This article is written by Trisha Saha, a law student at Amity University, Kolkata.


In response to the warning of the scientists, Governments launched certain negotiations in December 1990 on a global treaty to address the problem of climate change. After 15 months of discussion, they adopted by consensus in New York on May 9, 1992 the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), which sets an ‘ultimate objective’ of stabilizing atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases at safe levels. Such levels which the convention does not quantify should be achieved within a time period sufficient to allow ecosystem to adopt naturally to climate change, to ensure that food production is not threatened and to enable economic development to proceed in a sustainable manner.

To achieve this objective, all parties have a general commitment to address climate change, adopt all its effects, and report the action they are taking to implement the Convention. The convention was opened for signature at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, on June 4, 1992 and came into force on March 21, 1994. Some 181 Governments have ratified the treaty.

In the Earth Summit of 1992, conducted on climate change or greenhouse emissions, it was decided that a review conference would be convened after a period of five years. Accordingly, a conference on climate changes was convened at Kyoto in Japan during December 1-11-1997 wherein progress made during the past five years was reviewed and future plans were chalked out by fixing strategies and objectives for the future. The conference was attended by representatives of more than 150 countries. The accord reached after the 10 day UN Climate Conference in Kyoto was adopted in the form of a protocol. It came into force on February 16, 2005.  

In short, the Kyoto Protocol operates the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change by committing industrialized countries and economies in transition to limit and reduce greenhouse gases (GHG) emissions in accordance with agreed individual targets. The Convention itself only asks those countries to adopt policies and measures on mitigation and to report periodically.

The Kyoto Protocol is basically based on the principles and provisions of the Convention and follows on the basis of annex-based structure. It binds developed countries, and places a heavier burden on them under the principle of “common but differentiated responsibility and respective capabilities”, because it recognizes that they are largely responsible for the current high levels of GHG emissions in the atmosphere.

In its Annex B, the Kyoto Protocol sets certain binding emission reduction targets for 37 industrialized countries and economies in transition and the European Union. Overall, these targets add up to an average 5 per cent emission reduction compared to 1990 levels over the five year period 2008–2012 (the first commitment period).

Kyoto Protocol, also called Kyoto Protocol to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, is an international treaty which is named for the Japanese city in which it was adopted in December 1997, that aimed to reduce the emission of harmful gases that contribute to global warming. It is in force since 2005, the protocol called for reducing the emission of six greenhouse gases in 41 countries plus the European Union to 5.2 percent below 1990 levels during the “commitment period” 2008–12. It was widely hailed as the most significant environmental treaty ever negotiated, though some critics questioned its effectiveness. 

Background And Provisions

The Kyoto Protocol was adopted as the first addition to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), an international treaty that committed its signatories to develop national programs to reduce their emissions of greenhouse gases. Greenhouse gases, like carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4), nitrous oxide (N2O), perfluorocarbons (PFCs),  hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), and sulfur hexafluoride (SF6), affects the energy balance of the global atmosphere in ways which in turn lead to an overall increase in global average temperature, known as global warming.  According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, established by the United Nations Environment Programme and the World Meteorological Organization in 1988, the significant effects of global warming would include a general rise in sea level around the world, resulting in the inundation of low-lying coastal areas and also disappearance of some island states; the melting of glacierssea ice, and Arctic permafrost; an increase in the number of extreme climate-related events, such as floods and droughts, and changes in their distribution; and an increased risk of extinction for 20 to 30 percent of all plant and animal species. The Kyoto Protocol  almost committed most of the Annex I signatories to the UNFCCC (consisting of members of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development and several countries with “economies in transition”) to mandatory emission-reduction targets, which varied depending on the unique circumstances of each country. Other signatories to the UNFCCC and the protocol, consisting mostly of developing countries, were not required to restrict their emissions. The protocol came to force in February 2005, 90 days after being ratified by at least 55 Annex I signatories that together accounted for at least 55 percent of total carbon dioxide emissions in 1990.

The Kyoto Protocol provided several means for countries to reach their targets. One approach was to make use of natural processes, called “sinks,” that remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere. The planting of trees, which take up carbon dioxide from the air, would be an example. Another approach was the international program called the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM), which encouraged developed countries to invest more in technology and infrastructure in less-developed countries, where there were often significant opportunities to reduce emissions. Under the CDM, the investing country could claim the effective reduction in emissions as a credit toward meeting its obligations under the protocol. An example would be an investment in a clean-burning natural gas power plant to replace a proposed coal-fired plant. A third approach was emissions trading, which allowed participating countries to buy and sell emissions rights and thereby placed an economic value on greenhouse gas emissions. European countries initiated an emissions-trading market as a mechanism to work toward meeting their commitments under the Kyoto Protocol. Countries that failed to meet their emissions targets would be required to make up the difference between their targeted and actual emissions, plus a penalty amount of 30 percent, in the subsequent commitment period, beginning in 2012; they would also be prevented from engaging in emissions trading until they were judged to be in compliance with the protocol. The emission targets for commitment periods after 2012 were to be established in future protocols.

