Is the Kyoto Protocol Successful?

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Summary

There is a scientific consensus that there is climate change, and it is driven predominantly by human activities. The world has tried out different measures in its efforts to mitigate against climate change, one of which is the Kyoto Protocol. Opinions on the success, or otherwise, of the Protocol are sharply divided. While the treaty recorded major achievements, it also had notable shortcomings. It cannot be said with certainty how the world would have fared in terms of climate change mitigation without the Protocol, but its performance has shown what works and what does not. Therefore, it is more appropriate to see the Protocol as a learning tool in the global fight against climate change.

Introduction

The Kyoto Protocol is an international treaty linked to the 1992 UNFCCC that commits its state parties to cut down greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions  by setting internationally binding emission reduction targets (UNFCCC, 2014a). The treaty is based on the scientific consensus that the climate system is warming up, and that it is caused majorly by human activities (IPCC, 1992). The Kyoto Protocol was presented for signature in Kyoto, Japan on December 11th, 1997 and entered in force on February 16th, 2005. The first commitment period was from 2008 to 2012.

Opinions on the success, or otherwise, of the Kyoto Protocol are sharply divided between those who believe that it has been a resounding success and those who believe it has been a pathetic failure. This paper discusses what the Kyoto Protocol is and the reason why it was created. The paper then analyses it achievements and shortcomings, and assesses whether the Protocol has been a success or not.

Background: The Need for a Climate Mitigation Treaty

In the 1980s, scientists and climate experts began to draw attention to increasing GHG emissions, and warned that it could lead to the warming of the climate (Genest, 2012). The international community responded by establishing the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in 1988. The IPCC was tasked with investigating the extent and impact of anthropogenic climate change. The IPCC, made up of scientists and experts from around the world, reviews and appraises contemporary scientific, technical and socio-economic data generated worldwide that are relevant to the understanding of climate change (IPCC, 2017).

 In 1990, the IPCC published its First Assessment Report which concluded that the climate was indeed warming up, and it was driven by human activities. The report also stated that if nothing was done (Business-as-usual scenario), global mean temperature would rise by about 0.2 to 0.5oC per decade during the next century, this is higher than that recorded over the past 10,000 years. This would lead to a mean global temperature rise of about 1oC above the present value by 2025 and 3oC before the end of the 21st Century (IPCC, 1990). Temperature increases can cause extreme heat waves, frequent extreme weather events, and modifications of how infectious diseases are transmitted (Genest, 2012).

In order to prevent GHG concentration reaching dangerous levels in the atmosphere, the international community came together to deal with climate change at the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro where the United Nations Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) was adopted. The objective of the UNFCCC was the “stabilization of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system” (UNFCCC, 1992). The stabilization efforts were to proceed in such a manner that it would not threaten food production and sustainable economic development. The UNFCCC contained only a few binding obligations and did not fix greenhouse gas reduction targets. However, it laid the foundation for further multilateral cooperation for climate change mitigation (Genest, 2012). A Conference of Parties (COP) was established as the supreme body of the UNFCCC. The COP was tasked with the regular reviewing of the implementation of the Convention and any other related legal instruments that may be adopted.

The UNFCCC required, among other things, that each party state: (i) develop and make available, national inventories of anthropogenic emissions by sources and removal by sinks; (ii) formulate and implement programmes to mitigate climate change; (iii) promote and cooperate in the development and transfer of technologies, practices and processes to reduce or prevent anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases; and (iv) communicate information related to implementation to the Conference of Parties (UNFCCC, 1992).

The UNFCCC divided signatory countries into three main groups with different commitments. Annex I Parties included industrialised OECD countries in 1992, and countries with economies in transition (EIT), including the Russian Federation, the Baltic States, and several Central and Eastern European States. Annex II parties consist of OECD members of Annex I, but not the EIT parties. Non-Annex I Parties are mostly developing countries (UNFCCC, 2014b). Article 3 of the UNFCCC put greater burden on developed country parties in combating climate change.

In 1995, the first COP (COP–1) took place in Berlin, Germany. The COP concluded that the UNFCCC did not go far enough in setting mandatory emission reduction targets. Therefore, a decision known as “the Berlin Mandate” was adopted, which was a first step towards setting legally-binding GHG emission reductions (Genest, 2012). The COP–1 meeting was the backdrop that started the process of negotiating a protocol to the UNFCCC that would set legally-binding emission reduction targets. These negotiations led to the third COP in Kyoto Japan in 1997 where COP members adopted the Kyoto Protocol to the UNFCCC (Genest, 2012).

