Kyoto Protocol

May 7, 2012, 4:59 pm
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The Kyoto Protocol is an international treaty aimed at the issue of global warming.

The Protocol is intended to implement the objectives and principles agreed in the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). This Protocol was adopted at the third session of the Conference of the Parties (CoP3) in Kyoto, Japan on December 11, 1997.  The core idea is that stabilizing the atmosphere (the UNFCCC's "ultimate objective") will require governments to agree to quantified limits on their greenhouse gas emissions, through sequential rounds of negotiations for successive 'commitment periods.'

The major feature of the Kyoto Protocol is that it sets binding targets for 37 industrialized countries and the European community for reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.These amount to an average of five per cent reduction against 1990 levels over the five-year period 2008-2012. The 37 industrialized countries and the European community are almost synonymous with those in Annex I to the UNFCCC (see box right)

UNFCCC Annex 1 countries

Australia, Austria, Belarus, Belgium, Bulgaria, Canada, Croatia, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Monaco, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Russian Federation, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Turkey, Ukraine, United Kingdom, United States of America. (European Union is also a member.)

These national 'assigned amounts' limit emissions of the six main anthropogenic greenhouse gases to reduce these emissions by a certain percentage of 1990 levels by the end of the first commitment period in 2012.

The six main anthropogenic greenhouse gases are:

The Protocol contains a range of other, more limited, provisions including national emissions reporting, a supplementarity principle, technology standards, and means for their development and transfer. It also stipulates that negotiations on future commitments should start by 2005.

The protocol entered into force on 16 February 2005.

As of June 6, 2011, there are 193 Parties (192 States and the European Union) to the Kyoto Protocol to the UNFCCC. The United States was a signator to the Protocol, but has indicated its intention not to ratify the Kyoto Protocol.

It has been the stated objective of the UNFCCC that by the end of the first commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol in 2012, "a new international framework needs to have been negotiated and ratified that can deliver the stringent emission reductions the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has clearly indicated are needed."


Responding to concerns that human activities are increasing concentrations of “greenhouse gases” (such as carbon dioxide and methane) in the atmosphere, most nations of the world joined together in 1992 to sign the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). The United States was one of the first nations to ratify this treaty. It included a legally non-binding, voluntary pledge that the major industrialized/developed nations would reduce their greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by the year 2000, and that all nations would undertake voluntary actions to measure, report, and limit greenhouse gas emissions.

However, as scientific consensus grew that human activities are having a discernible impact on global climate systems, significantly contribuing to a warming of the Earth that could result in major impacts such as sea level rise, changes in weather patterns, and health effects — and as it became apparent that major nations such as the United States and Japan would not meet the voluntary stabilization target by 2000 — parties to the treaty decided in 1995 that it would be necessary to enter into a legally binding, not voluntary, agreement. Negotiations began on a protocol to establish legally binding limitations or reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.

It was decided by the parties that this round of negotiations would establish limitations only for the developed countries (the 38 nations listed in Annex I to the UNFCCC, including the former Communist countries, and referred to as “Annex I countries.” (Developing countries are referred to as “non-Annex I countries.”) This was referred to as the “Berlin Mandate,” which reflected continuation of the principle established in the UNFCCC that parties bore “common but differentiated responsibilities” in dealing with climate change issues, and that first steps in reducing greenhouse gas emissions should be taken by the Annex I countries.

During negotiations that preceded the December 1-11, 1997, meeting in Kyoto, Japan (COP-3), little progress was made, and the most difficult issues were not resolved until the final days — and hours — of the Conference. There was wide disparity among key players especially on three items:

  1. the amount of binding reductions in greenhouse gases to be required, and the gases to be included in these requirements;
  2. whether developing countries should be part of the requirements for greenhouse gas limitations; and,
  3. whether to include emissions trading and joint implementation, (which allow credit to be given for emissions reductions to a country that provides funding or investments in other countries that bring about the actual reductions in those other countries or locations where they may be cheaper to attain).

Following completion of the Protocol in December of 1997, decisions and details regarding a number of the more difficult issues remained to be negotiated and resolved.

At the fourth Conference of the Parties (COP-4) held November 2-13, 1998, in Buenos Aires, Argentina, it was apparent that these issues could not be resolved at this meeting as had been expected. Instead, parties established a two-year “Buenos Aires Plan of Action” (BAPA) to deal with these issues, with a deadline for completion at the COP-6 meeting in The Hague, Netherlands, November 13-24, 2000.

