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The Kyoto Protocol

In 1997, the Climate Convention held a conference in Kyoto, Japan. The aim of the conference was to achieve agreement on a treaty that would require the industrialised world to limit its emissions of greenhouse gases.

An agreement was made to set targets for reductions of industrialised countries’ emissions of greenhouse gases: the Kyoto Protocol. It requires that industrialised countries, as a group, reduce their emissions of six greenhouse gases by about 5% compared to 1990 levels in the period 2008–2012. This agreement is legally binding. This means that states that have agreed to its terms and then fail to live up to their commitments will be sanctioned – including by having to reduce their emissions even more in a subsequent period. But states that withdraw from the entire agreement cannot be sanctioned.

The 5% reduction in emissions required by the Protocol is an average: some countries are required to reduce more, and others less. The quotas and targets assigned to each country were arrived at through many rounds of tough negotiations. This figure shows how different countries must reduce their emissions compared with 1990.

targets in the Kyoto Protocol

1. Targets: In the Kyoto Protocol, the developed countries agreed to limit their emissions of greenhouse gases. The graphic above shows how many percent each country’s emissions must be reduced (or is allowed to increase) in the years 2008-2012 compared to 1990.

Only the three countries Iceland, Australia, and Norway are allowed to increase their emissions relative to 1990 levels by 10%, 8%, and 1%, respectively. Russia, Ukraine and New Zealand may keep their emissions at the same level as in 1990. The rest of the industrialised countries are to reduce their emissions by between 6 and 8% from 1990 levels in the period 2008–2012. Even though the United States demanded that developing countries should also be given reduction targets, they were not given any specific reduction commitments in this round of negotiations.

The Kyoto Protocol covers the following gases:

- carbon dioxide (CO2),
- methane (CH4),
- nitrous oxide (N2O),
- hydroflourocarbons (HFCs),
- perfluorocarbons (PFCs) and
- sulphur hexafluoride (SF6).

Emissions of the different gases are compared by counting each gas in tonnes of “CO2 equivalents” – that is, the amount of each gas that contributes to the same amount of global warming as a tonne of CO2 over a specified period of time.

EU emission targets

2. The EU countries agreed to a common target for the whole of EU. In between themselves, they agreed to splitting up the target as shown above.

The agreement allows states to meet their targets in other ways than by simply reducing emissions domestically. Three so-called flexibility mechanisms were established to help states reduce their costs in meeting targets:

  1. International emissions trading allows industrialised countries to buy or sell parts of their national emissions quota allocated by the Kyoto Protocol. Trade is limited to industrialised countries. The government of each country may allow companies to buy and sell emissions permits.
  2. Joint implementation implies that an industrialised country pay for measures to reduce emissions in another industrialised country. This will give the buyer the right to emit more domestically, while the seller will be required to emit correspondingly less.
  3. The Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) allows industrialised countries to acquire emissions credits (the right to emit greenhouse gases) by paying for emissions reduction measures in developing countries that do not have emissions targets. These measures must also contribute to sustainable development in the recipient country. Detailed rules and regulations to ensure that the emissions reduction measures meet all the requirements are worked out.

The Kyoto Protocol enters into force as soon as it has been ratified by at least 55 countries. Industrialized countries that together represent at least 55 percent of the CO2 emissions in 1990 must be included among the ratifying countries for the agreement to enter into force. The United States has declared that it will not ratify the agreement.

The Kyoto Protocol, in its current form, will have a minimal effect on global emissions of greenhouse gases in the period 2008–2012. The Protocol was especially weakened after the United States, with its high emissions, withdrew its support.

The Kyoto Protocol will probably make only a slight difference, partly because several countries with economies in transition – particularly Russia – have already reduced their emissions dramatically from 1990 levels for economic reasons. But soon negotiations for new commitments for the period after 2012 will begin. If agreement is reached on even stricter targets after 2012, and if the United States and developing countries eventually take on commitments, the agreement can become more effective. So even though the Kyoto Protocol is perhaps only a small step for the Earth’s climate, it may be a necessary first step on the road to more effective international climate co-operation.

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About this page:

Author: Camilla Schreiner - CICERO (Centre for International Climate and Environmental Research - Oslo) - Norway.
Scientific reviewers: Andreas Tjernshaugen - CICERO, Norway - 2004-01-20 and Dr. Knut Alfsen - Statistics Norway, Norway - 2003-09-12.
Educational reviewer: Nina Arnesen - Marienlyst School, Oslo, Norway - 2004-03-10.
Last update: 2004-03-27.

Last modified: Friday, 17 May 2019, 4:50 PM