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What is the Kyoto agreement?

Kyoto Protocol definition

The Kyoto Protocol is an international treaty which provides a framework for reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by member countries through the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). The protocol was adopted on 11 December 1997 and ratified on 16 February 2005. At the time of writing (3 September 2021), there are 192 active members party to the agreement. Within the Kyoto Protocol definition there are set targets to reduce the GHG emissions of major industrialised countries and thereby curb excess CO2 in the atmosphere.

What does the Kyoto Protocol do?

The purpose of the Kyoto Protocol is to define limits on the production of GHGs by industrialised nations. The first commitment period saw 37 major economies agree to cut emissions on 1990 levels by an average of 5% between 2008 and 2012. During the second commitment period, parties agreed to lower GHG emissions by 18% below 1990 levels between 2013 and 2020.

Commitments are binding. Members who do not meet their targets are issued with even lower emission targets the following year. Many developing economies argued, successfully, that as they had not had the opportunity to develop industry on the same timeline as advanced nations, they should not be subject to the same stringent conditions.

The Kyoto Protocol was duly adjusted. The agreement operates under the principle of “common but differentiated responsibility and respective capabilities'' by placing a heavier burden on major economies – poorer countries have contributed far less to current greenhouse gas levels.

Kyoto Protocol effectiveness

While the Kyoto Protocol is ambitious in its goals, it failed to substantially reduce GHG emissions. In fact, between the Kyoto Protocol launch date and 2009, global emissions rose by over 40%, according to the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency. Controversy surrounded the exemption of some so-called “developing” countries from emissions limits, a list which included big polluters, like China and India.

While unsuccessful in its goal of reducing global emissions, the Kyoto Protocol did establish free market mechanisms, such as carbon credits for the monetisation of pollution. Carbon credits can be bought by members who are exceeding their defined limits and sold by members who’ve reduced levels below their targets. This framework allows countries to work out the most cost-effective strategy for their industrial output. 

Present-day protocol

The Kyoto Protocol members agreed an amendment to the original agreement in 2012, while meeting in Doha, Qatar. The majority of original member countries are still party to the agreement, with Canada being a notable exception. Canada formally left the agreement in 2012, when it stated it would maintain its commitment but through a national system. The United States, originally party to the agreement, has never ratified it, meaning it has never come into force within the country. The amendment, referred to as the Doha Amendment, came into being on 31 December 2020. Many of its member states confirmed their commitments under the terms of the Kyoto Protocol.

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