The difficulty in resolving these issues was underlined by the collapse of discussions at COP-6 in The Hague, without agreement. COP-6 resumed in the latter half of July 2001, following U.S. President Bush’s announcement that the United States would not continue participating in negotiations on the Kyoto Protocol, and would develop an alternative approach. The U.S. delegation remained on the sidelines, declining to negotiate the key remaining issues related to the Protocol. During the July meeting, the other parties reached final agreement on most outstanding issues, with additional agreements reached on some details at the next meeting, COP-7, in Marrakech, Morocco, October 29-November 9, 2001.

In the annual meetings of parties to the UNFCCC in the years since the Marrakech meeting, major continuing issues regarding the Kyoto Protocol — including the issues related to future participation of developing countries — were not resolved.


Article 22 requires Parties to the UNFCCC to ratify, accept, and approve or accede the Protocol in order for it to be in effect.  Additionally, Parties to the UNFCCC that have not signed the Protocol may accede to it at any time. The Kyoto Protocol was opened for signature March 16, 1998.

Following a long drawn-out ratification decision by Russia, the Kyoto Protocol entered into force on 16 February 2005, with about 130 countries having ratified the Protocol at that time. The Protocol entered into force in accordance with Article 23, that is the ninetieth day after the date on which not less than 55 Parties to the UNFCCC, incorporating Parties included in Annex I which accounted in total for at least 55 % of the total carbon dioxide emissions for 1990 of the Parties included in Annex I, have deposited their instruments of ratification, acceptance, approval or accession.

The United States signed the Protocol on November 12, 1998. However, the Clinton Administration did not submit the Protocol to the Senate for advice and consent; a requirement for ratification. In late March 2001, the Bush Administration rejected the Kyoto Protocol (see Kyoto Protocol and the United States.) Australia has also refused to ratify but says it intends to fulfill its emissions target and will participate in negotiations on subsequent commitments.

Currently, there are 193 Parties, consisting of 192 States and 1 regional economic integration organization, to the Kyoto Protocol.

Emissions Reductions - Annex B

Annex B to the Kyoto Protocol lists 39 nations, including the United States, the European Union plus the individual EU nations, Japan, and many of the former Communist nations (the same countries as Annex I to the UNFCCC). The amounts for each country are listed as percentages of the base year, 1990 (except for some former Communist countries), and range from 92% (a reduction of 8%) for most European countries — to 110% (an increase of 10%) for Iceland.

Table 1. Countries included in Annex B to the Kyoto Protocol and their emissions targets.

Country Target (1990** - 2008/2012) 
 EU-15*, Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Estonia, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Monaco, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia,  Switzerland  -8%
 US***  -7%
 Canada, Hungary, Japan, Poland  -6%
 Croatia  -5%
 New Zealand, Russian Federation, Ukraine  0
 Norway  +1%
 Australia  +8%
 Iceland  +10%

 *  The 15 States who were EU members in 1997 when the Kyoto Protocol was adopted, took on that 8% target that will be redistributed among themselves, taking advantage of a scheme under the Protocol known as a “bubble”, whereby countries have different individual targets, but which combined make an overall target for that group of countries. The EU has already reached agreement on how its targets will be redistributed.
**  Some Economies-in-Transition (EITs) have a baseline other than 1990.
***  The US has indicated its intention not to ratify the Kyoto Protocol.
Note: Although they are listed in the Convention’s Annex I, Belarus and Turkey are not included in the Protocol’s Annex B as they were not Parties to the Convention when the Protocol was adopted.

Market Based Mechanisms

Under the Treaty, countries must meet their targets primarily through national measures. However, to reach these emissions reductions targets, the Protocol offers three different market based mechanisms to increase the flexibility, reach, and efficiency of the commitments:

Emissions trading allows countries to exchange emission allowances, while Joint Implementation (JI) and the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) allow commitments to be offset against investments in emission-reducing projects worldwide.

Emissions Trading

The concept of "Emissions trading", as set out in Article 17 of the Kyoto Protocol, allows countries that have emission units to spare - that is emissions which are permitted for that country but for whatever reason have not been used - to sell their excess capacity to countries that are over their targets.  The emissions reductions/removals commodity then arose out of this practice.  Since carbon dioxide is the main greenhouse gas, people speak simply of emissions trading in terms of carbon. Carbon is now tracked and traded like any other commodity, which is now referred to as the "carbon market."

Criticisms of Emissions Trading

Although the concept of emissions trading seems to be beneficial for all parties, it has received much criticism on some of its fundamental flaws. Certain countries had large inefficient industries with high emissions in 1990 that underwent major restructuring during the five years before the Kyoto Protocol was agreed to. Specifically, most of eastern Europe underwent such a transformation following the collapse of communist governments. Thus, countries such as Russia and Germany (where the former East Germany was merged with West Germany) were said to be able to sell "hot air credits" - because changes taking place for other reasons allowed them to achieve their Kyoto Potocol goals very easily and also be able to make a profit on those emissions reductions. Further, other countries could "purchase" those reductions in order to increase their own emission allotments, thereby actually increasing emissions overall relative to what would have been the case without the Kyoto Protocol, instead of keeping the overall emissions at a neutral status because of the trading. 

See also:

The Clean Development Mechanism (CDM)

The Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) is established and defined in Article 12 of the Kyoto Protocol and has been operational since the beginning of 2006.  Through this mechanism, Annex B Parties, which are countries under the Protocol with an emission-reduction or emission-limitation commitment, can implement an emission-reduction project in developing countries.  An example of this type of project would be the installation of energy-efficient boilers or use of solar panels for electrification of a rural area.  By engaging in these projects, a country can earn saleable certified emission reduction (CER) credits which can be counted towards meeting their targets under the Protocol.

The CDM is viewed positively on a global scale.  It is "the first global, environmental investment and credit scheme of its kind, providing a standardized emissions offset instrument, CERs."  It also provides industrialized nations with positive alternatives and flexibility to meet their emission reductions and/or limitation targets.  It stimulates sustainable development and promotes emission reductions for both developing and developed nations. 

In order to be put into effect, the CDM must provide emission reductions in addition to what otherwise would have occurred without such project.  Further, the project must qualify through a public registration and issuance process, approved by Designated National Authorities.  To date, the CDM has registered more than 1,650 projects globally and is anticpated to produce CERs amounting to over 2.9 billion tonnes of CO2, which is equal to one CER credit, during the first commitment period of the Protocol (2008-2012).

CDM has been operational since the beginning of 2006. As of mid-2011, there were 6,292 projects in the CDM "pipeline". Renewable energy projects account for nearly two-thirds of CDM projects and include such things as hydro, wind and biomass projects. Methane avoidance, landfill gas, afforestation and reforestation, and energy efficiency projec are also common CDM projects.

Joint Implementation (JI)

Like the CDM, Joint Implementation is a market-based mechanism for Annex B Parties established under Article 6 of the Protocol.  Through JI, a country with an emission reduction or limitation commitment under the Protocol can earn emissions reduction units (ERUs) from an emission-reduction or emission removal project in another Annex B Party and be counted towards meeting their Kyoto target.  Like CERs, ERUs are also equivalent to one tonne of CO2.  Engaging in JI allows both Parties to receive a benefit.  The host Party benefits from foreign investment and technology transfer while the other Party undertakes a cost-efficient way to fulfill part of their commitments under the Protocol.

JI is considered to be a "project-based mechanism", similar to the Clean Development Mechanism, which feeds the carbon market. JI projects are very similar to Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) projects with one important difference. JI projects are between developed (Annex I) country countries, whereas CDM projects are hosted by developing countries. JI project examples include renewable energy projects like erection of wind parks, afforestation and reforestation, energy efficiency projects, and reduction of methane emissions.

In order to qualify as an eligible host Party, the Party must either meet all the procedural requirements for Track 1 or Track 2 procedure.  To meet Track 1 requirements, a host party must all the JI Eligibility Requirements to transfer and/or acquire ERUs.  It may verify emission reductions or enhancements of removals from a JI project as being additional to any that would have occurred otherwise.  After verification, the host Party may issue the appropriate amount of ERUs.  Alternatively, the Track 2 procedure is available for a host Party who meet a limited number of the eligibility requirements.  Under this option, an independent entity created, the Joint Implementation Supervisory Committee (JISC), is the party responsible for verifying emission reductions or enhancements of removals as being additional.  The JISC must determine whether the relevant requirements have been met prior to a host Party issuing and transferring ERUs.

CDM projects are far more common than JI projects (6,292 to 437 as of mid-2011).

Kyoto Protocol Bodies

The Conference of the Parties (CoP) serves as the meeting of the Parties to the Kyoto Protocol, which has been commonly referred to as the Conference of the Parties serving as the meeting of the Parties to the Kyoto Protocol (CMP).  Like the CoP, the CMP meets annually during the same period as CoP meetings and carry out functions similar to those that CoP is responsible for in regards to the UNFCCC.  Parties to the UNFCCC that are not also Parties to the Protocol can only participate in CMPs as observers without the right to take decisions.  Further, since the Bureau of the CoP also serves the CMP, any member of the CoP Bureau representing a non-party to the Protocol must be replaced by a Party to the Protocol.