Objectives of Kyoto Protocol

Following are the objectives of Kyoto Protocol :-

  1. The first objective of Kyoto protocol is to achieve stabilization of greenhouse gas concentration in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent anthropogenic interference with the climate system within a time frame, sufficient to allow ecosystem to adapt  naturally to climate change.
  2. To enable economic development to proceed in a sustainable manner.
  3. Must ensure that food production is not threatened.

Is Kyoto Protocol Successful?

 Kyoto Protocol’s first step was in bringing awareness to the need to reduce GHG emissions and save the environment was successful one. Some writers have argued that if the goals of the Protocol are not achieved, it is a good starting point. Kyoto Protocol has united the world together to fight climate change leading to global collaborative efforts. Many nations have cut their GHG emissions, notably the European Union.

During the time when Kyoto Protocol came into force in 2015 in Geneva, the UNFCCC expounded on the remarkable success of the Kyoto Protocol. It pointed out that analysis shows that countries with targets under the Protocol collectively exceeded their targets by over 20 per cent. UNFCCC’s Executive Secretary, Christiana Figueres, said: “The Kyoto Protocol was a remarkable achievement in many ways. It not only underscored the scientific reality that greenhouse gas emissions need to follow. But it also puts in place pioneering concepts, flexible options, practical solutions and procedures for accountability that we often take for granted today” (UNFCCC, 2015). This was even as the international community was engaging in negotiations on the Paris Agreement, a successor to the Kyoto Protocol.

The Kyoto Protocol is a complicated treaty involving years of negotiations and compromise. The reason the Protocol set emissions reduction targets for some countries while leaving others out was out of fairness. The aim of Kyoto Protocol, was to reduce emissions from those countries most responsible for emissions since the dawn of the industrial revolution, made up of developed countries. Some scholars have pointed out that “if one were to judge the Protocol on its emission reduction goals alone, it has been an unequivocal success story.

The Protocol also invented economically justifiable mechanisms to tackle GHG emission. Flexibility mechanisms of the protocol have led to reduction in cost of compliance with emission reductions. For example, the Protocol through the CDM, has successfully monetized the market for GHG reductions and mobilized more than US$200 billion of private sector investment. The CDM has helped in pollution reduction, and the promotion of reliable and renewable energy. It has also led to the stimulation of the local economy and the development and diffusion of technology among other socio-economic benefits. 

Failures of the Kyoto Protocol

 Although Kyoto Protocol was successful in certain spheres but it also received lots of criticism. It has even been dubbed “the wrong solution at the right time” carrying opportunity costs that distracted international efforts at effectively tackling climate change. It is generally agreed that the world needed to do something urgently at the time, but that the Kyoto Protocol had key institutional weaknesses that has led the world to adopt, and still adopts, an ineffective approach towards solving climate change. Climate change cannot be tackled by a single country, or even by bilateral actions. It is an issue that can only be entirely tackled through international efforts (IPCC, 2014, Stern, 2006). Climate change issues may be a good avenue for an international treaty, but the design of that treaty is decisive, as it promotes cooperation among countries as well as its paramount significance on the world. It has been pointed out that with the IPCC asserting that some climate change is inescapable and inevitable (IPCC, 2014), it means the Kyoto Protocol has failed in its cardinal mission that is reducing GHG emission into the atmosphere. 

The classic approach to analyze the success or failure of a policy is to concentrate on its effectiveness, efficiency, and performance (Wallner, 2008). These approaches will be used to assess the performance of the Kyoto Protocol.

Compliance: the first step in evaluating the Kyoto’s performance is to look at the degree to which countries complied with the provisions of the institution, both in letter and spirit (Rosen, 2015). It has been sharply pointed out by some scholars that full compliance and participation of countries with the Protocol would not have led to climate change mitigation (Den Elzen and de Moor, 2002). 

The Protocol’s objective was to reduce GHG by 5.2 percent. However, in 2007 the IPCC reported that the numerous measures taken by parties to the Protocol, and the entry into force of the Protocol itself, were not enough to reverse the overall GHG trend (IPCC, 2007). The IPCC further stated that “to limit temperature increase to 2oC above pre-industrial levels, developed countries would need to reduce emissions in 2020 by 10 – 40% below 1990 levels and in 2050 by approximately 40 – 95%.” These conditions are in contrast to the 8% or less reduction that industrialized countries were required to make.

In spite of the low emission cuts set by the Protocol, compliance are difficult. Canada’s CO2 emissions increased by 25% from 1990 to 2012 and Japan’s emission rose by 14% over the same period (Olivier et al., 2012). Compliance in Europe is more improved. Emissions reduced by 15% from the 1990 levels in the “EU-15,” which is almost twice the required 8% (European-Commission, 2013). This success is however not the same among the countries. Burden-sharing arrangement in Europe allows for the shortcomings of some to be made up by others. Only 8 countries reported to have met their individual commitments: Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Portugal, Sweden, and United Kingdom. The remaining seven (Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, and Spain) were not on track to meet their commitments (European-Commission, 2013).  Their compliance rested not on their own actions but those of other EU partners (Rosen, 2015).  Therefore, though the Protocol set the bar very low, countries still struggled to comply. Some, like Canada, pulled out of the Protocol entirely; while others, like Japan who remained, failed to comply, and have chosen not to take part in the next commitment period. The EU as a whole met its emission targets, but it was due in part to the burden sharing agreement and the clean development mechanism that allowed many countries to increase their overall individual emissions. Therefore, on compliance, the Protocol failed.

