Kyoto Protocol

Kyoto Protocol

In this article, we shall discuss the Kyoto Protocol in the context of environmental issues in international relations. We shall begin by with an historical overview of the document, followed by the characteristics of the Kyoto Protocol. We will then examine the process of the Kyoto Protocol going into force within the international community, as well as why some states, such as the United States of America, have not signed onto the Kyoto Protocol. It is important to understand the Kyoto Protocol, particularly as it relates to the COP21 United Nations Climate Change Conference.

What is the Kyoto Protocol?

The Kyoto Protocol is an international document that addresses state environmental standards, particularly with regards to climate change. The Kyoto Protocol is an international agreement with regards to the lowering of carbon dioxide emissions (Payne, 2013) into the environment. In fact, the Kyoto Protocol has been seen as “the most important global environmental agreement and reflects an increasing awareness of environmental globalization” (Payne, 2013: 221).

The Kyoto Protocol was a result of a multi-year effort by non-governmental organizations and governments to reduce the harmful effects on the environment. The document was completed and then adopted in Kyoto, Japan, on December 11th, 1997. However, it was not until February 16th, 2005 that the Kyoto Protocol went into force (UN, 2014c). 

In terms of mandate, the Kyoto Protocol calls for states to work on a various environmental standards, with the primary emphasis being the reduction in greenhouse gases. For example, Article 2 of the Kyoto Protocol calls for states to: 

Implement and/or further elaborate policies and measures in accordance with its national circumstances, such as:

(i) Enhancement of energy efficiency in relevant sectors of the national economy;

(ii) Protection and enhancement of sinks and reservoirs of greenhouse gases not controlled by the Montreal Protocol, taking into account its commitments under relevant international environmental agreements; promotion of sustainable forest management practices, afforestation and reforestation;

(iii) Promotion of sustainable forms of agriculture in light of climate change considerations;

(iv) Research on, and promotion, development and increased use of, new and renewable forms of energy, of carbon dioxide sequestration technologies and of advanced and innovative environmentally sound technologies;

(v) Progressive reduction or phasing out of market imperfections, fiscal incentives, tax and duty exemptions and subsidies in all greenhouse gas emitting sectors that run counter to the objective of the Convention and application of market instruments;

(vi) Encouragement of appropriate reforms in relevant sectors aimed at promoting policies and measures which limit or reduce emissions of greenhouse gases not controlled by the Montreal Protocol;

(vii) Measures to limit and/or reduce emissions of greenhouse gases not controlled by the Montreal Protocol in the transport sector;

(viii) Limitation and/or reduction of methane emissions through recovery and use in waste management, as well as in the production, transport and distribution of energy;

In addition, states must also work with one another on sharing information about their approaches towards reducing emissions. 

There are a variety of mechanisms that can be used to help ensure that states are reducing their carbon dioxide emissions. For example, through the International Emissions Trading, states can buy credits from countries not meeting their maximum quota with regards to carbon emissions (although this has not been without controversy, given that many have argued this does little to actually change the behavior of a state who has extensive carbon dioxide emissions). In addition, there is also the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) which “ allows a country with an emission-reduction or emission-limitation commitment under the Kyoto Protocol (Annex B Party) to implement an emission-reduction project in developing countries. Such projects can earn saleable certified emission reduction (CER) credits, each equivalent to one tonne of CO2, which can be counted towards meeting Kyoto targets.” (Un, 2014a). And lastly, there is also the Joint Implementation initiative, which, “defined in Article 6 of the Kyoto Protocol, allows a country with an emission reduction or limitation commitment under the Kyoto Protocol (Annex B Party) to earn emission reduction units (ERUs) from an emission-reduction or emission removal project in another Annex B Party, each equivalent to one tonne of CO2, which can be counted towards meeting its Kyoto target (UN, 2014b). Again, all of these avenues have not been fully supported, as a number of activists have felt that these do little to alter state behavior. For example, as Najam, Huq, and Sokoma (2003) explain, “in deciding to set first period emission targets as a percentage of 1990 emissions rather than as an allowance of emissions per capita, the Kyoto Protocol has set an allocation precedent which benefits those with high current emissions rather than those whose current emissions are low. There is a fear that if this precedent were to influence future target-setting then those living in developing countries—most of whom have relatively low per capita emissions—would be saddled with much lower emission allowances than their counterparts in the most industrialized countries of Europe and North America” (222).

Criticisms Towards Signing the Kyoto Protocol

Despite the fact that the Kyoto Protocol has entered into force internationally, there have still been a number of larger economic states that are not members of the Kyoto Protocol. For example, the United States is not a party to the document, nor are China and India. In the case of the United States, there is concern that controlling emissions will hurt their overall economic growth, and thus impact jobs, etc… (Payne, 2013). Payne (2013) explains that “Developing countries that are energy exporters give four main reasons for opposing global efforts to reduce emissions: (1) emission controls will reduce their revenues by decreasing energy consumption, (2) imports from industrialized countries would be more expensive because of measures taken to reduce carbon dioxide measures, (3) the development of new fuels to help cut down emissions is likely to reduce demand for their exports, and (4) oil, gas, and coal resources are part of their heritage” (221-222). And Najam, Huq, & Sokona (2003) similarly state that “[t]he challenges emerge from the fact that developing country concerns, which had always been marginal to the thrust of the UNFCCC, have become even more marginalized in recent COPs as energy has had to be diverted to get reluctant northern countries (those listed in Annex 1) to accede to the Kyoto Protocol” (222).

And as mentioned above, Global South states have also taken issue with the Kyoto Protocol. Najam, Huq, and Sokona (2003: 223) summarize their concerns when they explain:

  • First, the principle of inter- and intra-generational equity and responsibility which was so central to the discussions of global climate change up till the adoption of the UNFCCC has been side-lined in the discourse since then, especially since the Kyoto agreement.
  • Second, the focus of the regime has become skewed towards minimizing the burden of implementation on polluter industries and countries, instead of giving priority to the vulnerabilities of the communities and countries at greatest risk and disadvantage.
  • Third, the primary focus of the regime is becoming the management of global carbon trade and meeting short-term targets, distracting due attention from the longer-term challenge of stabilizing atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations.



Najam, A., Huq, S., & Sokona, Y. (2003). Climate Negotiations Beyond Kyoto: Developing Countries Concerns and Interests. Climate Policy, Vol. 3, pages 221-231. 

Payne, R. (2013). Global Issues. New York, New York. Pearson.

United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (2014a). Clean Development Mechanism (CDM). Available Online: 

United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (2014c). Joint Implementation (JI). Available Online: 

United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (2014c). Kyoto Protocol. Available Online: 


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