The Kyoto Protocol

The Kyoto Protocol was adopted in Japan in 1997. The first commitment period of the protocol was to run from 1998 to 2012. Article 3.1 of the protocol mandates countries in Annex 1 of the UNFCCC to ensure, individually or jointly, that their aggregate anthropogenic carbon dioxide equivalent emissions of their GHGs are reduced by at least 5% below the 1990 levels in the commitment period 2008 to 2012. It further states in 3.2 that each Annex 1 country shall have made demonstrable progress in achieving its commitments by 2005 (UNFCCC, 1998). Annex A to the Protocol includes Greenhouse gases and their sectors/source categories, while Annex B includes signatory countries, as well as their quantified emission limitation or reduction commitment. In the first commitment period, Annex 1 parties must meet their target while individually remaining below their assigned GHG emissions amount as stated in Annex B to the Protocol. These amounts range from 92% for countries such as Austria and Belgium to 110% for Iceland (UNFCCC, 1998). Article 3.5 of the Protocol allows countries whose economy is in transition (EIT Parties) to use 1988 or 1989 rather than 1990 as base year for their GHG reduction. This was because their GHG emissions were higher during the years prior to 1990 (Genest, 2012).

With respect to sinks, there were contentions during negotiations as some countries such as the U.S., Canada and Russia had extensive forest areas and better positioned to benefit from a rule allowing emission reductions by their forests to count towards their emissions targets. On the other hand, many European and Asian countries lacked such sinks and therefore rejected that such reductions be counted (Genest, 2012). COP members finally agreed that GHG emissions by sources and removals by sinks from “human-induced land-use change and forestry activities, limited to afforestation, reforestation and deforestation since 1990, measured as verifiable changes in carbon stocks in each commitment period” only shall be counted (UNFCCC, 1998).

Another contentious issue was joint actions among UNFCCC Annex I countries, and between Annex I and non-Annex I countries. After much negotiations, three mechanisms were adopted to add flexibility: international emissions trading, clean development mechanism and joint implementation. Article 17 allows parties included in Annex B to participate in international emissions trading among themselves as part of measures to meet their emission reduction targets. The permitted emissions for each country are divided into “ assigned amount units” (AAUs) (UNFCCC, 2014a). Countries whose emissions are below their allowed emissions can sell their surplus to countries that exceeds theirs. Article 12 of the Protocol defines a clean development mechanism (CDM) which allows developed countries to carry out emission reduction projects in developing countries which results in certified emission reductions. The developed countries may use the certified emission reductions from such projects as compliance with part of their reduction targets (UNFCCC, 1998). This gives Annex I countries another option of meeting their reduction targets while also giving developing countries the opportunity to attract greenhouse reduction projects which would aid sustainable development. Article 6 of the Protocol allows Annex I countries, through a mechanism known as “joint implementation” (JI) to obtain emission reduction units (ERUs) by investing in greenhouse gas reduction projects in other Annex I countries. The ERUs earned count towards compliance with part of their emissions reduction targets.

The Protocol could enter into force ninety days after the date that at least 55 parties to the UNFCCC which accounted for at least 55 per cent of global carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions ratified the Protocol. This provision led to a delay, and the Protocol only entered into force in 2005. Presently, there are 192 parties to the Protocol. The first commitment period was from 2008 to 2012. In 2012, an Amendment to the Protocol called the “Doha Amendment” was agreed. It required acceptance from 144 states to enter into force. As at July 2015, only 35 countries had accepted it (ConnectUS, 2015). A notable country who did not ratify the treaty is the United States. Although the US signed the Protocol in 1998 under the Clinton administration, it was rejected by the Bush administration backed by the US Senate. The Bush presidency viewed the Protocol as unfair on the US as it leaves out developing countries, and also that it could harm the US economy if ratified (Reynolds, 2001).

Performance the Kyoto Protocol

Opinions on the success, or otherwise, of the Kyoto Protocol are sharply divided between those who believe that it has been a resounding success and those who believe it has been a pathetic failure. Some critics even argue that the Protocol has set back solutions to climate change by two decades.

Successes of the Kyoto Protocol

The major achievement of the Kyoto Protocol is in bringing awareness to the need to reduce GHG emissions and save the environment. Some writers have argued that if the goals of the Protocol are not achieved, it is a good starting point. The Protocol has brought the world together to fight climate change leading to global collaborative efforts. Many nations have cut their GHG emissions, notably the European Union (Chavez, 2009).

