What Is the Kyoto Protocol?

What Is the Kyoto Protocol?

7 Min.

The Kyoto Protocol was an international agreement that required developed nations to significantly reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. The U.S. withdrew from the Kyoto Protocol because it believed the mandate was unjust and would harm the country's economy. The Paris Climate Agreement of 2015 replaced the Kyoto Protocol and includes commitments from all major GHG-emitting countries to decrease their climate-altering pollution.


The Kyoto Protocol, a historic international accord, emerged in 1997 in the Japanese city of Kyoto. The primary objective of this groundbreaking treaty was to combat the escalating threat of climate change by curbing carbon dioxide emissions and reducing the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

At its core, the Kyoto Protocol called upon industrialized nations to curtail their carbon dioxide emissions significantly. This initiative was prompted by the urgent need to protect our planet from the swift and perilous impacts of greenhouse gases on our climate and life on Earth. Despite its initial significance, the Paris Agreement eventually succeeded the Kyoto Protocol, which came into force in 2016, marking a new chapter in global efforts to address climate change.

Kyoto Protocol: International Climate Commitment

The Kyoto Protocol, an integral component of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, represented a pivotal global initiative in response to the escalating threat of climate change. This landmark accord was formally adopted in Kyoto, Japan, on December 11, 1997, subsequently attaining the status of international law on February 16, 2005.

Under the Kyoto Protocol, participating nations ratified commitments to curtail their greenhouse gas emissions, with each country assigned specific emission limits for defined periods. A carbon credit trading system was established, allowing nations to offset excess emissions by purchasing credits.

Compliance with emission targets was individually determined for each nation. Consequently, the European Union (EU) pledged an 8% reduction in emissions, while the United States and Canada committed to reducing their emissions by 7% and 6%, respectively, by the year 2012. The Kyoto Protocol also established a dedicated fund to support developing countries adopting non-greenhouse-emitting industrial processes and technologies, fostering global cooperation in addressing climate change challenges.

Kyoto Protocol's Innovative Emission-Reduction Mechanisms

The Kyoto Protocol introduced innovative mechanisms, offering nations additional avenues to fulfill their emission-reduction objectives. These mechanisms encompass:

  1. International Emissions Trading Mechanism: This mechanism permits countries with surplus emission units to partake in carbon trading by selling these units to nations exceeding their emissions targets.
  2. Clean Development Mechanism: Countries with emission-reduction obligations can undertake emission-reducing initiatives in developing countries, subsequently earning certified emission-reduction credits.
  3. Joint Implementation Mechanism: Nations with emission-reduction commitments can garner emission-reduction units from projects conducted in other participating countries.

Disparities in Climate Responsibilities: Kyoto Protocol and U.S. Stance

The Kyoto Protocol acknowledged the historical responsibility of developed nations for the elevated greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, a consequence of over a century of industrial activity. Consequently, the protocol imposed stringent GHG emission reduction mandates on 37 industrialized countries, along with the European Union.

In contrast, developing nations were encouraged to participate voluntarily, with over 100, including China and India, utterly exempt from Kyoto's obligations. These developing countries, however, had the opportunity to earn carbon credits through emission-reducing projects, which they could trade or sell to developed nations. This practice permitted the latter to maintain relatively higher levels of maximum carbon emissions during the specified periods, ensuring some continuity in their GHG emissions.

Notably, the United States, an initial signatory of the Kyoto Protocol, withdrew from the agreement in 2001. The U.S. cited concerns about the perceived unfairness of the accord, which solely targeted emissions reductions by industrialized countries and was deemed detrimental to the American economy.

Kyoto Protocol Evolution and Transition to the Paris Agreement

When the Kyoto Protocol became international law in 2005, global emissions continued to escalate despite its adoption in 1997. The European Union (EU) managed to surpass its initial target and expressed a commitment to ongoing emissions reduction.

However, the significant emissions of the United States and China, two of the world's largest emitters, offset the progress made by nations meeting their targets. Global emissions soared by approximately 40% between 1990 and 2009.

In December 2012, the Kyoto Protocol underwent a transformation with the Doha Amendment. This extension introduced fresh emission-reduction objectives for the second commitment period, spanning from 2012 to 2020. However, the Doha Amendment's existence was brief.

In 2015, during the sustainable development summit in Paris, all participants of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) embraced the Paris Climate Agreement, effectively supplanting the Kyoto Protocol. This landmark accord unites nearly every nation, compelling major greenhouse gas emitters to curb emissions and strengthen their commitments over time.

A core objective of the Paris Agreement is to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions, constraining the earth's temperature increase to 2 degrees Celsius (with a preference for 1.5 degrees Celsius) above preindustrial levels. The agreement also establishes a framework for developed nations to support climate efforts in developing countries, emphasizing transparent monitoring and reporting of climate goals. To assess progress under the Paris Climate Agreement, countries partake in the Global Stocktake every five years, promoting transparency and accountability in addressing climate change.

Current Climate Initiatives and U.S. Reengagement

In 2016, the Paris Climate Agreement came into force, with the United States playing a pivotal role. President Obama lauded it as a testament to American leadership. However, as a presidential candidate, Donald Trump strongly criticized the agreement, deeming it detrimental to the American people and pledging to withdraw the nation from it. This withdrawal process was initiated on November 4, 2019.

On November 4, 2020, the United States formally withdrew from the Paris Climate Agreement, coinciding with the conclusion of the 2020 presidential election, in which Donald Trump lost to Joseph Biden. On his first day in office, January 20, 2021, President Biden commenced the process of rejoining the Paris Climate Agreement, which became effective on February 19, 2021.

Currently, several significant legislative measures are being taken to support long-term climate preservation efforts initiated under both the Kyoto Protocol and the Paris Agreement. These include the establishment of a $2.3 billion fund for the Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities program, focusing on enhancing community resilience to extreme weather. Additionally, proposals are being considered to expand offshore wind energy opportunities, potentially providing alternative energy for over three million homes across 700,000 acres.

Reforestation efforts are also being reinvigorated, addressing a backlog of four million acres and planning to plant over one billion trees over the next decade.

Key Events in the Kyoto Protocol's History

The Kyoto Protocol, a pivotal international climate accord, had a significant timeline:

  • December 11, 1997: Adoption of the Kyoto Protocol at the Conference of the Parties in Kyoto, Japan.
  • November 14, 1998: 170 governments concluded a two-week meeting, adopting the Buenos Aires Plan of Action to mitigate the risk of global climate change.
  • March 16, 1998: The Kyoto Protocol opened for signatures.
  • March 15, 1999: One year after opening for signatures, it received 84 signatories.
  • February 16, 2005: The Kyoto Protocol came into force.
  • December 8, 2012: Adoption of the Doha Amendment for a second commitment period.
  • March 25, 2013: Afghanistan became the 192nd signatory to the Kyoto Protocol, maintaining this count until August 2023.
  • December 12, 2015: Adoption of the Paris Agreement by 196 parties at COP21 in Paris, largely supplanting the Kyoto Protocol.
  • November 4, 2016: The Paris Agreement took effect.
  • December 31, 2020: The Doha Amendment was officially adopted after obtaining acceptance from 147 parties, meeting the minimum threshold requirement.


The Kyoto Protocol is a significant milestone in international climate change agreements. While the Paris Agreement has taken precedence, the Kyoto Protocol retains its crucial place in the annals of environmental and conservation history.

Kyoto Protocol 1997