The Subsidiary Body for Scientific and Technological Advice (SBSTA) and the Subsidiary Body for Implementation (SBI), the two subsidiary bodies established under the UNFCCC to serve the CoP, also serve the CMP. 

Monitoring and Reporting

The Kyoto Protocol’s effectiveness will depend upon two critical factors: whether Parties follow the Protocol’s rulebook and comply with their commitments; and whether the emissions data used to assess compliance is reliable. Recognizing this, the Kyoto Protocol and Marrakesh Accords include a set of monitoring and compliance procedures to enforce the Protocol’s rules, address any compliance problems, and avoid any error in calculating emissions data and accounting for transactions under the three Kyoto mechanisms and activities related to land use, land use change and forestry.

The Protocol’s monitoring procedures are based on existing reporting and review procedures under the UNFCCC, building on experience gained in the climate change process over the past decade. They also involve additional accounting procedures that are needed to track and record Parties’ holdings and transactions of Kyoto Protocol units - assigned amount units (AAUs), certified emission reductions (CERs) and emission reduction units (ERUs) - and removal units (RMUs) generated by LULUCF activities.

Articles 5, 7 and 8 of the Kyoto Protocol address reporting and review of information by Annex I Parties under the Protocol, as well as national systems and methodologies for the preparation of greenhouse gas inventories.

Article 5 commits Annex I Parties to having in place national systems for the estimation of greenhouse gas emissions by sources and removals by sinks no later than 2007.  It also states that, where agreed methodologies (that is, the revised 1996 IPCC Guidelines for National Greenhouse Gas Inventories) are not used to estimate emissions and removals, appropriate adjustments should be applied.

Article 7 requires Annex I Parties to submit annual greenhouse gas inventories, as well as national communications, at regular intervals, both including supplementary information to demonstrate compliance with the Protocol. In addition, Article 7 states that the Conference of the Parties serving as the meeting of the Parties to the Protocol (CMP) shall decide upon modalities for the accounting of assigned amounts prior to the first commitment period.

Article 8 establishes that expert review teams will review the inventories, and national communications submitted by Annex I Parties.

Compliance Mechanism

The Compliance Committee was created in order to facilitate, promote and enforce Parties compliance with their obligations under the Protocol.  By creating this committee, the Protocol’s environmental integrity is strengthened while supporting the carbon market’s credibility and ensuring transparency of accounting by Parties.  Without having such a party, the success of the Protocol would be in jeopardy.

The Compliance Committee is separated into two branches, the facilitative branch and the enforcement branch, with ten members to each branch.  Membership includes one member from each of the five designated regions by the UN, one member from the small island developing States, two Annex I Parties, and two non-Annex I parties.  Meetings of the branches are done in a "plenary" made up of both branches members and a bureau.  Decisions of the plenary and the facilitative branch may be taken by a three-quarters majority, while decisions of the enforcement branch require, in addition, a double majority of both Annex I and non-Annex I Parties.

The facilitative branch is responsible for providing advice and facilitation to Parties in implementing the Protocol, and promoting compliance by Parties with their Kyoto commitments.  It is responsible for addressing questions of implementation by Annex I Parties of response measures aimed at mitigating climate change in a way that minimizes their adverse impacts on developing countries and the use by Annex I Parties of the mechanisms as “supplemental” to domestic action.  Furthermore, the facilitative branch may provide early warning of foreseeable non-compliance with emissions targets, methodological and reporting commitments relating to greenhouse gas inventories, and commitments on reporting supplementary information in a Party’s annual inventory.

The enforcement branch is responsible for determining whether an Annex I Party is not in compliance with its emissions targets, the methodological and reporting requirements for greenhouse gas inventories, and the eligibility requirements under the mechanisms

Further Reading

  1. UNFCCC. Kyoto Protocol: Full Text.
  2. U.S. Energy Information Administration. Summary of the Kyoto Report.
  3. JI Guidelines. Decision 9: Guidelines for Implementing Article 6 of the Kyoto Protocol
  4. UNFCCC: JI Eligibility Requirements
  5. Kyoto Protocol: Status of Ratification, UNFCCC




Grubb, M. (2012). Kyoto Protocol. Retrieved from


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