Why the Kyoto Protocol is a Historic Milestone

 

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 

climate change. 

 

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.   

Topics: 
Region: 
Organization: