The World Tries to Tackle Climate Change Together...Mostly
The Kyoto Protocol was adopted in 1997 and really represents the first global attempt to implement emissions reduction targets for the purpose of address global climate change. For context, this was after the first and second assessment reports from the IPCC. It established binding emission targets for 37 industrialized countries and the European Union. The Kyoto Protocol did not establish binding reduction targets for developing countries. Collectively, the targets represent a 5% reduction in greenhouse gas levels between 2008-2012 relative to 1990 as a baseline. The detailed rules for its implementation were finalized in 2001.
How does the treaty work?
Most of a country's required reductions must occur internally. However, there are several additional measures which enable Kyoto signatory countries to meet their targets. These additional measures have been designed to offer countries with compliance obligations a certain degree of flexibility in how they achieve their reductions, so as to help contain costs and encourage emission reduction projects worldwide.
- Emissions trading - countries able to reduce their emissions by more than their established target are able to sell their surplus reductions on the carbon market.
- Clean development mechanism (CDM) - allows countries with emission limitation commitments to implement emission reduction projects in developing countries. These projects earn credits (one credit per metric ton of carbon dioxide equivalent) which can then be sold on the carbon market and counted toward Kyoto compliance. CDM places a strong emphasis on sustainable development in conjunction with emission reductions and gives industrialized countries the opportunity to reduce emissions at a lower cost externally rather than generating all of their reductions within their own borders. CDM projects are subject to a strict verification and quantification process to ensure that the reductions for which someone earns credit are real, additional, and verifiable. Check out the CDM Rulebook to learn more about the verification process for CDM projects.
- Joint implementation (JI) - allows countries under Kyoto commitments to achieve their emission reductions from projects in other countries also subject to emission reduction commitments under the Protocol.
The United States and the Kyoto Protocol
While the United States participated in the discussions and development of the Protocol and became a signatory nation, we have never formally ratified it and therefore have not participated in reducing emissions by our assigned 7% below the 1990 baseline.
- What went wrong? The Clinton Administration never submitted the Protocol to the Senate because of one dealbreaker - the lack of commitment to binding reductions for developing countries. Later, the Bush administration rejected the protocol. And while the United States did sign initially, because it was never ratified domestically, the targets are non-binding. In the years since the US backed away from the Kyoto Protocol, it has continued to send delegates to the UNFCCC annual meetings but not to participate in conversations related to the Protocol implementation itself.
- Big pieces of the pie: In order for the Protocol to go into effect, countries representing at least 55% of the 1990 level emissions needed to ratify. As you can imagine, this was challenging without the United States' participation (representing a full 25% of global emissions at that time). However, in 2004 with Russia's ratification, the Protocol was set in motion. Here's a BBC article from February 2005, just after that 55% threshold was met, and the Protocol went into effect. I like this because it's a nice time capsule of what our global thinking was around international climate change action at that time.