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Making those first steps count: An Introduction to the Kyoto Protocol

Delegates celebrate the adoption of the Protocol in 1997

The Kyoto Protocol was adopted in Kyoto, Japan, on 11 December 1997. Due to a complex ratification process, it entered into force on 16 February 2005.

In short, the Kyoto Protocol is what “operationalizes” the Convention. It commits industrialized countries to stabilize greenhouse gas emissions based on the principles of the Convention. The Convention itself only encourages countries to do so.

KP, as it is referred to in short, sets binding emission reduction targets for 37 industrialized countries and the European community in its first commitment period. Overall, these targets add up to an average five per cent emissions reduction compared to 1990 levels over the five-year period 2008 to 2012 (the first commitment period).

KP was structured on the principles of the Convention. It only binds developed countries because it recognizes that they are largely responsible for the current high levels of GHG emissions in the atmosphere, which are the result of more than 150 years of industrial activity. KP places a heavier burden on developed nations under its central principle: that of “common but differentiated responsibility”.

In Doha, Qatar, on 8 December 2012, the Doha Amendment to the Kyoto Protocol was adopted. This launched a second commitment period, starting on 1 January 2013 until 2020.

The architecture of the KP regime: What makes KP tick?

The Kyoto Protocol is made up of essential architecture that has been built and shaped over almost two decades of experience, hard work and political will. The beating heart of KP is made up of: 

  • Reporting and verification procedures;

  • Flexible market-based mechanisms, which in turn have their own governance procedures; and

  • A compliance system.

So, two things make KP tick.

The first was binding emissions reduction commitments for developed country parties. This meant the space to pollute was limited, and what is scarce and essential commands a price. Greenhouse gas emissions— most prevalently carbon dioxide— became a new commodity. KP now began to internalise what was now recognised as an unpriced externality.

This leads us to the second, the flexible market mechanisms of the KP, based on the trade of emissions permits. KP countries bound to targets have to meet them largely through domestic action— that is, to reduce their emissions onshore. But they can meet part of their targets through three "market-based mechanisms" that ideally encourage GHG abatement to start where it is most cost-effective-- for example, in the developing world. Quite simply, it does not matter where emissions are reduced, as long as they are removed from the planet's atmosphere. This has the parallel benefits of stimulating green investment in developing countries and of including the private sector in this endeavour to cut and hold steady GHG emissions at a safe level. It also makes "leap-frogging" more economical-- that is, the possibility to skip older, dirtier technology for newer, cleaner infrastructure and systems, with obvious longer-term benefits.

KP has prompted governments to put in place legislation and policies to meet their commitments, businesses to make climate-friendly investment decisions, and the formation of a carbon market.

The Kyoto Protocol compliance mechanism is designed to strengthen the Protocol's environmental integrity, support the carbon market's credibility and ensure transparency of accounting by Parties. Its objective is to facilitate, promote and enforce compliance with the commitments under the Protocol. It is among the most comprehensive and rigorous systems of compliance for a multilateral environmental agreement. A strong and effective compliance mechanism is key to the success of the implementation of the Protocol.

For more details on the Kyoto Protocol, its architecture and how it operates, click here.

For an overview of the relationship between the political, advisory and subsidiary bodies of the UNFCCC, please click here.


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Which countries ratified and what are their targets?

Status of Ratification of the Kyoto Protocol

Targets and what gases are targeted for reduction

The flexible mechanisms: CDM and the JI

The Clean Development Mechanism allows emission-reduction projects in developing countries to earn certified emission reduction (CER) credits, each equivalent to one tonne of CO2. CERs can be traded, sold, and used by industrialized countries to a meet a part of their emission reduction targets under the Kyoto Protocol. For more information on the CDM, see the CDM website.

Joint Implementation allows industrialized countries with targets under KP to carry out emission-reduction projects in other industrialized country for credits. These are Emission Reduction Units, also equivalent to 1 tonne of CO2. These are converted from Assigned Amount Units (AAUs) and issued by the host country of the project. For more information on the JI, see the JI website.