What Is the Kyoto Protocol?

The Kyoto Protocol is an international agreement that aimed to reduce carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions and the presence of greenhouse gases (GHG) in the atmosphere. The essential tenet of the Kyoto Protocol was that industrialized nations needed to lessen the amount of their CO2 emissions.

The Protocol was adopted in Kyoto, Japan in 1997, when greenhouse gases were rapidly threatening our climate, life on the earth, and the planet, itself. Today, the Kyoto Protocol lives on in other forms and its issues are still being discussed.

Key Takeaways

  • The Kyoto Protocol is an international agreement that called for industrialized nations to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions significantly.
  • Other accords, like the Doha Amendment and the Paris Climate Agreement, have also tried to curb the global-warming crisis.
  • Today, talks began by the Kyoto Protocol continue and are extremely complicated, involving politics, money, and lack of consensus.

The Kyoto Protocol Explained

Background

The Kyoto Protocol mandated that industrialized nations cut their greenhouse gas emissions at a time when the threat of global warming was growing rapidly. The Protocol was linked to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). It was adopted in Kyoto, Japan on December 11, 1997, and became international law on February 16, 2005. Countries that ratified the Kyoto Protocol were assigned maximum carbon emission levels for specific periods and participated in carbon credit trading. If a country emitted more than its assigned limit, then it would be penalized by receiving a lower emissions limit in the following period.

Major Tenets

Under the Kyoto Protocol, industrialized nations pledged to cut their yearly emissions of hydrocarbons—as measured in six types of greenhouse gases—by varying amounts, for an average reduction of 5.2% by 2012 as compared to 1990. That amount of emission reductions would have equaled a 29% cut in GHG emissions that would have otherwise occurred. However, each country had its own target. For example, when the agreement was finalized European Union (EU) members had a target of reducing emissions by 8% by 2012; the United States had a reduction target of 7%, and Canada's target was 6%.

Responsibilities of Developed versus Developing Nations

The Kyoto Protocol recognized that developed countries are principally responsible for the current high levels of GHG emissions in the atmosphere as a result of more than 150 years of industrial activity. As such, the Protocol placed a heavier burden on developed nations than less-developed nations. The Kyoto Protocol mandated that 37 industrialized nations plus the EU cut their GHG emissions. Developing nations were asked to comply voluntarily, and more than 100 developing countries, including China and India, were exempted from the Kyoto agreement altogether.

A Particular Function For Developing Countries

The Protocol separated countries into two groups: Annex I contained developed nations, and Non-Annex I referred to developing countries. The Protocol placed emission limitations on Annex I countries only. Non-Annex I nations participated by investing in projects designed to lower emissions in their countries. For these projects, developing countries earned carbon credits, which they could trade or sell to developed countries, allowing the developed nations a higher level of maximum carbon emissions for that period. In effect, this function helped the developed countries to continue emitting GHG vigorously.

The United States' Involvement

The United States, which had ratified the original Kyoto agreement, dropped out of the Protocol in 2001. The U.S. believed that the agreement was unfair because it called for industrialized nations only to limit emissions reductions, and it felt that doing so would hurt the U.S. economy.

The Kyoto Protocol Ended in 2012, Effectively Half Baked

Despite being adopted in 1997, the Kyoto Protocol didn't become international law until 2005, more than halfway through the 1990–2012 period. By that point, global emissions had risen substantially. Some countries, including the EU, were on track in 2011 to meet or exceed their Kyoto goals, but other large nations fell woefully short. Moreover, the two biggest GHG emitters of all—the United States and China—churned out more than enough extra greenhouse gas to nullify all of the reductions made by other countries during the Kyoto period. Between 1990 and 2009, emissions soared by nearly 40% worldwide.

The Doha Amendment Extended Kyoto Protocol to 2020

In December 2012, after the first commitment period of the Protocol ended, parties to the Kyoto Protocol met in Doha, Qatar to adopt an amendment to the original Kyoto agreement. This so-called Doha Amendment added new emission-reduction targets for the second commitment period, 2012–2020, for participating countries. The Doha Amendment had a short life. In 2015, at the sustainable development summit held in Paris, all UNFCCC participants signed yet another pact, the Paris Climate Agreement, which effectively replaced the Kyoto Protocol.

The Paris Climate Agreement

The Paris Climate Agreement is a landmark environmental pact that was adopted by nearly every nation in 2015 to address climate change and its negative effects. The agreement includes commitments from all major GHG-emitting countries to cut their climate-altering pollution and to strengthen those commitments over time. A major directive of the deal calls for reducing global GHG emissions so as to limit the earth's temperature increase in this century to 2 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels while taking steps to limit the increase to 1.5 degrees. The Paris Agreement also provides a way for developed nations to assist developing nations in their efforts to adapt climate control and it creates a framework for monitoring and reporting countries’ climate goals transparently.

The Kyoto Protocol Today?

In 2016, when the Paris Climate Agreement went into force, the United States was one of the principal drivers of the agreement, and President Obama hailed it as “a tribute to American leadership.” As a candidate for president at that time, Donald Trump criticized the agreement as a bad deal for the American people and pledged to withdraw the United States if elected.

A Complicated Stalemate

In 2019, the dialogue is still alive but has turned into a complex quagmire involving politics, money, lack of leadership, lack of consensus, and bureaucracy. Today, despite myriad plans and some actions, solutions to the problems of GHG emissions and global warming have not been implemented. Almost all scientists who study the atmosphere now believe that global warming is primarily the result of human action. Logically then, what humans have caused by their behavior should be able to be remedied by humans changing their behavior. It is frustrating to many that cohesive action to deal with the human-made global climate crisis has yet to happen.

Remember the Internet

It is critical that we remain convinced that we can, in fact, resolve these issues so crucial to our survival. We humans have already solved huge problems in numerous fields via technical innovation that led to radically new solutions. Moreover, if anyone had suggested in 1958 that our own Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA)—which oversees development of advanced technologies for use by the U.S. military—would lead the world in creating the internet—a system that could "connect every person and thing with every other person and thing on the planet instantly and at zero cost"—well, they would have been laughed off the stage... or, maybe worse.