that fail to meet their emission targets are required to make up the shortfall, plus an additional 30 percent goal, over the next emissions target period. Moreover, the Enforcement Branch may also assess a financial penalty to violating nations by suspending their eligibility to sell emission credits under the Protocol’s emission trading system.

For more information on the Protocol’s compliance regime:

Kyoto Protocol: Opportunities & Challenges

Some Key Issues Surrounding the Protocol

Since its signing in 1997, the Kyoto Protocol has been the centre of controversy, with some applauding its implementation and environmental benefits, and others expressing concerns over its effectiveness and potential economic consequences. The following section briefly highlights some of the key issues surrounding the Protocol.

Science of Global Warming & the Protocol

One of the more fundamental issues centres on the science of global warming itself. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a United Nations agency, has predicted that the earth’s average temperature will increase between 1.4 and 5.8 degrees Celsius between the years 1990 and 2100, with potentially significant environmental and social consequences. There has been, however, some limited controversy over these IPCC projections, especially in regards to the precise environmental and social impact of global warming. This has, in turn, led some to question the necessity of the Kyoto Protocol, especially considering its potential impacts on the sovereignty and economic development of nations (see below).

For more information on the science of global warming:

Limited Participation in the Protocol

Another common criticism of the Protocol is the non-participation by the United States and developing nations, in particular, China and India. These nations represent significant portions of the earth’s emissions of greenhouse gases; as such, this has led some to argue that, ultimately, the Protocol will have only a very limited impact on the process of global warming.

Proponents of the Protocol, however, may point to its limited participation as a partial success. Even without the United States and developing countries, the Protocol will result in a slower rate of increase in greenhouse gas emissions – in other words, a limited Protocol is better than no Protocol at all. A further argument often cited is that the Protocol may be an important first step to a truly global emissions reduction regime. For example, by reducing their own emissions first, developed nations might gain the legitimacy required to convince developing nations to also reduce their emissions.

Economic Impacts of the Protocol

Another key issue surrounding the Protocol: its potential economic impact on participating nations. Critics of the Protocol, for example, have emphasized potential negative economic impacts for developed nations as they work towards meeting their emission targets. They suggest that many economic sectors may be disrupted as companies are forced to introduce new technologies and procedures to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. In some cases, so the argument goes, the cost of introducing these technologies and techniques may be such that some companies will simply close.

Moreover, critics argue that governments and taxpayers will have to cover the cost of developing and enforcing stricter emission regulations, and providing aid and assistance to the private sector. Critics also contend that consumers in developed nations may experience a higher cost of living, particularly if the price of important fossil fuels (such as coal and oil) is raised to induce conservation and switching to non- greenhouse gas emitting energy sources. Individuals may also have to pay higher prices for manufactured goods, as companies pass on costs associated with emission reduction to the consumer.

It is important to note, however, that the Protocol itself does provide some means for dealing with possible short-term economic impacts, notably its flexibility mechanisms. With the Emissions Trading, Joint Implementation, and Clean Development mechanisms, nations can still meet their emission-reduction targets without having to undergo massive economic changes overnight. In Canada’s case, for example, there is concern the Protocol could cause serious disruptions to the oil sector; in this context, however, Canada can take its time in reforming the sector while continuing to meet its reduction targets by buying emission credits from other countries.

Supporters of the Protocol also cite its potential economic benefits. These include those stemming from the Protocol’s objective of stalling global warming, particularly in regions that may be impacted by rising sea levels and drastic changes in the weather and precipitation. There will also be significant opportunities for companies and economies that are able to take advantage of this new economic environment. Nations that have extra room in their emission targets ‘portfolios,’ for example, will benefit financially from being able to sell emissions credits to other nations. Developing nations may also benefit, as they collaborate with developed nations under the Clean Development Mechanism. Finally, businesses that are able to offer products and services for reducing greenhouse gas emissions will undoubtedly prosper.

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