What is Kyoto?

Kyoto Protocol 101

The Kyoto Protocol is the first legally binding international agreement to control greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. It draws its name from the City of Kyoto, Japan, where it was negotiated in 1997. It requires industrialized countries to reduce climate change-causing GHG emissions by roughly 5% below 1990 levels between 2008 and 2012. It is considered a modest first phase and is expected be succeeded by a series of new agreements to be negotiated during the coming years

The Kyoto Protocol came into force in February 2005 when at least 55 countries producing at least 55% of global greenhouse gas emissions ratified the agreement. The only major industrialized countries to refuse to ratify the Kyoto Protocol are the United States (the world largest greenhouse gas emitter) and Australia. Canada ratified the Kyoto Protocol in December 2002, agreeing to cut its GHG emissions to 6% below its 1990 levels. To date 173 countries have ratified.

The Kyoto Protocol didn’t come out of nowhere. Negotiations began before 1990 and lead first to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in 1992 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The goal was to stabilize of GHG concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that “would prevent dangerous anthropogenic (human) interference with the climate system.”

The Kyoto Protocol is based on the principle of “common but differentiated responsibility”. Industrialized countries have been releasing massive amounts of GHG for over 100 years and are responsible for most of the cumulative carbon dioxide emissions in the atmosphere today. Furthermore, industrialized countries have technologies to reduce GHG emissions that are not widely available in developing countries. This is why they agreed to take the first steps to reduce their GHG emissions, while sharing their technology and helping the least developed countries adapt to changes to their climate.

Developing countries are developing the capacity to monitor and report their emissions, and developing programs to reduce GHG emissions, but they won’t have binding emission reduction targets until the next phase of Kyoto. The model for Kyoto is the Montreal Protocol, negotiated in 1987 to control and eventually eliminate ozone depleting chemicals. It used the same differentiated responsibility principle with industrialized countries acting first. It was a huge success and these dangerous chemicals have been virtually eliminated.

The Kyoto Protocol recognizes countries will have different challenges meeting their obligations and they need flexibility to find the right solutions. The Protocol does not stipulate how targets are reached – it’s up to each country to create its own plan.

There are three mechanisms a country can use to reduce the economic burden of meeting their Kyoto targets:

Emissions Trading

Joint Implementation

Clean Development Mechanism

International Emissions Trading

Economists argue that if GHG emissions had a price tag, the market would kick-in and innovative processes would be developed to reduce emissions (and costs). “Emissions Trading” is one means of setting such a price tag.


Scenario: Company A (an electric utility) is having trouble reducing its GHG emissions due to high costs and the nature of its business. Whereas Company B (a rug maker) has exceeded its GHG reduction targets through innovation and re-designing its manufacturing process. Company B then turns a profit selling its surplus reductions on a financial market and Company A buys them and is able to meet its emission reduction targets. It is a win-win-win situation that encourages innovation and energy conservation.


Joint Implementation

This is a mechanism that allows industrialized countries to cooperate with each other to reduce emissions. For example, a green project in one country is financed by another country, and the resulting GHG emission reductions are divided between them.


Clean Development Mechanism
This mechanism is designed to help both industrialized and non-industrialized countries through projects in developing countries. To qualify, projects must meet strict environmental and socio-economic criteria, and must be shown to reduce the growth in GHG emissions of that country. Resulting GHG reductions are converted to “credits” that can be bought and sold on a financial market.


You may have heard that Canada can’t meet its legally binding targets under the Kyoto Protocol. It is true that Canada’s emissions are significantly higher than they should be, and that we need to do more in future to bring our emissions under control. However, we can meet our Kyoto targets if the government takes serious action now. A good first step would be a moratorium on the further development of the Tar Sands of Northern Alberta. 

You may also have heard that the Kyoto Protocol is dead and that we need to start over. Kyoto is not dead. It is evolving as it should to include more countries and is ensuring all countries continue to take on deeper reductions, within our capabilities and responsibilities.

At the June 2007 meeting of G8 leaders an was agreement struck that would see the United Nations as the forum for future global negotiations for the next phase of Kyoto (the first phase concludes in 2012). The next UN meeting on climate change will take place in December 2007 in Bali, Indonesia, and it is there the world will agree on terms of reference for negotiations, and an end date for coming up with an agreement. The end date is critical to ensure that there is no gap between the first commitment period under Kyoto and the second commitment period (post-2012). 

Strong action is needed so that global greenhouse gas emissions peak within the next 10-15 years and then fall to at least 30 percent below 1990 levels by 2020 – or 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050. Such levels are needed to stop the average global temperature from rising two degrees Celsius – as is now being projected. A two degrees Celsius rise in the average global temperature would change the world as we know it. Important thresholds would be crossed putting food security, water resources, and ecosystems at risk world-wide. A panel of scientific experts estimated that a 2 degree Celsius rise in temperature could subject nearly 2 billion people across the world to severe water shortages by 2050 and massive food shortages by 2080. A 5 degree Celsius temperature rise would be catastrophic.

We can stop the warming trend and prevent a 2 degree Celsius rise in temperature if the world comes together – and it is happening! But Canada is lagging behind other countries in reducing its emissions, and has been a negative influence on negotiations of late – taking the side of the anti-Kyoto Bush administration.

Canada must take responsibility for its GHG emissions and take strong action now to meet its Kyoto target. Unfortunately, current commitments from the Harper government are grossly inadequate but citizen pressure is growing. This is the greatest challenge of our era and maybe humanity, and Canadians want to do their part and are up for the job. Canadians want to part of the solution – not the problem. If the Harper government doesn’t take serious action, Canadians will elect a government that wil