Twelve Years Ago, the Kyoto Protocol Set the Stage for Global Climate Change Policy

The predecessor of today’s Paris Agreement got us one step closer to an international plan of action on climate change

Our global greenhouse gas emissions may not be any lower overall, but the historic treaty established a framework for an international plan of action. Tony Webster / Wikimedia Commons

It's been 12 years since the Kyoto Protocol—the first international effort to cut back greenhouse gas emissions and slow the pace of human-induced climate change—took effect. On the face of it, the goals of this far-reaching treaty were ambitious: “It bound member states to act in the interests of human safety even in the face of scientific uncertainty,” writes the United Nation’s Framework Convention on Climate Change.

Today many consider the historic agreement, signed in 1997, to be a bit of a bust. Nearly two decades after it was written, world economies continue to rely heavily on fossil fuels, and greenhouse gases in the atmosphere continue to rise to unprecedented levels. But it isn’t that simple to cast judgment on this treaty, which took concrete steps at a time when there was far less scientific evidence for human-made climate change.

In fact, Kyoto helped lay the groundwork for current global efforts to address climate change, says Ralph Winkler, an economist at the University of Bern in Switzerland who studies climate change policy. It’s true that the treaty hasn’t dramatically reduced global carbon dioxide emissions, nor caused any noticeable change in the composition of Earth’s warming atmosphere. But that wasn’t the goal to begin with, Winkler says.

“To expect that the Kyoto Protocol would more or less save the climate would have been a very naive expectation in the first place,” says Winkler.

For one, the terms of the treaty only applied to developed countries, meaning the largest contributors to global emissions over the past 150 years of modern industrialization. So major developing countries including China and India were not involved at the get-go. Neither were significant developed countries that chose not to commit, including the United States—the second largest emitter of carbon dioxide worldwide after China.

The 37 nations that did commit were legally bound to reduce their emissions by a certain amount between 2008 through 2012. If nations didn’t meet their targets in the first so-called commitment period, they would have to more-than make up for it in the second period that lasts from 2013 through 2020—unless they didn’t sign on for the second round, as was the case for Canada, Japan and Russia.

With no significant legal implications, the incentives to comply were not strong. In a study recently published in the Journal of Environmental Economics and Management, Winkler found that 15 of the key countries involved have not demonstrated any real change in behavior as a result of their commitment.

Twelve Years Ago, the Kyoto Protocol Set the Stage for Global Climate Change Policy

Still, despite lackluster participation and results, the treaty represents an important first step in developing an international action plan, says Alexander Thompson, a political scientist at Ohio University who studies climate change policy. If it weren’t for the Protocol, we wouldn’t have the level of climate change awareness and international conversations about lowering emissions that we today take for granted.

“The Kyoto process was useful in setting all sorts of standards,” says Thompson, explaining that it created a common language around addressing climate change. “It got everyone on the same page.”

In 2015, the UN Convention on Climate Change landed on the Paris Agreement, which builds off the intentions of the Kyoto Protocol but with a new approach. This time, developing countries are included, but there are no binding emission-reduction targets that countries must commit to. Instead, it’s up to each individual government to decide what is feasible for them, and up to the international community to hold their governments accountable.

“That’s most of the value in having the international agreement, is having the publicly stated goal around which interest groups and citizens can rally their governments and keep them politically accountable,” says Thompson.

These kinds of multilateral environmental agreements have been effective in the past. In the late 1980s, the Montreal Protocol limited the production of ozone-depleting chemicals to help close the ozone hole, which had been steadily expanding due to the release of chemicals found in a wide-array of consumer products. That treaty is today lauded as an environmental success: Almost 30 years later, the ozone layer has largely recovered, says Paul Mayewski, director of the Climate Change Institute at the University of Maine Orono.

Still, in order for any real progress to be made in climate change policy, Mayewski says the public must remain well informed of climate-related facts. Efforts by the Trump administration to limit federal agencies from communicating climate change data to the public, as well as efforts by congressional Republicans to limit how the EPA can use climate-related data, could threaten this progress, Mayewski says.

“If we hide the information that demonstrates this and allows us to understand how to deal with it and look for opportunities related to it, then we make a big mistake for our economy, our quality of life and everything else,” says Mayewski.

The urgency to take action now is strong. Some places on Earth continue to warm at remarkable rates, Mayewski says—such as Mexico City, which is not only facing increasing heat and drought but appears to be sinking unevenly into the ground. In the past five years, the average temperature in some regions of the Arctic has increased by as much as 8 degrees F—a faster rate than has ever been observed in recorded history.

“This is a massively fast change,” Mayewski says.

In November, the UN Convention on Climate Change will hold its 23rd annual Convention on Climate Change to firm up ways for the 131 countries that signed onto the Paris Agreement to stay on task. Under the new administration, it remains unclear what the future involvement of the United States government will be. But the hope of the agreement is that everyone sees themselves as working toward a common goal, says Thompson, who was present in Paris as an observer to the agreement.

It’s kind of like standing at the edge of the pool with your friends in the summer, Thompson says: If you think that you’re the only one who will jump in, you’re not going to do it. “But if you feel like you are going to jump together, then you will jump in,” says Thompson. “So that’s how I think about. We’re all going to jump in and do this together.”

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