On December 11, 1997, representatives from over 150 nations gathered in Kyoto to hammer out what would become the world’s first international agreement to control and reduce greenhouse gas emissions, especially carbon dioxide.
In a marathon nearly two-week negotiating session that ran into the early morning hours of the day after the conference was supposed to end, and following a quick fly-in visit by US Vice President Al Gore, who urged all sides and especially the United States to compromise, a deal was struck.
The Kyoto Protocol would become one of the most inspirational and controversial treaties ever signed.
What was the purpose of the Kyoto Protocol?
The agreement came out of the third meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP3), a process that has its origins in the 1992 United Nations Rio Earth Summit held in Brazil. There, a treaty was proposed that would stabilize emissions “at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system.”
Simply put, this treaty was supposed to keep greenhouse gas emissions from human activity at a level scientists believed would offer the best chance of preventing catastrophic climate change.
What was the actual agreement that came out of Kyoto?
A treaty that committed 37 industrialized nations plus the European Community to cut their emissions of six greenhouse gases by an average of 5 percent by 2012, compared with 1990 levels.
The six gases targeted for reduction included carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, hydrofluorocarbons (used in air conditioning), perfluorocarbons (often produced by aluminum production) and sulfur hexafluoride (used in the electrical industry). Carbon dioxide was the gas that policymakers were most concerned about.
Within the average of 5 percent, different countries had different targets.
The 15 countries in the European Union at the time, as well as some eastern European countries and Switzerland, had targets of 8 percent below 1990 levels. The United States committed to a 7-percent reduction and Japan, along with Canada, Hungary, and Poland, agreed to a 6-percent cut.
But because the premise of the agreement was that industrially developed countries were historically responsible for the rise in global greenhouse gas emissions since the 1800s, and produced the majority of the world’s emissions in 1997, these binding targets covered only developed countries. Emerging economies like China and India were exempted from setting numerical targets and promised only to do their best to reduce emissions.
What was the result?
Before the meeting in Kyoto, the US Congress warned that unless a deal was struck that forced obligations on developing nations like China and India, America would not ratify the Kyoto Protocol. Barely had the agreement been reached when US congressional representatives in Kyoto who had opposed it said it would never fly.
Pressure from the US gas and oil lobbies to scuttle the deal had been strong prior to the deal, and after George W. Bush became president in 2001, he announced that America was pulling out.
For the other nations, the Kyoto Protocol took effect in February 2005. Attempts to work out another deal that would include developing nations continued to create tensions, especially between the US and a rapidly growing China.
When the Kyoto Protocol’s first stage came to an end in 2012, it was agreed in Doha to extend the period to 2020. However, as of last month, only 88 of the original Kyoto Protocol signatories had accepted the Doha Amendment, which would have kept their reduction goals under the Kyoto Protocol in place until 2020.
At least 144 Kyoto Protocol countries are needed for the amendment to go into force.
What’s the connection between the 2015 Paris climate agreement and the Kyoto Protocol?
After years of failure to reach an international consensus on a plan of action to replace the Kyoto pact, UN negotiators agreed in Paris two years ago that all nations would work to keep the global temperature rise this century “well below” 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels and to make serious efforts to keep the rise at just 1.5 degrees.
More financing was promised for developing countries in particular to reduce emissions, and new structures for reporting national greenhouse gas emissions and mitigation policies were agreed upon.
However, President Donald Trump withdrew his country from the Paris agreement, which has since been ratified by 170 countries, including all of the major developed and emerging economies, leaving the US as the sole major polluter to opt out.
What is the legacy of the Kyoto Protocol?
Significant drop in total emissions
Politically, opinion is divided. The United Nations calculates that even without US participation, total emissions by advanced countries had dropped 22.6 percent compared with 1990 levels by 2012, the end of the first pact’s period.
UN Climate Secretary Patricia Espinosa credits the Kyoto Protocol for inspiring innovation and increased use of renewable energy, and energy efficiency in particular, over the past two decades. Others note the general rise in public awareness of the environmental problems caused by climate change, and efforts to live more environment-friendly lifestyles, following the adoption of the Kyoto Protocol.
On the other hand, critics of the climate pact say its failure to include countries like China and India means that attaining the temperature goal set in Paris for this century is all the more harder to reach.
In a message to the UN’s annual climate change conference in Bonn last month, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said the world was not yet on track to meet this goal.
Where does Japan itself stand?
Under the Paris agreement, Japan pledged to reduce its emissions 26 percent below 2013 levels by 2030, a goal that has been criticized by climate experts as insufficient to aid in keeping the global temperature rise under 2 degrees.
Much of the reduction is predicted to come from greater use of renewable energy, natural gas and nuclear power, as well as more energy-efficiency measures and technological advances.
Figures from the Environment Ministry show that Japan’s total greenhouse gas emissions in fiscal 2015 fell 2.9 percent from fiscal 2014 levels and 6 percent in respect to the base year for Paris of 2013, but were still about 4 percent higher than the Kyoto Protocol’s base year of 1990.