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Kyoto Protocol


At the 3rd Meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP 3) in Kyoto in 1997, the Parties adopted the Kyoto Protocol. In the Protocol the industrialised nations made a binding commitment to reduce their emissions of the six main greenhouse gases - including carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4) and chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) - by at least 5% compared with 1990 levels in the period 2008 to 2012. The individual countries accepted varying emission reduction targets (e.g. Japan 6%, Russia +/-0%). The EU, with its 15 member states at the time (EU-15), distributed its share of 8% among the individual countries. For Germany that meant a reduction of 21%, 12.5% for the United Kingdom and +/-0% for France.

The Protocol was and remains a milestone in international climate policy: for the first time, internationally binding emission reduction targets for industrialised countries were set and linked to a definite time scale. However, the 1997 Climate Change Conference in Kyoto did not clarify any details concerning the implementation of the Protocol. These issues were the subject of negotiations at the conferences in Buenos Aires in 1998, Bonn in 1999, The Hague in 2000, Bonn in 2001 and Marrakesh in 2001. At times it looked as though negotiations would fail because the disparity between the various countries' positions was too great. The main point of contention concerned the nature and extent of the various options for reducing greenhouse gases (see sinks and Kyoto mechanisms).

Negotiations suffered a further setback in early 2001, when the newly elected US administration announced its refusal to support the Kyoto Protocol, which had been negotiated by its predecessors. Despite this stance by the US, the parties were able to achieve a breakthrough at the Climate Change Conference in Bonn in July 2001 (COP 6bis). The environment ministers of more than 180 nations agreed on a political compromise concerning the most contentious issues. At the Climate Change Conference in Marrakesh held shortly afterwards in November 2001 (COP 7), delegates adopted a package of decisions (the so-called Marrakesh Accords). This package concluded the negotiation process on the specifications of the Kyoto Protocol and set out all provisions governing the implementation of the Kyoto Protocol, i.a. provisions on the so-called Kyoto mechanisms, sinks, compliance monitoring and aid for developing countries.


Forests, soils and oceans are important natural carbon stores that sequester carbon from the atmosphere. The Kyoto Protocol allows forestry activities such as afforestation, reforestation and deforestation to be included in the CO2 balance to a certain extent.

However, there are a number of problems associated with the offsetting of these carbon sinks. Firstly, sinks can lose their function as carbon stores at any time - for example as a result of forest fires. Secondly, it is very difficult to gauge which forestry activities would have taken place anyway, and which are carried out additionally, i.e. exclusively for climate protection reasons. Identifying such activities and then calculating precisely how much carbon they sequester poses major problems. Thirdly, as a result of the fertilising effect of the rising greenhouse gas emissions, vegetation growth in the northern hemisphere is progressing at a rapid rate, and the stock of sinks is therefore increasing of its own accord, without any targeted measures.

Generous offsetting of sinks against greenhouse gas reductions could allow large nations such as Russia and Canada to further increase their emissions by a significant amount, rather than reducing them. They could comply with their commitments under the Kyoto Protocol without undertaking additional emission reduction efforts in other areas.

Ratification of the Kyoto Protocol

The Kyoto Protocol has been in force since 16 February 2005. For the Protocol to become internationally binding it first had to be ratified by the national parliaments of the countries involved. The Kyoto Protocol stipulates two conditions which must be met in order for it to enter into force:

  • At least 55 Parties to the Framework Convention on Climate Change must ratify the Protocol.
  • These countries must jointly account for at least 55% of CO2 emissions from industrialised countries in 1990.

The second condition was only met after Russia ratified the Kyoto Protocol in November 2004 after considerable hesitation. The US and Australia had already declared that they would not implement the Kyoto Protocol nationally. As the US accounted for around 35% and Russia for around 16% of CO2 emissions from industrialised countries in 1990, the necessary 55% would not have been reached without one of these two countries.

To date, 191 countries have ratified the Kyoto Protocol, including all EU member states, Canada, New Zealand, Norway, Japan, but also Australia (2007) and newly industrialising countries such as Brazil, China, Mexico, India, South Africa and South Korea. The US is therefore the only industrialised country that continues to decline the ratification of the Kyoto Protocol.

The Kyoto Protocol’s first commitment period from 2008 to 2012

Germany is set to clearly exceed its Kyoto target (21%): By the end of 2010 national greenhouse gas emissions had already been reduced almost 25% compared with 1990. The European Union (EU 15) is also very likely to meet its Kyoto target (8%): By the end of 2010 the EU-15 had managed to reduce their emissions by a total of 10.6% compared with 1990. The current 27 EU member states (EU 27) had even reduced their emissions by 15.5% by 2010 - despite continued economic growth. This clearly shows that within the EU it has been possible to decouple economic growth and emission reduction.

In comparison, total emissions of all industrialised countries with Kyoto commitments only decreased by 6.1% between 1990 and 2008. The global trend also looks very different: up to 2006 global greenhouse gas emissions rose by around 24% compared with 1990 levels. As well as some industrialised countries, in particular newly industrialising countries with rapidly growing economies such as China and India are responsible for this. Their emissions continue to rise considerably.

This shows quite clearly: If the serious impacts of climate change are to be prevented the entire global community has to act with far more resolve.

A second commitment period under the Kyoto Protocol

The Kyoto Protocol’s first commitment period will expire at the end of 2012. At the Climate Change Conference in Durban (South Africa - COP 17/CMP7) the international community agreed on a second commitment period under the Kyoto Protocol from 1 January 2013.
In addition, the Parties agreed to negotiate a new comprehensive climate accord by 2015 which is planned to enter into force in 2020. In contrast to the Kyoto Protocol, the new agreement shall obligate not only the industrialised but all countries to reducing their GHG emissions. Given the increasing anthropogenic climate change, all countries are also to implement additional voluntary measures to reduce their GHG emission before 2020.

The next meeting of the Conference of the Parties (COP18), taking place in Doha, Qatar, from 26 November to 7 December 2012, will decide on the new design of the second commitment period under the Kyoto Protocol. There are still open questions to be answered in preparing the negotiations, among them:

  1. The duration of the second commitment period – It is still hotly debated, with a possible timeframe ranging from five to eight years. The EU advocates a duration of eight years, with a midterm review in order to see whether even more ambitious reduction targets might be feasible.
  2. The quantified reduction targets of those Parties participating in the second commitment period - The EU has already submitted its independent emission reduction target of 20 per cent by 2020. However, there are discussions within the EU whether the EU should submit an even more ambitious emission reduction target.
  3. Finally the decision on what will happen with remaining Assigned Amount Units (AAUs) from the first commitment period. - The Kyoto Protocol provides for all remaining AAUs from the first commitment period to be transferred to the second commitment period. UNFCCC estimates that there will probably be more than 13 billion remaining AAUs. This high figure is mainly due to emission increases in the transition countries in the former Eastern bloc being less pronounced than expected, the Kyoto target being set too low and the US refusal to sign the Kyoto Protocol, thus removing a potential taker for these AAUs. Russia and Ukraine account for more than half of these remaining AAUs, around 35 per cent originate in the EU (particularly Poland, Rumania, other Eastern European countries, but also in the United Kingdom and Germany).
    Germany therefore strongly advocates a solution which effectively protects the environmental integrity of the Kyoto Protocol, as an unlimited transfer of remaining AAUs would reduce the ambition level substantially and dilute the present Kyoto targets.
  4. In addition, there are also discussions on how to prevent a legislative gap between the first and the second commitment period as the ratification process in the individual countries can only start after the Doha Conference.
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