What has replaced the Kyoto Protocol

Background current

In 2005 the Kyoto Protocol came into force. Many industrialized countries committed themselves to reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Important countries, however, refused. Was the Kyoto Protocol Successful?

The Niederaussem lignite power plant from RWE Power AG near Bergheim. (& copy picture-alliance, Geisler-Fotopress)

On February 16, 2005, the so-called Kyoto Protocol came into force. With this treaty, the international community set legally binding targets for the first time to reduce emissions of climate-damaging greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide (CO2) or methane. Not all industrialized countries submitted to the obligation. Nevertheless, the Kyoto Protocol is considered a milestone in climate policy.

The origins of the Kyoto Protocol go back to the 1990s. In 1992 the international community of states agreed on a Framework Convention on Climate Change at the so-called "Earth Summit" in Rio de Janeiro, the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED). The goal of this United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC): to stabilize the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere in order to prevent a dangerous man-made disruption of the climate system. In addition, the UNFCCC planned annual meetings of the States parties to jointly negotiate how this goal is to be achieved.

At the first Conference of the Parties to the Framework Convention on Climate Change (Conference of the Parties, COP) in Berlin in 1995, the states came to the conclusion that the previous obligations of the UNFCCC were insufficient for effective climate protection. A legally binding agreement should remedy this. This "Berlin Mandate" paved the way for the preparation of the Kyoto Protocol, which was adopted in 1997 at the third COP in Japan.

Signing of the Kyoto Protocol

The Kyoto Protocol differentiates between emerging or developing countries and industrialized countries. As they are listed in Appendix B of the Protocol, the participating industrial nations are often referred to as Annex B countries. These included the 15 EU countries at the time, Japan, Australia, the USA and Russia. Given their historical responsibility for the increase in greenhouse gas emissions, they pledged to reduce their emissions by at least five percent compared to 1990 levels.

Between 2008 and 2020, the EU committed itself to reducing its emissions by eight percent compared to 1990 levels. In order to achieve this, the member states pledged their own emission targets: Germany undertook to reduce its own greenhouse gas emissions by 21 percent compared to 1990.

Emerging countries like China or India, whose economic growth caused energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions to rise, and developing countries did not have to take any binding measures to protect the climate. By signing the protocol, however, they recognized the need to tackle climate change.

For the Kyoto Protocol to come into force, two conditions had to be met: at least 55 countries had to have ratified it and they had to be responsible for at least 55 percent of the CO2 emissions caused by the Annex B countries in 1990. When Iceland was ratified in 2002, the first condition was met, but the Kyoto Protocol could only come into force after Russia ratified it in 2004. The USA, as the largest emitter of greenhouse gases at the time, had signed the protocol in 1998 but not ratified it. Three years later, it withdrew from the agreement entirely.

Market based mechanisms

Three economic mechanisms should support the industrialized countries in achieving their reduction targets: Emissions trading, Joint Implementation and the Clean Development Mechanism.

Emissions trading enables industrialized countries to trade among themselves with rights to emit certain amounts of climate-damaging gases. Each state is allocated emission rights (certificates). A country's certificates are considered exhausted if it precisely meets its national reduction target set in the Kyoto Protocol. If a country reduces its greenhouse gas emissions beyond the intended target, it can sell excess certificates to another country. Countries that do not meet their climate targets in their own country can in turn buy them and credit them to their emissions targets.

While certificates are exchanged in emissions trading, the other two mechanisms are based on specific climate protection projects. As part of the "Joint Implementation", industrialized countries can carry out or finance climate protection projects in other industrialized countries that have signed the Kyoto Protocol. You can have the resulting emission reductions offset against you. The "Clean Development Mechanism" (CDM) enables a similar procedure for climate protection projects in developing countries.

Critics complain that these economic mechanisms do not really motivate states to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. Financially strong industrialized countries could meet their reduction targets by simply buying in surplus emission rights from other countries instead of taking political measures against climate change themselves.

Have the goals been achieved?

At least formally, the industrialized countries that had committed themselves permanently to the Kyoto targets achieved their targets after the first commitment round. By 2012, their emissions had declined not by five, but by more than twenty percent compared to 1990. Germany was able to reduce its emissions by 23.6 percent compared to 1990.

However, this development was not only due to the measures that were taken to reduce emissions, but also to other political developments, such as the financial crisis or the collapse of the Eastern European economies after the collapse of the Eastern Bloc. The fact that Germany's emissions fell by a total of 31.4 percent between 1990 and 2018 is due not only to political initiatives but also to the economic consequences of reunification for the federal states of the former GDR.

If the earlier signatory states such as Canada and the USA were also included, the outcome of Kyoto would be significantly worse. According to data from the Global Carbon Project, the global increase in greenhouse gas emissions has slowed since the beginning of the first commitment period, but from 2008 to 2018 annual global CO2 emissions rose from around 30 to around 37 gigatons.

What happened next?

The first period of the Kyoto Protocol ended in 2012. After no new agreement could be reached at the climate conference in Copenhagen in 2009, the contracting states agreed three years later in Doha to continue the Kyoto Protocol until 2020.

The EU pledged to reduce its emissions by 20 percent compared to 1990 levels during the second commitment period from 2013 to 2020. However, Japan, New Zealand and Russia no longer took part in the second commitment period. Canada had already withdrawn from the agreement in 2011. Even the three countries with the world's largest greenhouse gas emissions - the USA and now China and India - did not commit to lowering them. The countries participating in the second period of the Kyoto Protocol were therefore only responsible for just under 15 percent of global CO2 emissions.

A central point of criticism of the Kyoto Protocol was that an effective fight against climate change is impossible without making the states that emit the most greenhouse gases responsible. The follow-up agreement to the Kyoto Protocol also takes this approach into account: the Paris Climate Agreement of 2015. In it, all 195 UNFCC signatories agreed to limit global warming to a level of "well below two degrees" compared to the pre-industrial era.

more on the subject

  • Facts and figures on globalization: global warming
  • Facts and figures on globalization: International treaties - climate protection
  • From politics and contemporary history: Climate
  • Climate change dossier: climate policy
  • Environment dossier: Emissions trading