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What is the Kyoto Protocol?


Jaenschwalde Coal-Fired Power Plant
Sean Gallup/Getty Images News/Getty Images

The Kyoto Protocol is an amendment to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), an international treaty intended to bring countries together to reduce global warming and to cope with the effects of temperature increases that are unavoidable after 150 years of industrialization. The provisions of the Kyoto Protocol are legally binding on the ratifying nations, and stronger than those of the UNFCCC.

Countries that ratify the Kyoto Protocol agree to reduce emissions of six greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming: carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, sulfur hexafluoride, HFCs and PFCs. The countries are allowed to use emissions trading to meet their obligations if they maintain or increase their greenhouse gas emissions. Emissions trading allows nations that can easily meet their targets to sell credits to those that cannot.

Lowering Emissions Worldwide
The goal of the Kyoto Protocol is to reduce worldwide greenhouse gas emissions to 5.2 percent below 1990 levels between 2008 and 2012. Compared to the emissions levels that would occur by 2010 without the Kyoto Protocol, however, this target actually represents a 29 percent cut.

The Kyoto Protocol sets specific emissions reduction targets for each industrialized nation, but excludes developing countries. To meet their targets, most ratifying nations would have to combine several strategies:

  • place restrictions on their biggest polluters
  • manage transportation to slow or reduce emissions from automobiles
  • make better use of renewable energy sources—such as solar power, wind power, and biodiesel—in place of fossil fuels


Current Status

Most of the world’s industrialized nations support the Kyoto Protocol. One notable exception is the United States, which releases more greenhouse gases than any other nation and accounts for more than 25 percent of those generated by humans worldwide. Australia also declined.


The Kyoto Protocol was negotiated in Kyoto, Japan, in December 1997. It was opened for signature on March 16, 1998, and closed a year later. Under terms of the agreement, the Kyoto Protocol would not take effect until 90 days after it was ratified by at least 55 countries involved in the UNFCCC. Another condition was that ratifying countries had to represent at least 55 percent of the world’s total carbon dioxide emissions for 1990.

The first condition was met on May 23, 2002, when Iceland became the 55th country to ratify the Kyoto Protocol. When Russia ratified the agreement in November 2004, the second condition was satisfied, and the Kyoto Protocol entered into force on February 16, 2005.

As a U.S. presidential candidate, George W. Bush promised to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. Shortly after he took office in 2001, however, President Bush withdrew U.S. support for the Kyoto Protocol and refused to submit it to Congress for ratification.

An Alternate Plan
Instead, Bush proposed a plan with incentives for U.S. businesses to voluntarily reduce greenhouse gas emissions 4.5 percent by 2010, which he claimed would equal taking 70 million cars off the road. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, however, the Bush plan actually would result in a 30 percent increase in U.S. greenhouse gas emissions over 1990 levels instead of the 7 percent reduction the treaty requires. That’s because the Bush plan measures the reduction against current emissions instead of the 1990 benchmark used by the Kyoto Protocol.

While his decision dealt a serious blow to the possibility of U.S. participation in the Kyoto Protocol, Bush wasn’t alone in his opposition. Prior to negotiation of the Kyoto Protocol, the U.S. Senate passed a resolution saying the U.S. should not sign any protocol that failed to include binding targets and timetables for both developing and industrialized nations or that "would result in serious harm to the economy of the United States.”



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