The Kyoto Protocol and the Barriers towards its Proper Implementation

Published on August 19, 2011


The Kyoto Protocol is a protocol that seeks to control the global warming resulting from greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere. This protocol which was adopted on 11th December 1997 in Kyoto, Japan and entered into force on 16th February 2005, is based on an international environmental treaty in the framework of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC or FCCC).

According to a World Bank report, the Kyoto Protocol is significant because it focuses on the responsibility and commitments of the developed countries listed in Annex I of the UNFCCC, for controlling greenhouse gas emission. According to the Protocol, overall global reduction of at least five per cent in 1990 levels of greenhouse gases by 2008-2012 is the main goal for these countries.

For this reason , the Kyoto Protocol defines several “flexible mechanisms”, described as emissions trading, the clean development mechanism (CDM) and joint implementation to allow Annex I countries to meet their GHG emission limitations .This process is very complicated and needs many practical strategies such as purchasing GHG emission reductions credits from elsewhere, implementing financial exchanges, doing and supervising projects that reduce emissions in non-Annex I countries, from other Annex I countries, or from Annex I countries with excess allowances.

Under UNFCCC and the Kyoto Protocol and through a standard format provided by the responsible bodies related to the protocol, each country registered in Annex I should gather all the needed data regarding the green gas control system and submit an annual report of inventories of all anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions from sources and removals from sinks.

Many authors state that the Kyoto Protocol is a far from simple a document, raising these critical points that, not only the commitments themselves but also the mechanisms by which the developed country party may achieve them is extremely complex and that such complexities will produce different misunderstandings regarding the responsible country’s commitments and obligations based on the assigned time table for greenhouse gas controlling procedures. This article will examine these problems in detail in order to find the critical barriers for developed and developing countries in the field of industrial emissions disaster control.

The Problem

Referring to Article 2 of the Convention shows that the optimum long term strategic goal of the Kyoto Protocol is very similar to that of its parent convention, the UNFCCC. Both of these international events stress on the fact that, greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere must be stabilized at a level “that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system”, and that this level should be achieved “within a time frame sufficient to allow ecosystems to adapt naturally to climate change, to ensure that food production is not threatened and to enable economic development to proceed in a sustainable manner.”

But what does achieving the ultimate objective actually require? Clearly, the parties must agree on a set of ecological limits or targets which would safeguard ecosystems, food production and economic development as required in Article 2 of the Convention, and then agree on emissions reductions which will achieve them. However, ecological limits were barely discussed during the Protocol negotiations and there is currently no international process for finalizing and agreeing on a definition.

The most important problem arising in the scenario of the Kyoto Protocol is that in spite of the global warning and the recognition of the need to cut global emissions of carbon dioxide and the other greenhouse gases to prevent dangerous global warming, many developed countries, enforced by intensive public pressure from the fossil fuel industry, would not agree with the different obligations assigned for them to control and limit their domestic greenhouse gas emissions. The result was commitments in the Protocol which falls far shorter of what is really needed to protect the earth from major climatic changes.

On the other hand, many critics believe that, apart from the inadequate greenhouse gas emissions commitments, the Kyoto Protocol contains a number of provisions whose details were not resolved at the final negotiating session in Kyoto. These include the so-called flexibility mechanisms (emissions trading, joint implementation and the Clean Development Mechanism) and the use of sinks by developed country parties to achieve their emission commitments.

Because of such problems, many controversies have been created regarding the negotiability and implementation of Kyoto protocol’s objectives, and within these provisions is the potential for a number of sizeable ‘loopholes’, and elements which could sanction emission levels far above what was intended in Kyoto, and which has the potential to undermine and even overwhelm the protocol’s global reduction target of at least five per cent.

Although member countries and parties to the Kyoto Convention have entered many rounds of negotiations for resolving the complex and controversial issues in the Kyoto Protocol, there is a real danger that decisions will be taken which will permanently establish unresolved problems in the protocol.

According to Böhringer, the major challenge for future post Kyoto climate policies remains as to how international cooperation on the provision of climate protection (as a global public good) can be promoted. In the first place, this requires incentives for developing countries to participate. Ultimately, this comes down to how abatement duties – or emission entitlements – should be allocated across countries over a longer period of time. In the second place, a credible system of direct or indirect sanctions must be developed that can deter free-riding.

These unresolved problems may be difficult, if not impossible, to close in the future, and could allow developed countries to avoid domestic action to reduce their emissions, and global emissions to increase.

The important aspect that should be considered here is that there is a significant difference between the view points of developing and developed countries regarding their commitment to the Kyoto Protocol and the consequences of its implementation in their countries. Some developing countries that are forced to limit their fossil flues are not ready to use other clean energies that are readily accessible in developed countries and this creates a significant financial and economic pressure on the developing countries and their competition in free international market will be destroyed. For this reason, this article will try to find out the main reason for an incomplete agreement for implementing the aims of the Kyoto Protocol. What important barriers are preventing developing and developed countries from trying to reach the limitation levels of dangerous gases in the future? Which parties benefit (or fail to benefit) from the implementation of the Kyoto Protocol? Is there any solution for making a uniform and flexible regime for making a clear atmosphere in the future?

