Kyoto Protocol: 10 years of the world’s first climate change treaty

Hailed as an answer to global warming, the flagship treaty failed to curb carbon emissions, so what will its legacy be?

(Pic: Thawt Hawthje/Flickr)

(Pic: Thawt Hawthje/Flickr)

By Ed King

Ten years ago today the world’s first legally binding climate change deal came into force.

First agreed in 1997, it took eight years for participating countries to ratify the Kyoto Protocol.

The deal was fairly simple. Industrialised countries would be legally obliged to cut their greenhouse gas emissions 5% on 1990 levels by 2008-2012.

Developing countries – including China, India, Brazil and South Africa – would face no restriction on their emissions but were encouraged to adopt policies to promote greener growth.

To help countries meet targets, Kyoto also offered a range of market mechanisms that could help rich countries offset emissions by investing in low carbon projects in poorer parts of the world.

It was hailed as an “environmentally strong and economically sound” deal by US president Bill Clinton, speaking just after agreement had been reached in 1997.

“It reflects a commitment from our generation to act in the interests of future generations,” he said.

Washington’s lawmakers disagreed, the Senate voting 95-0 against the treaty, and Clinton’s successor George W Bush withdrew US support in 2002, labelling it “fatally flawed”.

That left the US and China – the world’s largest carbon polluters – free from any restraints, leading critics to say it was pointless as it only covered a fraction of global emissions.

Nevertheless, after years of wrangling, in late 2004 Russia finally signed up, which meant Kyoto had 55 members, enough for it to come online in early 2005.

In one sense, Kyoto has been an unsung success. According to the UN, emissions among its backers were 22.6% lower than 1990 levels in 2012, way beyond the 5% reduction commitment.

Were all or any of those due to the treaty? It is unlikely, says Glen Peters, a climate policy analyst at the Oslo-based Centre for International Climate and Environmental Research (CICERO).

Many developed countries already had policies in place to decarbonise. The UK’s emission cuts were largely due to it substituting gas for coal, he points out.

Other significant factors were the post-1990 collapse of Soviet economies and offshoring of heavy industry and manufacturing to the global south.

Reporting progress

But on a technical level Kyoto has seen dramatic developments it can account for.

It introduced the idea of a multinational carbon market – the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) – and delivered new rules for reporting, accounting and verifying emissions.

It offered means of support to poorer countries – through the establishment of the Adaptation Fund and through mechanisms designed to incentivise green investments in the developing world.

And its rules-based architecture influenced the creation of low carbon legislation across the world – notably the UK’s 2008 Climate Change Act.

Countries which came under Kyoto generally have more elements of domestic climate legislation than those who do not, says Sam Fankhauser, co-Director of the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment.

“You have to look quite hard at the data to find the little of bit the influence but you can find some.”

In a statement, UN climate chief Christiana Figueres said she was “convinced” that without Kyoto, efforts to decarbonise the global economy would be running at a far slower pace.

“The Kyoto Protocol was the first critical step – today we must take further and more far reaching action towards a truly sustainable future for seven billion, rising to over nine billion, people,” she said.

“Despite our best efforts, greenhouse gases continue to rise, threatening sustainable development and putting millions if not billions of people at risk over the coming decades.”

Mixed legacy

Green investments are surging, up 16% in 2014 on 2013 levels say Bloomberg, but it’s hard to make a direct link between that and Kyoto, especially as the biggest rises have come in the US and China.

Equally – while emissions among those countries under Kyoto have generally fallen, the rate of carbon pollution growth has soared.

Data from the Dutch PBL Environment Agency, released in late 2014, indicates CO2 releases hit a new record of 35.3 billion gigatonnes (GT) last year, 0.7 GT higher than 2013.

This year analysts say emissions could rise 2.5%, 65% above 1990 levels, driven by growth in China and India.

In 2011, Canada’s environment minister Peter Kent cited the lack of wider participation as Ottawa’s rationale to abandon the treaty – a move that was later followed by Russia and Japan.

This excuse was greeted with scepticism at the time. Canada’s oil and gas industry was increasing its reach and many of Kent’s colleagues were climate sceptics.

But the basic theory stands. A small treaty covering a fraction of global emissions won’t be enough to limit warming to what scientists say are safe levels.

“Kyoto was a grand policy experiment with important lessons we ought to take forward,” says Roger Pielke Jr, a professor at the University of Colorado Boulder, in an article in Nature.

“It had its flaws — no wonder, you rarely get policies right the first time — but the overall architecture is still useful.”

For Peters, one of its main values was it exposed what didn’t work. In particular he argues that splitting the world into two parts, one responsible for climate change and the other not, was a fatal flaw.

“At least you needed shades of grey so countries could transition into the other,” he adds [See video below for how contentious this could be].

It’s a theory Fankhauser agrees with, but points out that in the mid-1990s it seemed “eminently reasonable” to omit emerging markets because their emissions levels were so low.

There are signs of progress on this front, as countries work towards a new climate deal in Paris this December.

Arguments over how to differentiate between rich and poor remain, but China’s climate pact with the US is evidence that powerful developing countries realise they have to contribute.

Speaking at last year’s UN climate summit in New York, president Barack Obama picked up the baton from Bill Clinton, backing a new global pact, but adding it needed to have worldwide buy-in.

“We will do our part, and we will help developing nations do theirs. But we can only succeed in combating climate change if we are joined in this effort by every nation – developed and developing alike. Nobody gets a pass,” he said.

The Kyoto Protocol will still run until 2020, an extension targeting 18% carbon cuts on 1990 levels.

It’s not a target that will tax those who sign up (although many haven’t so far), and the main value will be to keep reporting and accounting practices, along with the CDM, ticking over until a Paris deal comes into effect.

Its biggest legacy – one it shares with the 2009 Copenhagen climate summit – is likely to be its abject failure to address the causes of climate change.

Any deal struck in the French capital later this year may not resemble Kyoto, but the way it is constructed will be, in no small part, a result of lessons learnt by policymakers since 2005.

Chief among those is that while the world’s superpowers will not accept legally binding carbon caps, they can be convinced of the need to implement greener policies and the long-term benefits these will offer their own countries.

“We cannot link all these emissions reductions directly to the Kyoto Protocol, but it clearly played an important role in catalyzing this promising trend which has led to a collective and very welcome ‘over-achievement’,” says Figueres.

“Paris will not solve climate change at a pen stroke. But similarly it must trigger a world-wide over-achievement and a clear sense of direction that can restore the natural balance of emissions on planet Earth.”

Read more on: Comment | UN climate talks | |