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Climate Talks

Kyoto Protocol: What it means for climate change

By Catherine Dominguez

“Kyoto Protocol” is a term much used when speaking of climate change mitigation efforts, but how much do we know about it and what does it really mean in the global fight against the changing climate?

The Kyoto Protocol is an international treaty to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change that set binding obligations on industrialized countries to cut their emissions of greenhouse gases. It is touted as the first and widest cooperation among different countries across the world to address pressing environmental issues.

It was initially adopted on December 11, 1997 in Kyoto, Japan, and came into force on February 16, 2005. To date, 192 parties have ratified the treaty.

How it works

The Kyoto Protocol separates countries or parties into two groups, Annex I and Non-Annex I. Annex I includes developed countries while Non-Annex I refers to developing countries. According to the U.N.F.C.C.C., emissions limitations are only set for Annex I parties. All 37 developed countries under the Annex I, along with the European community, are required to bring about an average of 5.2 percent reductions in emissions by 2012 relative to their 1990 levels.

“Recognizing that developed countries are principally responsible for the current high levels of greenhouse gas emissions in the atmosphere as a result of more than 150 years of industrial activity, the Protocol places a heavier burden on developed nations under the principle of “common but differentiated responsibilities,” stressed the U.N.F.C.C.C.

Non-Annex I parties participate in the Kyoto Protocol by investing in projects that will help cut carbon emissions in their countries.

For these projects, they can earn carbon credits that can be traded or sold to Annex I countries, which permit them to a higher level of maximum carbon emissions for that period.

There are three major mechanisms set out under the protocol – Emissions Trading or the carbon market, Clean Development Mechanism and Joint Implementation.

Among the three, the carbon market has been “a key tool in reducing emissions worldwide, said U.N.F.C.C.C. it was worth $30 billion in 2006, and in 2011 it rose by 11 percent to $176 billion, according to a World Bank report.

Both C.D.M. and J.I. are project-based mechanisms that feed the carbon market. C.D.M. involves investment in sustainable development schemes aimed at cutting emissions in developing countries, while the J.I. allows industrialized nations to complete joint implementation projects with other developed countries.

The C.D.M. program has reached its 5,000th milestone project - a wind farm facility in the Dominican Republic. The project is expected to generate 74,200megawatt hours of electricity and eliminate 54,183 tons of carbon emissions.

Since 2006, the estimated potential of emission reductions by the C.D.M. pipeline has reached 2.9 billion tons of carbon dioxide equivalents. This is approximately the combined emissions of Australia, Germany and the United Kingdom.

“The Kyoto Protocol is generally seen as an important first step towards a truly global emission reduction regime that will stabilize greenhouse gas concentrations,” said U.N.F.C.C.C.

“As a result of the Protocol, governments have already put, and are continuing to put in place legislation and policies to meet their commitments; a carbon market has been created; and more and more businesses are making the investment decisions needed for a climate-friendly future.”


While the Kyoto Protocol is seen as a global treaty that helps fight climate change, many still argue that the scheme is “fundamentally flawed” and that it does not go far enough to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and prevent climate change.

To date, there are no penalties for a party that ratifies the Protocol and fails to meet its reduction targets, except the lower emission limit for the following period.

“Possibilities under consideration include financial penalties, trade sanctions, and emissions penalties under future climate change agreements. The details for such penalties have not been established and negotiations have been very slow and difficult,” said Eric Bond, an author of a website dedicated to climate change and the Kyoto Protocol.

He further said that any country can withdraw from the treaty after ratifying it by simply giving a one year notice.

“This part of the treaty, coupled with the lack of penalties for non-compliance, has come under harsh criticism from the scientific community: as it stands, the Kyoto Protocol is completely unbinding and seems to embody something that does not need to be taken seriously since there are no consequences for non-compliance,” Mr. Bond noted.

While the protocol is certainly one of the steps in the right direction to help tackle climate change, it is not a complete solution and will not solve the problem alone, he added.

As the Kyoto Protocol is set to expire by the end of the year and the U.N.F.C.C.C. gears up for the second round of the global treaty, it is hoped those flaws will be corrected and the protocol itself will be strengthened to further mobilize international support in combating climate change.

So far, many countries - including Australia and the European Union - have announced their commitment to Kyoto 2, which will be ratified on January 2013. Meanwhile, the United States remains reluctant to sign the Protocol’s second round. It is the only Annex I nation to have not ratified the treaty since it started in 2007. The U.S. signing of the Kyoto Protocol is crucial given that it accounts for about 36 percent of the 1990 emissions from industrialized countries.

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