A Brief Literature

Gupta et al. (2007) assessed the literature on climate change policy. They found that no authoritative assessments of the UNFCCC or its protocol asserted that these agreements had, or will, succeed in solving the climate problem. In these assessments, it was assumed that the UNFCCC or its Protocol would not be changed. The Framework Convention and its Protocol include provisions for future policy actions to be taken. The World Bank (2010, p. 233) commented on how the Kyoto Protocol had only a slight effect on curbing global emissions growth.

The treaty was negotiated in 1997, but by 2005, energy-related emissions had grown by 24%. The World Bank (2010) also stated that the treaty had provided only limited financial support to developing countries to assist them in reducing their emissions and adapting to climate change.

Some of the criticism of the Protocol has been based on the idea of climate justice (Liverman, 2008, p. 14). This has particularly centered on the balance between the low emissions and high vulnerability of the developing world to climate change, compared to high emissions in the developed world.

Some environmentalists have supported the Kyoto Protocol because it is “the only game in town,” and possibly because they expect that future emission reduction commitments may demand more stringent emission reductions (Aldy et al.., 2003, p. 9). In 2001, sixteen national science academies stated that ratification of the Protocol represented a “small but essential first step towards stabilizing atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases”. Some environmentalists and scientists have criticized the existing commitments for being too weak (Grubb, 2000, p. 5).

Many economists think that the commitments are stronger than is justified (Grubb, 2000, p. 31). The lack of quantitative emission commitments for developing countries led the US and Australia (under Prime Minister John Howard) to decide not to ratify the treaty (Stern 2007, p. 478). Australia, under former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, has since ratified the treaty. Despite ratification, Australia has thus far not implemented legislation to bring itself into compliance.

Emissions in many large developing countries are undoubtedly growing rapidly, although from very low baselines. However, International Energy Agency figures show that in the 1990s two thirds of global emissions of carbon dioxide came from the developed countries, and projects that these countries will still be the source of over half the world’s emissions unless they take action to reduce their emissions.

It is the developed countries whose emissions since the Industrial Revolution have caused the climate change problem we are currently facing. It is therefore the responsibility of the developed countries to take action first. Many developing countries are already taking substantial action to reduce their emissions growth, and some have done much more to reduce their emissions than many industrialized nations.

Developing countries should not be expected to take on board commitments to limit their emission growth until the industrialized countries have met their responsibilities.

The emissions targets for the developed countries are different – in other words, there is no single target which is the same for all developed countries. The USA, for example, has to reduce its emissions by seven per cent. The European Union and most of the Central and Eastern European countries have to reduce their emissions by eight per cent, Poland and Hungary by six per cent and Croatia by five per cent. Canada and Japan’s target is a six per cent reduction. Scandalously, some countries are being allowed to increase their emissions, having argued that reductions would have an adverse impact on their national economies. These are Australia (an eight per cent increase), Norway (one per cent) and Iceland (ten per cent). Russia, the Ukraine and New Zealand argued successfully for targets which would allow their emissions to merely stabilize. The individual commitments are listed in Annex B of the Kyoto Protocol.

Article 17 of the Protocol states that the industrialized country parties listed in Annex B may achieve their commitments using emissions trading. Emissions trading works by setting a legally binding limit on each party’s emissions (the assigned amount) and then permitting parties to trade part of this. After all the trading is finished, the total sum of emissions (assigned amounts) should equal the total sum before any trading began – in other words trading re-distributes the allowed emissions from one party to another but keeps the total emissions within the originally agreed limit.

This means that developed countries whose emissions are less than their assigned amounts can sell the unused portion to countries whose emissions exceed their assigned amounts. The net result is the same as if both countries achieved their commitments, since emissions are deducted from the assigned amount of the selling country and added to the assigned amount of the buying country.

Most developed countries have so far failed to implement widespread energy efficiency measures, and so used energy very wastefully. There are huge opportunities in such countries to reduce domestic emissions in a very cost effective manner by bringing in energy efficiency measures. In an emissions trading regime, there may well be an incentive for these countries to reduce their domestic emissions below their commitment. This is because the price they could receive for selling these “excess” reductions (technically, excess assigned amount units) may well be higher than the cost to them of reducing the emissions in the first place. In the absence of an emissions trading regime, these countries would have aimed to achieve their commitment but probably nothing more.

Other countries, however, would be able to purchase these excess assigned amount units and thereby legally increase their emissions above their original commitment.

Many economists believe this system to be an economically effective means of achieving global emission reductions at the least cost. If the trading system works well and no one sells too many permits then the total emissions from the Annex B parties should be kept within the limit set originally for all the parties. A trading regime could therefore, in theory, bring about a more cost-effective reduction in global emissions than would otherwise be the case and produce some other overall economic benefits. This would be the ideal situation, but there are many ways in which a global emissions trading regime could go badly wrong.

It also became clear that despite this failure and the growing scientific consensus on the need to make real cuts in emissions, there was little political support among the Annex I countries for legally binding emission reductions to be agreed at COP1. In an attempt to increase the pressure for action, the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS), whose members include low lying island nations which are particularly vulnerable to sea level rise, proposed that the Annex I parties should reduce their carbon dioxide emissions by 20 per cent by the year 2005. This target was supported by Greenpeace and other environmental groups, but was resisted by most of the OECD countries.

The Author

Hamed Hashemi, is a PhD candidate of international law at UKM (Malaysia).