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Last update: 23.10.2015

Kyoto Protocol

The Kyoto Protocol is considered a milestone in international climate policy. It was adopted at the third meeting of the Conference of the Parties (COP 3) to the Framework Convention on Climate Change in Kyoto and was the first agreement to include binding obligations for industrialised countries to limit and reduce emissions. To date, 191 countries have ratified the Protocol including all EU member states and key newly industrialising countries such as Brazil, China, India and South Africa. The US has still not ratified the Kyoto Protocol. Canada withdrew in 2013.

Negotiation process and ratification

Große Kongresshalle mit Konferenzteilnehmern an Tischen.

For the Kyoto Protocol to enter into force at least 55 parties to the Framework Convention on Climate Change, which together caused at least 55 percent of the CO2 emissions produced by industrial countries in 1990, had to ratify the Protocol. The Kyoto Protocol entered into force after Russia, responsible for around 16 percent of said emissions, had ratified it. The 1997 Climate Change Conference in Kyoto did not set out any details concerning the implementation of the Protocol. These details were clarified during subsequent climate conferences. The conference in  Marrakesh in 2001 (COP 7) played a crucial role in this context. The Marrakesh Accords contain detailed decisions on the use of the Kyoto mechanisms, crediting carbon sinks and promoting climate action in developing countries.

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Blick durch grünes Blätterwerk in die Kronen mehrerer Laubbäume, dahinter blauer Himmel und eine diffus strahlende Sonne.


The Kyoto Protocol allows forestry activities to be included in the CO2 balance to a certain extent, because forests, like soils and oceans, are important natural carbon sinks. Afforestation and similar measures can therefore contribute to climate action.

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Rauchende Fabrikschornsteine

In the Kyoto Protocol there are three mechanisms that serve to help industrialised countries achieve their Kyoto emissions reductions targets by reducing the costs of reduction. The so-called Kyoto Mechanisms or flexible mechanisms enable industrialised countries to comply with their emission reduction commitments in part abroad.

Commitment periods

Stift auf einem beschriebenen Blatt

First Commitment period (2008-2012)

The industrialised countries listed in Annex B to the Protocol committed to reducing their greenhouse gas emissions by at least 5 percent compared to 1990 emission levels during the first commitment period under the Kyoto Protocol (2008-2012). The European Union and its member states committed to reducing their emissions by 8 percent compared to 1990 levels for the same period. This overall target was split up between the then 15 member states through burden sharing. Germany committed to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 21 percent during this process. According to calculations by the European Environment Agency, total emissions of the 15 EU member states have decreased by an average 12.2 percent during the period from 2008 - 2012 compared to 1990 levels. This means that the EU clearly exceeded its 8 percent target. Germany also exceeded the target it was set. Compared to 1990 levels, Germany reduced its emissions between 2008 - 2012 by an average of 23.6 percent.

The global trend, however, looks very different: up to 2010 global greenhouse gas emissions had risen by around 24 percent compared with 1990 levels. In addition to some of the industrialised countries, rapidly developing newly industrialising countries such as China and India are particularly responsible for this as they have increasing problems managing the CO2 emissions of their booming economies.

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Second commitment period (2013-2020)

After several years of negotiations, at the Climate Change Conference in Doha, Qatar (COP 18/CMP 8), the Parties agreed to extend the Kyoto Protocol until 2020. There, the Annex B countries committed to reducing their emissions by 2020 by 18 percent compared to 1990 levels. The European Union committed to a 20 percent reduction. From 2020, an international climate agreement is to enter into force that contains binding emission reductions for all countries.

The most important changes in a nutshell:

  • As there is no doubt that the emission reduction targets for the second commitment period are not sufficient, the parties agreed on an Ambition Mechanism, which allows for more stringent emission reduction targets during the commitment period without going through the lengthy process of amending the agreement. An industrialised country may propose more stringent targets for its emissions which will enter into force automatically once they have been adopted by the Conference of the Parties.
  • An amendment to Article 3.7 of the Kyoto Protocol also ensures that the generation of a new excess of emission allowances will be limited during the second commitment period. Emission allowances will be automatically deleted if the emission budget of the second commitment period exceeds the average emissions of the first three years of the first commitment period (2008-2010) multiplied by eight.
  • In addition to this, surplus emission allowances from the first commitment period will be transferred to a Previous Period Surplus Reserve (PPSR) which Annex B countries can only make use of if they miss their target of the second commitment period. This is to ensure that at the end of the second commitment period surplus emissions allowances from the first commitment period will not automatically be transferred to a (highly unlikely) third commitment period or follow-up agreement.
  • New Zealand, Japan and Russia decided against participating in the second commitment period under the Kyoto Protocol. Thus, the CO2 emissions of participating countries do not even cover 15 percent of global emissions.

