Kyoto Protocol

updated September 2016

The Kyoto Protocol was the first global legal framework for cutting greenhouse gas emissions. It was negotiated in 1997 and eventually came into force in February 2005.

Consistent with the climate justice principles of its parent, the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the Protocol differentiated the responsibilities of 37 richer countries (plus the European Union), known as “Annex 1 countries”. They were subject to legally binding targets for cutting emissions whilst poorer countries had no specific targets. In aggregate, these cuts sought a minimum 5% reduction in the 1990 level of all Annex 1 emissions over a first commitment period up to the end of 2012.

A number of factors undermined the ambitions of the Kyoto Protocol. The US refused to ratify it and allowed its greenhouse gas emissions to increase by 5% between 1990 and 2012. Canada largely disregarded its commitments and eventually withdrew.

Furthermore, the detailed rules excluded emissions from aviation and shipping, commercial sources which have risen exponentially. And the outsourced manufacturing of consumer goods to regions which have no Kyoto Protocol targets has devalued claims of success in reducing emissions by countries such as the UK.

These shortcomings have allowed global emissions to mushroom. By 2014 they were 58% above the 1990 baseline, according to a 2015 report by the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency. The concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is now at its highest level for at least 800,000 years.

Despite its ineffectiveness, the Kyoto Protocol is valued by climate negotiators as a proven framework for administering legally binding promises of emissions reductions. The Annex 1 countries did achieve their goal in aggregate and the UNFCCC secretariat engaged in strenuous efforts to renew and expand the Protocol.

The 2007 Bali Action Plan established a basis for negotiation in which all countries, including the US, agreed to participate. Initial optimism around the Bali Action Plan collapsed spectacularly at the Copenhagen climate conference in 2009, condemning a new global climate agreement to years of delay.

As a holding operation, the Kyoto Protocol eventually entered a second commitment period through the Doha Amendment of 2012, with the goal of reducing emissions of its participants by 18% by 2020, from a 1990 baseline. But its impact is neutered by participation of only a handful of countries led by the European Union.


Animated satire on the divisions between richer and poorer countries that have deepened since the 1997 Kyoto agreement on climate change.
from Amazing World.

Historic 1997 footage of US President Clinton
announcing the successful outcome of climate negotiations in Kyoto. Despite his enthusiasm, the US Congress never ratified the Protocol.

more Climate Justice briefings
Climate Justice
UN Framework Convention on Climate Change
Paris Climate Agreement
Climate Justice and Development Goals
Climate Finance
Loss and Damage
Climate Change and Migration
Climate Litigation
Source material and useful links

Comments are closed.

Switch to our mobile site