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Kyoto Protocol

The Kyoto Protocol was established in 1997 in Kyoto, Japan and is part of a broader framework of international government cooperation regarding climate change. As part of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, the Kyoto Protocol acts as the binding, enforceable contract between countries regarding the specifics of addressing climate change. Unfortunately, the Kyoto Protocol has been unsuccessful for several reasons.

The basis for the Kyoto Protocol (KP) is that humans are causing an increase in global mean temperature. This simple statement is, however, not so simple to remedy because most of the industrialized world would collapse if GHG emissions were stopped immediately. To ease the transition, governments from around the world came together to attempt to reach mutually beneficial means of saving the planet from the fate of global warming.

The KP is the result of several different phenomena. First, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released its first report stating that the climate was warming as a result of human activity in 1990. That report prompted the formation of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), which met officially in 1992. At that time, countries made unofficial, non-binding agreements to work toward stabilizing greenhouse gas concentrations, which is to say that GHG emissions would need to be capped so that atmospheric concentrations of those gases did not increase.

Part of the UNFCCC revolved around the division of countries into groups based on their ability to financially or technologically contribute to the climate change solution. Unfortunately, it was this division that ultimately led to the unraveling of the KP. Out of the 195 countries who claimed membership in the UNFCCC, only 37 were considered to be Annex I, which meant they were capable of providing financial or technological support. Conspicuously absent from the list were China, Indonesia, and several other developing countries that would quickly become some of the largest contributors to GHG emissions.

The UNFCCC obligations did not become binding until 1997, when the Kyoto Protocol was signed. At that time, the 37 Annex I nations and the European Union were to commit to binding targets for GHG emissions. The targets were to be implemented over the years 2008-2012 and were to include four green house gases and two ozone depleting gases. By committing to the KP, these countries were not only agreeing to reduce GHG emissions, but were also submitting to sanctions if they were not successful in reaching their goals.

Commitment to the KP was broken up into two periods. The first was to run from 2008-2012 and the second 2013-2020.  Emissions had to either be capped at 1990 levels or reduced to pre-1990 levels for most countries. Meeting targets was allowed through several mechanisms including:

  • International Emissions Trading – See Below
  • Clean Development Mechanisms (CDMs) – Development of renewable energy, increased energy efficiency, and changes in types of fuels used. CDMs targeted non-Annex I countries like China and Brazil with the idea that Annex I countries could invest in cleaner technology in these areas rather than allowing them to build less green technology. The thought was that China would make up over half of all carbon reduction through this scheme.
  • Joint Implementation – Allows countries to work together to reach their combined goals

The above is the basic outline of the Kyoto Protocol. What follows is an explanation of specific provisions, including emissions trading, and an overview of the objections to those provisions that have ultimately resulted in the failure of the Kyoto Protocol.

Emissions Trading

The idea of emissions trading did not start with the KP, but it did gain a great deal of traction from it. The idea is simple in that countries that generate large amounts of GHG emissions can offset that problem by paying other countries not to develop technology that does the same thing. The idea is that a trading scheme would help to protect developed nations while providing economic security to developing nations while still capping greenhouse gas emissions.

The biggest problem with emissions trading was that the allowances weren’t well balanced. Some countries, like Russia and many former members of the U.S.S.R were given an overabundance of credits because they were “restructuring” their economies. At the same time, many Western Nations like the United States had a deficit of allowances. What this amounted to was an allowance for some countries to build MORE GHG emitting technology and a requirement for other countries to dismantle such technology or buy allowances from those with surpluses. Ultimately, this undermined the whole point of the carbon trading scheme to begin with and it did little to cap or reduce GHG emissions.


The second problem with the KP, and by far the most damaging, was exemption of certain countries from any compliance. The 37 Annex I nations were essentially the only countries required to make cuts to GHG emissions. The problem arose from the fact that major economic competitors to those 37 nations, like China and India, were not among those who would be required to comply.

The United States never signed the protocol because the U.S. Senate, who must approve all international treaties, passed a resolution known as the Byrd-Hagel Resolution. The Byrd-Hagle Resolution stated that the U.S. could not ratify any international agreement that:

  • Did not require developing countries to make emissions reductions
  • Would harm the economy of the United States

Until 2011, the U.S stood virtually alone in not ratifying the agreement, which was a serious blow to the KP considering that the U.S. produced 36% of all emissions in 1990. It also meant that enforcement of the KP fell to the EU, Russia, Japan, and a few others who were widely thought to be less able to enforce sanctions. Australia did not initially ratify the treaty, but later reversed that decision when Prime Minister John Howard was replaced by Kevin Rudd.

In 2011, Canada signaled, Japan, and Russia all indicated that they would withdraw from the Kyoto Protocol, stating that the

penalties were nothing more than redistributions of wealth and that by exempting major economic competitors, like China and Indonesia, that the KP was more of an economic agreement than a climate agreement. Eventually Russia and Japan agreed to ratify the second period of the KP, but only with the condition that their emissions targets be non-binding. In essence, they have no commitment to reduce GHG emissions.