During the 10th Anniversary of the entry into force of the Kyoto Protocol in 2015 in Geneva, the UNFCCC expounded on the resounding success of the Kyoto Protocol. It pointed out that analysis shows that countries with targets under the Protocol collectively exceeded their targets by over 20 per cent. UNFCCC’s Executive Secretary, Christiana Figueres, said: “The Kyoto Protocol was a remarkable achievement in many ways. It not only underscored the scientific reality that greenhouse gas emissions need to fall. But it also put in place pioneering concepts, flexible options, practical solutions and procedures for accountability that we often take for granted today” (UNFCCC, 2015). This was even as the international community was engaging in negotiations on the Paris Agreement, a successor to the Kyoto Protocol.

The Kyoto Protocol is a complex treaty involving years of negotiations and compromise. The reason the Protocol set emissions reduction targets for some countries while leaving others out was out of fairness. The aim was to reduce emissions from those countries most responsible for emissions since the dawn of the industrial revolution, made up of developed countries. Some scholars have pointed out that “if one were to judge the Protocol on its emission reduction goals alone, it has been an unequivocal success story” (Seres, 2013).

In addition, the Protocol invented economically justifiable mechanisms to tackle GHG emission (Bulgakova, 2011). The flexibility mechanisms have led to reduction in cost of compliance with emission reductions. For example, the Protocol through the CDM, has  successfully monetized the market for GHG reductions and mobilised more than US$200 billion of private sector investment (Seres, 2013). The CDM has helped in pollution reduction, and the promotion of reliable and renewable energy. It has also led to the stimulation of the local economy and the development and diffusion of technology among other socio-economic benefits (UNFCCC, 2012).

Failures of the Kyoto Protocol

The Kyoto Protocol has received lots of criticism. It has even been dubbed “the wrong solution at the right time” carrying opportunity costs that distracted international efforts at effectively tackling climate change. It is generally agreed that the world needed to do something urgently at the time, but that the Kyoto Protocol had key institutional weaknesses that has led the world to adopt, and still adopts, an ineffective approach towards solving climate change (Rosen, 2015). Climate change cannot be tackled by a single country, or even by bilateral actions. It is an issue that can only be entirely tackled through international efforts (IPCC, 2014, Stern, 2006). Climate change issues may be a good avenue for an international treaty, but the design of that treaty is decisive, as it promotes cooperation among countries as well as its paramount significance on the world (Rosen, 2015). It has been pointed out that with the IPCC asserting that some climate change is inescapable and inevitable (IPCC, 2014), it means the Kyoto Protocol has failed in its cardinal mission: reducing GHG emission into the atmosphere. 

The classic approach to analysing  the success or failure of a policy is to concentrate on its effectiveness, efficiency, and performance (Wallner, 2008). These approaches will be used to assess the performance of the Kyoto Protocol.

Compliance: the first step in appraising the Kyoto’s performance is to look at the degree to which countries complied with the provisions of the institution, both in letter and spirit (Rosen, 2015). It has been pointed out by some scholars that full compliance and participation of countries with the Protocol would not have led to climate change mitigation (Den Elzen and de Moor, 2002). The Protocol’s objective was to reduce GHG by 5.2 percent. However, in 2007 the IPCC reported that the numerous measures taken by parties to the Protocol, and the entry into force of the Protocol itself, were not enough to reverse the overall GHG trend (IPCC, 2007). The IPCC further stated that “to limit temperature increase to 2oC above pre-industrial levels, developed countries would need to reduce emissions in 2020 by 10 – 40% below 1990 levels and in 2050 by approximately 40 – 95%.” These conditions are in sharp contrast to the 8% or less reduction that industrialised countries were required to make.

In spite of the low emission cuts set by the Protocol, compliance are patchy. Canada’s CO2 emissions increased by 25% from 1990 to 2012 and Japan’s emission rose by 14% over the same period (Olivier et al., 2012). Compliance in Europe is more improved. Emissions reduced by 15% from the 1990 levels in the “EU-15,” which is almost twice the required 8% (European-Commission, 2013). This success is however not the same among the countries. Burden-sharing arrangement in Europe allows for the shortcomings of some to be made up by others. Only 8 countries reported to have met their individual commitments: Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Portugal, Sweden, and United Kingdom. The remaining seven (Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, and Spain) were not on track to meet their commitments (European-Commission, 2013).  Their compliance rested not on their own actions but those of other EU partners (Rosen, 2015).  Therefore, though the Protocol set the bar very low, countries still struggled to comply. Some, like Canada, pulled out of the Protocol entirely; while others, like Japan who remained, failed to comply, and have chosen not to take part in the next commitment period. The EU as a whole met its emission targets, but it was due in part to the burden sharing agreement and the clean development mechanism that allowed many countries to increase their overall individual emissions. Therefore, on compliance, the Protocol failed.

