The practical effect of Kyoto targets

Treaty signingIn 1992, the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC) was signed at the first World Summit on Sustainable Development, which was held in Rio de Janeiro:

The Convention on Climate Change sets an overall framework for intergovernmental efforts to tackle the challenge posed by climate change. It recognizes that the climate system is a shared resource whose stability can be affected by industrial and other emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. The Convention enjoys near universal membership, with 192 countries having ratified.

(See UNFCCC: The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.)

The Convention did not set targets, but provided the framework for negotiations about targets. These were agreed in the 1997 Kyoto Protocol.

The major feature of the Kyoto Protocol is that it sets binding targets for 37 industrialized countries and the European community for reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. These amount to an average of five per cent against 1990 levels over the five-year period 2008-2012. The major distinction between the Protocol and the Convention is that while the Convention encouraged industrialised countries to stabilize GHG emissions, the Protocol commits them to do so.

(See UNFCCC: Kyoto Protocol.)

Kyoto sets national targets for industrialised countries, including ‘economies in transition’ (that is, from communism). The target is for reduction in annual emissions compared to emissions in 1990. Kyoto is a ‘cap-and-trade system’. This allows countries with more emissions than their target requires to buy allowances from those with fewer emissions than they are allowed under the Protocol.

The countries with targets are called Annex 1 in Kyoto parlance. The target is usually expressed as a target for 2010 – the middle year of the five year period that it actually covers. The commitment is supposed to be binding, but is not actually enforceable. Scott Barrett, of the Johns Hopkins University, says that:

The failure of the Kyoto Protocol (emissions are still rising) can be traced to a lack of enforcement. Since sovereign nations cannot be compelled to act against their wishes, successful treaties must create adequate internal incentives for compliance, along with external incentives for participation. The Kyoto Protocol lacks both.”

(See Harvard Project on International Climate Agreements: A portfolio of Climate Treaties.)

This is too dismissive of Kyoto. Emissions are still rising globally, but not overall for the group of Annex 1 countries. All the statistics that follow are from the UNFCC paper December 2008 paper National greenhouse gas inventory data for the period 1990 – 2006 (see UNFCCC: Framework Convention on Climate Change).

In 2006, emissions from all Annex 1 countries were 5.5% lower than 1990 levels. EU emissions were 2.2% lower than in 1990. Most of the 15 states which were EU members in 1997 and which therefore have a share of the EU target of -8%, had reduced their emissions. Of the seven largest polluting countries, five had reduced emissions, and only Spain and Italy had increased:


Share of EU target (%)

Emissions in 2006 (%)






















The USA, which signed Kyoto but did not ratify it, had allowed its emissions to rise by 14.4% by 2006. Its target, had it ratified, would have been -7%.

However, there are two strong ironies – the performance of the host country and the impact of the country whose ratification brought the protocol into force – which make any positive overall assessment of Kyoto harder to sustain. Japan accepted a target of a 6% reduction at Kyoto, and ratified the protocol, but by 2006 its emissions had risen by over 5%. The protocol came formally into force only when enough countries had ratified it, and the country that took it past this finishing post was Russia. Russia’s Kyoto target is that emissions in 2010 should be the same as in 1990, but the collapse of much of the Russian economy since 1990 meant that emissions in 2006 were in fact 34% below 1990 levels. This enables Russia to sell emissions credits to other countries, a process often (and legitimately) referred to as ‘hot air’. The Annex 1 countries which are not ‘economies in transition’ actually allowed emissions to rise to 9.1% above 1990 levels by 2006, so the overall fall of all Annex 1 countries to -5.5% is only because of ‘hot air’ trading.

The fairest overall assessment of Kyoto is that the developed countries that ratified (so excluding economies in transition) allowed emissions to increase by 9.1% by 2006, while the US, which did not ratify, allowed its emissions to increase by 14.4%. Therefore, Kyoto can plausibly be said to have reduced non-US developed country emissions by 5.3% from what they would have been without Kyoto. This is certainly better than nothing, but not nearly enough.

Nevertheless, Kyoto has focussed the minds of politicians and businesses. Climate change is now high on the EU agenda. Policies such as the Emissions Trading Scheme have been weak so far, but could and should be strengthened (through a floor price for carbon). The EU is promising a 20% reduction (from 1990 levels) by 2020. Kevin Rudd’s Australian government, and the new Japanese government, are promising to reduce emissions by 25% (from 1990 levels) by 2020. However, the US is proposing only a 15% reduction from 2005 levels by 2020.

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