The Kyoto Protocol is an international climate agreement under which certain countries agreed to place legally binding limits on their greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. It was first adopted in 1997, before being ratified in 2005 by every industrialised country in the world except the United States, as well as by many emerging economies. Today, there remain 191 parties to the Kyoto Protocol, but it has been superseded by the Paris Agreement.
Kyoto Protocol Summary
The Kyoto Protocol is historic because it constitutes the first legally binding international treaty to limit GHG emissions in industrialised countries. At the time of its ratification, it also represented the most far-reaching climate agreement yet. Based on the principle of “common but differentiated responsibility and respective capacities”, it set binding emissions targets for 37 countries (known as Annex I parties), including the European Union and Australia, with an average of about 5% reduction from 1990 emissions levels. However, no binding targets were imposed on countries not included in Annex I (known as non-Annex I parties), primarily Global South countries such as India.
Another key feature of the Kyoto Protocol was the establishment of flexible mechanisms based on allowed emissions. Specifically, three such mechanisms were created:
- International emissions trading – Article 17 of the Kyoto Protocol created the foundation for a carbon market based on emissions permits, which were divided into assigned amount units (AAUs). Annex I parties with surplus AAUs were allowed to sell various forms of emissions permit units to other Annex I parties, relative to the number of AAUs.
- Joint implementation – under Article 6 of the Kyoto Protocol, an Annex I party can earn emission reduction units (ERUs) from reduction or removal projects in another Annex I party.
- Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) – defined in Article 12 of the Kyoto Protocol, the CDM allows for the generation of certified emission reduction (CER) units stemming from an emissions reduction project in a non-Annex I party. These CERs can then be sold on the carbon market; Annex I parties can subsequently buy them for use towards their compliance goals.
These mechanisms have been tremendously influential, particularly the CDM, which was the first international environmental investment and credit scheme of its nature.
Finally, the Kyoto Protocol also developed an international registry system for tracking transactions, reporting requirements, and methodologies for calculating emissions and removals. It also established the Adaptation Fund to finance adaptation programmes and projects in the Global South. Overall, the Kyoto Protocol essentially operationalised the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).
Kyoto Protocol ― failure or success?
The Kyoto Protocol represented a milestone in the international community’s efforts to fight climate change. With the Doha Amendment in 2012, a second commitment period extending until 2020 was adopted, raising the target percentage of emissions reductions to 18% below 1990 levels. However, as its flaws and weaknesses became increasingly apparent, the need for a new approach became clear. The Kyoto Protocol was eventually succeeded by the signing of the Paris Agreement in 2015.
Indeed, many criticisms have been levelled against the Kyoto Protocol. First, it did not impose any restrictions upon many major polluters, including the US and China. When Canada withdrew from the Protocol in 2011, it cited this lack of coverage as the reason for doing so. Additionally, many critcised the targets set under the Protocol as being too low to limit global warming to 2 °C. To do so, industrialised countries would have had to set their targets at around 10-40%. Ultimately, despite the mixed views of its effectiveness, the Kyoto Protocol was an important initial step and set the stage for the more ambitious Paris Agreement.
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