Efficiency: Efficiency is one of the key issues in policy analysis and environmental governance. Efficient policies are those where negative externalities and suboptimal outcomes are limited (Shepsle, 2010). An efficient policy would be one where cooperation is developed through a single or few institutions, and not through many fragmented forums (Blum, 2008). Given the amount of time and efforts put into negotiating and setting up the Kyoto Protocol, and the significant resources committed to host the various COPs, questions have been asked as to whether the Protocol is efficient in achieving its goal. Some believe it is not (Rosen, 2015). In the last decade, the climate regime has fractured into many institutions and forums with overlapping functions and issues (Karlsson-Vinkhuyzen and McGee, 2013).  Some of these forums include the G8, the UN Security Council, the Major Economies Meetings, etc., and a host of other bilateral agreements (Eckersley, 2012). New ones are continually created. This points to inefficiencies in the Protocol itself as the new fragments are the result of the failure of the Protocol to address climate issues (Raustiala and Victor, 2004). While it can be argued that the fragmentation is not a bad thing in itself, it does represent a flaw in the design of the protocol as it was intended to act as the main institution in the fight against climate change. Given the amount of time, efforts and resources invested into continuous negotiations, which over time has not decreased, it poses a cost–real and opportunity–to global mitigation efforts. Hence the Protocol failed the efficiency test.

Effectiveness: Effectiveness, whether or not the policy worked as intended, is another important criterion to use in analysing the success or otherwise of the Kyoto Protocol (Bernauer, 1995). This can be done by assessing to what extent the presence and activities of an institution help, all other things being equal, the attainment of goals;  and the degree to which the institution contributes to solving the environmental problem that led to its creation (Bernauer, 1995). Therefore, the focus should be on whether or not the Kyoto Protocol has solved the problems for which it was created. Presently, high rates of GHG emissions are still prevalent. Globally, emissions did not decrease or remain stagnant compared to 1990 levels. Instead they increased spectacularly. In 1990, CO2 emission was 22.7 billion tonnes; in 2005, it was 31.7 billion; and in 2013, it was 36 billion (Le Quéré et al., 2014). That is an increase of 59% between 1990 and 2013, and about 14% increase over the course of the first commitment period. It was stated by the IPCC in 2014 that parties bound by the Protocol reduced their overall emission emissions by over 20%. So it can be argued that most of the increase in GHG emissions are from those countries not bound by the Protocol, for example, the United States and China, who notably are responsible for 40% of global emissions. This, however, raises the question as to why policymakers would chose to focus their attention for 15 years on a policy that has little influence on the biggest emitters (Rosen, 2015).

Furthermore, an examination of how some countries met their commitment shows that they adopted disputable policies. For example, the EU’s success was due more to Germany’s and Uk’s massive cuts, rather than sacrifices by individual countries. Also, the absorption of low emitting countries from Eastern Europe into the EU and the use of the flexible mechanism of the Protocol played a big part. Those countries coming out of the Soviet Union had lost most of their polluting industries. Since the Kyoto Protocol used 1990 as benchmark, the inclusion of these countries into the EU was like a windfall (Rosen, 2015). It can therefore be argued that the Kyoto Protocol encouraged measures that led to short term gains rather than encouraging fundamental policy changes that could lead to greater reductions in the long run (Keeler and Thompson, 2008). Some countries shifted from oil and coal to natural gas thereby reducing emissions in the short term. But this is only a temporary palliative as natural gas, although less polluting, still emits GHG. Yet some other countries took advantage of the carbon market, and in some cases, establishing GHG intensive industries to earn credits by capturing the gases (Noss, 2001). Therefore, in terms of effectiveness, the Protocol failed in this regard.

Success or Failure?

Since the Kyoto Protocol failed in terms of performance, efficiency and effectiveness, can it therefore be said that the treaty failed? Not necessarily. The truth is somewhere between success and failure. It cannot be said for certain what would have been the emissions of signatories to the Protocol without the treaty. It is the opinion of the author of this paper that calling the Protocol a success or failure is missing the point. The Protocol is neither a success nor failure but a learning tool. Its performance has taught the world some lessons on what works and what does not. Those lessons are invaluable ingredients in the global fight against climate change.

Conclusion

International consensus that the climate was warming up led to actions and negotiations which culminated in the adoption of the Kyoto Protocol in 1997. The Protocol commits signatories to cut down GHG emissions by setting binding emission reduction targets. It also introduced flexible mechanisms that parties could use in their compliance with their targets. However, the Protocol had some shortcomings which weakened its performance. Whether the Protocol has been a success or not is difficult to call as it is not certain how the world would have fared without the Protocol. Since the performance of the Protocol has shown what works and what does not, it is more appropriate to see the Protocol as a learning tool in the global fight against climate change.

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