Efficiency: Efficiency is one of the key issues in policy analysis and environmental governance. Efficient policies are those where negative externalities and suboptimal outcomes are limited (Shepsle, 2010). An efficient policy would be one where cooperation is developed through a single or few institutions, and not through many fragmented forums (Blum, 2008). Given the amount of time and efforts put into negotiating and setting up the Kyoto Protocol, and the significant resources committed to host the various COPs, questions have been asked as to whether the Protocol is efficient in achieving its goal. Some believe it is not (Rosen, 2015). In the last decade, the climate regime has fractured into many institutions and forums with overlapping functions and issues (Karlsson-Vinkhuyzen and McGee, 2013).  Some of these forums include the G8, the UN Security Council, the Major Economies Meetings, etc., and a host of other bilateral agreements (Eckersley, 2012). New ones are continually created. This points to inefficiencies in the Protocol itself as the new fragments are the result of the failure of the Protocol to address climate issues (Raustiala and Victor, 2004). While it can be argued that the fragmentation is not a bad thing in itself, it does represent a flaw in the design of the protocol as it was intended to act as the main institution in the fight against climate change. Given the amount of time, efforts and resources invested into continuous negotiations, which over time has not decreased, it poses a cost–real and opportunity–to global mitigation efforts. Hence the Protocol failed the efficiency test.

Effectiveness: Effectiveness, whether or not the policy worked as intended, is another important criterion to use in analyzing the success or otherwise of the Kyoto Protocol (Bernauer, 1995). This can be done by evaluating to what extent the presence and activities of an institution help, all other things being equal, the attainment of goals;  and the degree to which the institution contributes to solving the environmental problem that led to its creation (Bernauer, 1995). Therefore, the focus should be on whether or not the Kyoto Protocol has solved the problems for which it was created. Presently, high rates of GHG emissions are still prevalent. Globally, emissions did not decrease or remain stagnant compared to 1990 levels. Instead they increased spectacularly. In 1990, CO2 emission was 22.7 billion tonnes; in 2005, it was 31.7 billion; and in 2013, it was 36 billion (Le Quéré et al., 2014). That is an increase of 59% between 1990 and 2013, and about 14% increase over the course of the first commitment period. It was stated by the IPCC in 2014 that parties bound by the Protocol reduced their overall emission emissions by over 20%. So it can be argued that most of the increase in GHG emissions are from those countries not bound by the Protocol, for example, the United States and China, who notably are responsible for 40% of global emissions. This, however, raises the question as to why policymakers would chose to focus their attention for 15 years on a policy that has little influence on the biggest emitters (Rosen, 2015).

Furthermore, an examination of how some countries met their commitment shows that they adopted disputable policies. For example, the EU’s success was due more to Germany’s and UK’s massive cuts, rather than sacrifices by individual countries. Also, the absorption of low emitting countries from Eastern Europe into the EU and the use of the flexible mechanism of the Protocol played a big part. Some countries shifted from oil and coal to natural gas thereby reducing emissions in the short term. But this is only a temporary palliative as natural gas, although less polluting, still emits GHG. Yet some other countries took advantage of the carbon market, and in some cases, establishing GHG intensive industries to earn credits by capturing the gases (Noss, 2001). Therefore, in terms of effectiveness, the Protocol failed in this regard.


Although the Kyoto Protocol represented a landmark diplomatic accomplishment, its success was far from assured. Indeed, reports issued in the first two years after the treaty took effect indicated that most participants would fail to meet their emission targets. Even if the targets were met, however, the ultimate benefit to the environment would not be significant, according to some critics, since China, the world’s leading emitter of greenhouse gases, and the United States, the world’s second largest emitter, were not bound by the protocol (China because of its status as a developing country and the United States because it had not ratified the protocol). Other critics claimed that the emission reductions called for in the protocol were too modest to make a detectable difference in global temperatures in the subsequent several decades, even if fully achieved with U.S. participation. Meanwhile, some developing countries argued that improving adaptation to climate variability and change was just as important as reducing greenhouse gas emissions.


 There were several international consensus that the climate was warming up led to actions and suggestions which culminated in the adoption of the Kyoto Protocol in 1997. The Protocol commits signatories to cut down GHG emissions by setting binding emission reduction targets. It also introduced flexible mechanisms that parties could use in their compliance with their targets. However, the Protocol had some difficulties which weakened its performance. Whether the Protocol has been a success or not is difficult to say as it is not certainly known how the world would have fared without the Protocol. Since the performance of the Protocol has shown what works and what does not, it is more appropriate to see the Protocol as a learning tool in the global fight against climate change.


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