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By ratifying the Kyoto Protocol, the industrialised countries made a binding commitment to reduce their emissions of the six most important greenhouse gases including carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4) and laughing gas (N2O) between 2008 and 2012 by at least 5 percent compared to 1990 levels. The Protocol laid down different levels for the various countries. In addition to saving their domestic emissions, a number of flexible instruments, the Kyoto mechanisms, were available to parties for achieving the targets.

Emissions Trading

The most well-known of these three instruments is emissions trading. It allows industrialised countries to trade emissions credits between countries. This works as follows: Each country is allocated a certain number of emissions rights. The number of emission rights for each country is set up so that a country makes full us of its emission rights if it exactly meets the national emissions reduction target set down Kyoto. If a country achieves greater reductions than those set down in the Kyoto Protocol, it can sell surplus emission allowances in the form of licenses to other countries. A country that does not manage to reduce its emissions in accordance with its Kyoto targets can buy these emissions rights and credited those as its own emission reduction. The licences are sold internationally to the highest bidder - in other words, the market determines the price. 

However, this regulation has a catch: if there is a wide supply of emissions units available, the price is very low. Industrialised countries will therefore tend to purchase emissions rights instead of reducing their own domestic emissions. This is particularly problematic because not every reduction in emissions is the result of effective climate protection policy. For example, Russia and Ukraine have long since reached their emission reduction targets. They are emitting 30-40 per cent less CO2 than in 1990, without additional climate action efforts. However, this is due to the fact that they suffered major economic crises in the 1990s rather than their climate protection policies. These excess emissions credits are referred to as "hot air". If other industrialised countries sell these emissions credits instead of implementing their own climate action measures, that will endanger the protective effect on the climate of the Kyoto Protocol and also prevent effective investments and innovations for a more climate-friendly economy in the industrialised countries. 

A similar phenomenon was due to the economic crisis that hit Europe in 2008. With the decline in economic output and thus of production in Europe, emissions decreased more sharply than expected. There was a surplus of emission credits and thus a fall in prices. 

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Joint Implementation

Projects carried out by two industrialised countries that have both committed to an emissions reduction target under the Kyoto Protocol fall within the scope of joint implementation. If an industrialised country carries out or finances a climate protection project in another industrialised country, it can credit the resulting emissions reductions in the form of emission reduction units to its reduction target. The recipient country of course cannot credit these units. Joint implementation projects can contribute to emissions reductions first being achieved where it is cheapest.

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Clean Development Mechanism (CDM)

The clean development mechanism works in a similar way to joint implementation. The main difference, however, is that CDM projects are jointly carried out by an industrialised country with a reduction commitment and a developing country without a reduction commitment. With CDM, an industrialised country carries out a climate action project in a developing country which avoids emissions, and these avoided emissions, "certified emission reductions", are credited to the industrialised country's account. The goal of the CDM is not only, as with the two mechanisms mentioned above, to make emissions reductions more cost effective. It also serves to assist developing countries, through technology transfer, in establishing a climate-friendly economy. The specific conditions of the CDM were laid down in the Marrakesh Agreement. It stipulates that all CDM projects must first be reviewed and accepted by a committee before they can be credited. Furthermore, i Marrakesh the States Parties also set down regulations on the type of projects that do not count as CDM: the construction of nuclear power plants is advised against, so‑called sink projects, e. g. reforestation measures, may only be credited to a limited degree. In order to be able to use the Kyoto mechanisms, countries must:

  • have ratified the Kyoto Protocol
  • have taken on their own emission reduction targets, i.e. be Annex B countries
  • have calculated a national emissions budget and established a national data collection system for drawing up greenhouse gas inventories and for transactions of emissions credits

One point of contention during many climate negotiations was the percentage of emissions reductions that should be permitted through the Kyoto mechanisms, i. e. abroad. The Kyoto Protocol itself is rather vague on this: Kyoto mechanisms may be used "in addition" to national reduction measures. This formulation implies that no country may comply with its reduction commitments exclusively through the use of Kyoto mechanisms. The Parties were, however, unable to agree on a more precise regulation.

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