On February 16th 2005---more than seven years after the text of the treaty was initially agreed--
“Kyoto”, a protocol to the UN Framework Convention on climate change signed at the Earth
Summit in Rio in1992, finally achieves the status of a treaty in force in terms of international law.
This Protocol has often been criticized for its lack of ambition. For instance, its overall target is a
reduction in emissions in industrialised countries of only 5.2 % below 1990 levels between 2008
and 2012. Even its staunchest supporters admit that this level of reductions is seriously deficient
if maintained. But the underlying premise of this Protocol has always been that it is only a small
first step towards protecting the climate, and that reductions will be progressively stepped up over
succeeding 5 year cycles.
Despite this weakness, the Protocol is a unique multilateral political agreement, and represents a
milestone in international environmental protection. It contains many significant positive aspects.
Firstly, Kyoto puts in place a legally binding international system with reduction targets, which are
attached to a compliance system in order to monitor and ensure that countries fulfil their
commitments. The Protocol is therefore crucial for implementation of the overall objective of the
Rio Convention on climate change. Indeed, the ambitious objective of this Convention is to
achieve “the stabilization of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that
would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system”.
Of particular importance is the fact that the overwhelming majority of the International Community
has now ratified Kyoto. As of January 2005, around 140 countries had become Parties to the
treaty. Even more relevant is that nearly all industrialised countries--with the significant exception
of the USA and Australia--have accepted legally binding emissions targets, either for reductions,
or at the very least, for limitation.
Kyoto also enhances the call for a more equitable relationship between Southern and Northern
countries as embodied by the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities established
in Rio (1992). Its provisions emphasize the need for the transfer of new and additional resources
from Northern countries to the poorer countries of the South. In particular, it specifies North-South
transfer of ecologically sound technologies, new and additional funding for capacity building and
support for adaptation to climate change in poorer countries more threatened by climate change
than their Northern counterparts. The Protocol thus establishes a new obligation on the highly
industrialised rich countries to help poorer ones to achieve sustainable development while
nevertheless adapting to climate change and gradually acquiring the capacity to participate in the
overall global effort to mitigate emissions.
Secondly, politically speaking, Kyoto has already succeeded in making climate change a top
issue within the international agenda for co-operation, development and trade. With the significant
exception of the Bush Administration in the United States, very few governments now contest the
argument that climate change poses a major threat to human life and health. The Protocol has
contributed to a push for enhanced international cooperation, better governance, better
monitoring and reporting, and a greater emphasis on equity in dealing with the problems linked to
Finally, Kyoto has had a significant influence on public awareness at the domestic level in many
countries. In the absence of the Protocol, most of the countries would not have made any effort to
pass the policies and measures against climate change that many now have in place today.
Kyoto has created a new dynamic for the promotion of energy efficiency and the propagation of
renewable energies as well as for tackling this matter through an inter-sectorial approach.
Similarly, it has spurred policy makers and researchers into developing monetary and fiscal tools
to harness economic goods to the overall good of humankind and its environment. Last but not
least, as a result of the fractious international negotiations involved in finally delivering Kyoto--
particularly following President Bush’s decision to step out of the process--NGOs and the media
have had to explain to civil society why these debates are so contentious and why the issue
matters so much. This has led to increased public awareness of the importance of climate
change, and an emphasis on the urgency of multilateral and individual actions in order to prevent
dangerous and irreversible human interference with the global atmosphere.
With the entry into force of the Kyoto Protocol, this significant legal, political, and environmental
achievement is now in the hands of the countries that have ratified to put into place. This critical
step of ensuring the treaty’s international legitimacy must now be followed by the domestic
implementation efforts necessary for countries to meet their established targets. The credibility of
Kyoto countries will be at stake as the global community continues to monitor progress on this
critical treaty. That progress must involve not only the collective efforts of Kyoto countries to
meet their targets, but also a firm commitment and concrete action to define the next steps for
further action in the post-2012 time period. By joining together in an ongoing effort to protect the
climate, the Kyoto countries will provide proof of their commitment and will further isolate and
pressure the non-Parties to join the global effort.