What Is The Kyoto Protocol? Definition, History, Timeline, Status

What Is the Kyoto Protocol?

The Kyoto Protocol was 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. 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.
  • Talks begun by the Kyoto Protocol continue in 2021 and are extremely complicated, involving politics, money, and lack of consensus.
  • The U.S. withdrew from the agreement on the grounds that the mandate was unfair and would hurt the U.S. economy.
  • The Paris Climate Agreement of 2015, which replaced the Kyoto Protocol, includes commitments from all major GHG-emitting countries to reduce their climate-altering pollution.

Understanding the Kyoto Protocol


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 Dec. 11, 1997, and became international law on Feb. 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

Developed, industrialized countries made a promise under the Kyoto Protocol to reduce their annual hydrocarbon emissions by an average of 5.2% by the year 2012. This number would represent about 29% of the world's total greenhouse gas emissions.

Targets depended on the individual country. As a result, each nation had a different target to meet by that year.

Members of the European Union (EU) pledged to cut emissions by 8%, while the U.S. and Canada promised to reduce their emissions by 7% and 6%, respectively, by 2012.

$100 billion

The amount of the Kyoto Protocol fund that was meant to aid developing countries in selecting non-greenhouse-emitting industrialized processes and technologies.

Responsibilities of Developed vs. 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 only for industrialized nations to limit emissions reductions, and it felt that doing so would hurt the U.S. economy.

Kyoto Mechanisms

The Kyoto Protocol established three different mechanisms to enable countries additional ways to meet their emission-limitation target. The three mechanisms are:

  • The International Emissions Trading mechanism: Countries that have excess emission units permitted to them but not used can engage in carbon trading and sell these units to countries over their target.
  • The Clean Development mechanism: Countries with emission reducing or limiting commitments may implement emission-reducing projects in developing countries to earn certified emission reduction credits.
  • The Joint Implementation mechanism: Countries with emission reducing or limiting commitments to earn emission reducing units from a project in another party.

Additional Kyoto Protocol Changes

Global emissions were still on the rise by 2005, the year the Kyoto Protocol became international law—even though it was adopted in 1997. Things seemed to go well for many countries, including those in the EU. They planned to meet or exceed their targets under the agreement by 2011. But others continued to fall short.

The United States and China—two of the world's biggest emitters—produced enough greenhouse gases to mitigate any of the progress made by nations who met their targets. In fact, there was an increase of about 40% in emissions globally between 1990 and 2009.

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.

Every five years, countries engage in the Global Stocktake, which is an assessment of their progress under the Paris Climate Agreement.

A major directive of the deal calls for reducing global GHG emissions to limit the earth's temperature increase in this century to 2 degrees (preferring a 1.5-degree increase) Celsius above preindustrial levels. 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. In 2017, then-President Trump announced that the U.S. would withdraw from the Paris Climate Agreement, saying that it would undermine the U.S. economy.

The former president did not begin the formal withdrawal process until Nov. 4, 2019. The U.S. formally withdrew from the Paris Climate Agreement on Nov. 4, 2020, the day after the 2020 presidential election, in which Donald Trump lost his reelection bid to Joseph Biden.

On January 20, 2021, his first day in office, President Biden began the process of rejoining the Paris Climate Agreement, which officially took effect on Feb. 19, 2021.

Biden Presidency

Although the Kyoto Protocol no longer exists, many steps are currently being taken in the long-term preservation. Recent legislative action in support of climate change initiatives put forth under both the Kyoto Protocol and Paris Agreement include:

  • A $2.3 billion fund for its Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities (BRIC) program to support communities increase resilience to extreme weather.
  • Proposals to expand offshore wind energy opportunities with the potential of 700,000 acres of alternative energy to power over three million homes.
  • Reinvigorated reforestation efforts that will address a backlog of four million acres and plan more than one billion trees over the next decade.

Kyoto Protocol Timeline

Below are some relevant dates relating to the development, implementation, and revisions to the Kyoto Protocol:

Dec. 11, 1997: The Kyoto Protocol is adopted at the Conference of the Parties (COP 3) in Kyoto, Japan.

