Brief guide to the Kyoto Protocol

The Kyoto Protocol was agreed by 184 governments in the ancient Japanese city of that name in December 1997.
It came into legal force in 2005, requiring 37 industrialized countries to reduce their emissions by an average of 5% below 1990 levels during the period 2008 to 2012.

The protocol was an historic “first step” to controlling greenhouse gases, providing a basic framework around action to combat climate change.

It has led many industrialized countries to put in place the institutions and policies needed to achieve emissions cuts, and some countries and regions are actually beginning to reduce their emissions.

But its impact on the rising trend in global emissions has been very small, and some of its mechanisms are questionable.

Countries can achieve their targets partly by investing in emissions-cutting projects in other countries.

Presently, the biggest of these “flexibility mechanisms” is the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM), which allows investors in emissions-saving projects in developing countries to offset the savings against their own emissions back home, or to sell “carbon credits” on the open markets to other polluters.

The CDM has so far registered more than a 1000 projects, with another 4,000 in the pipeline. These could eventually result in reductions in emissions greater than the combined current emissions of Australia, Germany and the United Kingdom.

Projects range from wind turbines in India to capturing and using methane from landfills in Brazil to geothermal plants in Central America.

But there has been concern that, while a few countries (China, India, Brazil and Mexico, in particular) have attracted the chief share of projects under this mechanism, the least developed nations – particularly in Africa – have been left out.

There is also concern that too many projects deliver few real cuts in emissions.

Reform of the design and areas of use of the CDM is widely seen as necessary to ensure that it really does deliver reductions in emissions.


Countries with Kyoto targets can also redistribute their emissions entitlements among themselves (as the European Union countries have done) or trade them. These trades are intended to make climate protection more cost-effective by maximizing emissions reductions where it is least costly to carry them out.

Developing countries have their own Kyoto obligations but NO binding emissions targets.

By engaging in the CDM they can, for example, receive funds for reducing emissions intensity.

Industrialized countries have the obligation to support developing country efforts through financial help and technology transfer.

Next to securing emissions reductions, the recent negotiations also set up an adaptation fund to help the most vulnerable countries cope with changing climate.

It is funded by a 2% levy on CDM transactions.

But NO projects have yet been funded under this mechanism.

The protocol’s sanctions against backsliders have had little LITTLE EFFECT.

Canada is currently racking up emissions more than 25% above 1990 levels, when its target is a 6% cut, and the USA withdrew from the protocol altogether in 2001.

The Kyoto Protocol is far from perfect, but it is still important. And now, with its current emissions reduction targets EXPIRING at the end of 2012, the next steps must be taken as a matter of urgency – building on its basic framework and creating something more ambitious and broader in scope that addresses the scientific imperatives of climate change.
 / ©: Paint for the Planet - Alex Smith, USA
Polar bear crying. International Children’s Painting Competition on the Environment organized by UNEP, the Foundation for Global Peace and Environment, Bayer and Nikon.
© Paint for the Planet - Alex Smith, USA

I have photographed the annual polar bear congregation on the Hudson Bay in Canada for 20 years. The winter is coming later every year. Each additional week they can’t get out onto the ice to hunt means the polar bears have less body fat and are less healthy. They are getting smaller and lighter. If the trends continue, polar bears on Hudson Bay will be a thing of the past within the next 20-30 years.

Daniel J. Cox, wildlife photographer, Canada

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