Kyoto Protocol: Whoever Released It Must Decrease It


Since the Industrial Revolution, humans have used fossil fuels to produce electricity, pumping greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere at an unprecedented rate. Industrialized countries, also known as developed countries, have been the largest contributors to global emissions, and have benefited economically at the expense of the environment.


In 1992, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, or UNFCCC, was established to prevent greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere from becoming dangerously high. Since 1995, its 197 parties have met each year to discuss environmental action. However, the UNFCCC did not have any legally binding limits on fossil fuel emissions, until the Kyoto Protocol. 

Definition of Kyoto Protocol

The Kyoto Protocol was signed in Kyoto, Japan in 1997 and came into effect as international law in 2005. It was the first legally binding international agreement that called for countries to significantly reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. Although the UNFCCC had started the international conversation around climate change, the Kyoto Protocol demanded action. The Protocol recognized that industrialized nations are responsible for the vast majority of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere, and attempted to assign countries’ roles in reducing emissions accordingly. 

How It Works

All countries are responsible for combating climate change, but each has a different capacity. While industrialized countries, such as the United States, have benefited economically from the prolonged use of unregulated greenhouse gas emissions, developing countries, such as China and India at the time of the Protocol, had not yet benefited from unregulated emissions to the same extent. Many developing countries felt it unfair to abide by emission reductions for two reasons: it would place an unfair financial burden on countries less responsible for climate change, and the emission constraints would slow their rate of industrialization.

The Kyoto Protocol implemented the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities to address these inequalities. Under the Protocol, industrialized countries (labeled as Annex I countries) were required to reduce their emissions while developing countries (labeled as Non Annex countries) only had to report their emissions. Industrialized nations were to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions below their respective 1990 levels by 2012. 

To ensure emission reduction, the Kyoto Protocol offered industrialized countries three flexibility mechanisms. The Clean Development Mechanism allows Annex I countries to invest in emission-reducing projects in Non Annex countries as an alternative to reducing their own emissions. Joint Implementation offers a similar alternative, enabling Annex I countries to pay for emission-reducing technology in fellow industrialized countries instead of reducing their own emissions. Finally, Emissions Trading, also known as Cap and Trade, allows Annex I countries to trade their emissions and allowances with other Annex I countries. For example, if Japan has more advanced technology than Australia, Japan may lower its emissions by even more than the required amount. Japan can then sell its extra carbon allowances to Australia, enabling Australia to buy allowances and produce more greenhouse gasses instead of implementing expensive emission-reducing mechanisms.

In addition, the Protocol provided an adaptation fund intended for projects that help developing countries face the effects of climate change. These projects range from mangrove-planting to prevent erosion to researching more sustainable farming methods. Combined, these options offer countries a mix of mitigation and adaptation approaches to combating climate change. Mitigation addresses the causes of climate change, whereas adaptation addresses the impacts of climate change. For example, reducing emissions is mitigation, but building a seawall to protect beaches and buildings from rising sea levels is adapting to climate change.

Did It Work?

Some countries were not happy with the distinction between and subsequent classification of Annex I and Non Annex countries. The United States, an Annex I country, never ratified the agreement, claiming that the Protocol was unfair because major developing nations, namely India and China, were listed as Non Annex countries and therefore were not required to reduce emissions. The United States claimed concern for the economic impacts of reducing its own emissions while competing countries could continue emitting without regulation.

Without the commitment of China and the United States, the world’s two largest carbon emitters, the potential for the Protocol decreased. Other countries’ commitment began to waver, and, in 2011, Canada joined the United States in withdrawing from the treaty. The lack of support from the world’s largest emitters made it impossible for the Protocol to reach its emission reduction targets. 

Although largely unsuccessful, the Kyoto Protocol is considered one of the most significant environmental treaties. Not only was it ratified by 192 parties, but it was the first environmental treaty that called for tangible action. 

So What?

In 2015, the Kyoto Protocol was replaced by the Paris Agreement, a new international treaty intended to reduce global emissions. However, the Paris Agreement has also failed to drastically reduce global emission levels. Both international agreements have faced a collective action problem, meaning cooperation would benefit all parties but conflicting interests prevent joint action. 

While politicians discuss who is at fault, greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise. Some countries, like the United States, have the means to implement mitigation mechanisms, but the countries that don’t, especially island nations and other physically vulnerable countries, will continue to suffer. Although the Kyoto Protocol attempted to balance these inequities, substantial change at an international level is still needed to prevent a global climate disaster. 

Think Further

  1. Which do you think should be prioritized: The economy or mitigating climate change? Are they mutually exclusive? 
  2. How can common but differentiated responsibilities apply to other projects?
  3. Do you agree with the United States’ decision to not ratify the agreement? Why or why not?


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Learn More

  1. “Fossil Fuels.” Environmental and Energy Study Institute. Web. 
  2. Klein, R.J.T., et al. “Inter-relationships between adaptation and mitigation.” Climate Change 2007: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability. Contribution of Working Group II to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Cambridge University Press. 745-777. 2007. 
  3. “Kyoto Protocol.” Climate Change Connection. Web.
  4. “Kyoto Protocol.” Encyclopedia Britannica. 2020. Web.
  5. “Policy Brief and Proposals: Common but Differentiated Responsibilities.” International Movement ATD Fourth World
  6. Tardi, Carla. “The Kyoto Protocol.” Investopedia. 2019. Web.