Nov. 14, 1998: As a result of a two week meeting that concluded on the 14th, 170 governments adopt a two-year plan titled the Buenos Aires Plan of Action to reduce the risk of global climate change.

March 16, 1998: The Kyoto Protocol becomes open for signatures.

March 15, 1999: One year after being open for signatures, the Kyoto Protocol had received 84 signatures.

Feb. 16, 2005: The Kyoto Protocol is entered into force.

Dec. 8, 2012: The Doha Amendment is adopted for a second commitment period.

March 25, 2013: Afghanistan becomes the 192nd signatory of the Kyoto Protocol. As of August 2022, there remains 192 signatories.

Dec. 12, 2015: The Paris Agreement is adopted by 196 parties at COP21 in Paris, largely superseding the Kyoto Protocol.

Nov. 4, 2016: The Paris Agreement is entered into force.

Dec. 31, 2020: After obtaining acceptance by 147 parties and meeting the minimum threshold of acceptance requirement, the Doha Amendment is entered into force.

What Is the Primary Purpose of the Kyoto Protocol?

The Kyoto Protocol was an agreement among developed nations to reduce carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions and greenhouse gases (GHG) in an effort to minimize the impacts of climate change.

Why Didn’t the U.S. Sign the Kyoto Protocol?

The United States backed out of the Kyoto Protocol agreement in 2001 on the basis that it unfairly burdened developed nations. The treaty called only for developed nations to reduce emissions, which the U.S. believed would unfairly stifle its economy.

How Many Countries Signed the Kyoto Protocol?

After becoming a signatory in 2013, Afghanistan became the 192nd and last signatory of the Kyoto Protocol.

Why Was the Kyoto Protocol Created?

The Kyoto Protocol was created in response to concerns surrounding climate change. The treat was an agreement between developed nations to reduce carbon dioxide emissions and greenhouse gases. The framework implemented the United Nation's target of reducing global warming consequences including a general rise in seal levels, disappearance of some island states, melting of glaciers, and increase in extreme climate-related events.

The Bottom Line

The Kyoto Protocol is largely considered a landmark legislative achievement as one of the more prominent international treaties in regards to climate change. Though the treaty has been superseded by the Paris Agreement, the Kyoto Protocol remains an important part of environmental and conservation history.

Article Sources
Investopedia requires writers to use primary sources to support their work. These include white papers, government data, original reporting, and interviews with industry experts. We also reference original research from other reputable publishers where appropriate. You can learn more about the standards we follow in producing accurate, unbiased content in our editorial policy.
  1. United Nations Climate Change. "What Is the Kyoto Protocol?"

  2. United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. "Kyoto Protocol Reference Manual," Page 13.

  3. Britannica. "Kyoto Protocol."

  4. The White House of President George W. Bush. "President Bush Discusses Global Climate Change."

  5. United Nations Climate Change. "The Doha Amendment."

  6. United Nations Treaty Collection. "Paris Agreement."

  7. United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. "What Is the Paris Agreement?"

  8. The White House of President Barack Obama. "Statement by the President on the Paris Climate Agreement."

  9. U.S. Department of State. Archived Content. "On the U.S. Withdrawal From the Paris Agreement."

  10. BBC News. "Climate change: US formally withdraws from Paris agreement."

  11. U.S. Department of State. "The United States Officially Rejoins the Paris Agreement."

  12. The White House. "Fact Sheet: President Biden's Executive Actions on Climate to Address Extreme Heat and Boost Offshore Wind."

  13. U.S. Department of Agriculture. "Biden-Harris Administration Announces Plans for Reforestation, Climate Adaption, including New Resources from Bipartisan Infrastructure Law."

  14. United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. "The Kyoto Protocol - Status of Ratification."

  15. United Nations Convention Federation of Climate Change. "Climate Change Meeting Adopts Buenos Aires Plan of Action."

  16. United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. "What Is the Kyoto Protocol?"

  17. United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. "Afghanistan."

  18. United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. "What Is the Paris Agreement?"

  19. Earth.org. "What is the Kyoto Protocol?"

Take the Next Step to Invest
The offers that appear in this table are from partnerships from which Investopedia receives compensation. This compensation may impact how and where listings appear. Investopedia does not include all offers available in the marketplace.