What is the Kyoto Protocol?

The Kyoto Protocol was an agreement negotiated by many countries in December 1997 and came into force with Russia's ratification on February 16, 2005. The reason for the lengthy timespan between the terms of agreement being settled upon and the protocol being engaged was due to terms of Kyoto requiring at least 55 parties to ratify the agreement and for the total of those parties emissions to be at least 55% of global production of greenhouse gases.

The protocol was developed under the UNFCCC - the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.

Participating countries that have ratified (which is an important term that I'll clarify) the Kyoto Protocol have committed to cut emissions of not only carbon dioxide, but of also other greenhouse gases, being:

Methane (CH4)
Nitrous oxide (N2O)
Hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs)
Perfluorocarbons (PFCs)
Sulphur hexafluoride (SF6)

If participant countries continue with emissions above the targets, then they are required to engage in emissions trading; i.e. buying "credits" from other participant countries who are able to exceed their reduction targets in order to offset. 

The goals of Kyoto were to see participants collectively reducing emissions of greenhouse gases by 5.2% below the emission levels of 1990 by 2012. 

While the 5.2% figure is a collective one, individual countries were assigned higher or lower targets and some countries were permitted increases. For example, the USA was expected to reduce emissions by 7%. This chart gives you an idea why different countries were apportioned different targets:

Graph by Robert A. Rohde

India and China, which have ratified the Kyoto protocol, are not obligated to reduce greenhouse gas production at the moment as they are developing countries; i.e. they weren't seen as the main culprits for emissions during the period of industrialization thought to be the cause for the global warming of today. 

This is a little odd given that China is about to overtake the USA in emissions, but take into account the major differences in population and that much of the production in these countries is fuelled by demand from the West and influence from the West on their own culture. As a result of this loophole, the West has effectively outsourced much of its carbon emissions to China and India. 

This phenomenon, whether intended or coincidental is a major hole in the Kyoto Protocol.

Carbon dioxide offset program via Carbonify

Signing vs. Ratification

While almost every country in the world has signed the Kyoto Protocol, the signature alone is symbolic; a token gesture of support. Ratification carries legal obligations and effectively becomes a contractual arrangement.

169 countries have ratified the agreement. Of the signatories, only 2 refused to ratify Kyoto up until December of 2007 - Australia and the USA. 

Australia negotiated hard when the Kyoto Protocol was being developed; in fact it was to be allowed an 8% increase in emissions. Even so, Australia  refused to ratify the agreement until a change in government in late 2007. The excuse - it will be bad for Australia's economy, the same reasoning the USA uses.

I seem to remember the same sorts of fears in regards to the computer age, but regardless of even that, in order to have a health economy, you need a reasonably healthy environment to support it.

What makes the USA and Australia's (previous) position even more untenable is that the USA, as seen above, is currently the largest emitter of carbon dioxide in total of any country. Australia holds the shameful record for the highest amount of carbon dioxide emissions per person.

Kyoto - success or failure?

The Kyoto Protocol, while well intentioned, would appear to be doomed to failing its objectives even before the 2008-2012 averaging period commences. Carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere are rising at a frightening rate with no sign of slowing. Global temperatures are continuing to rise. 

The science behind Kyoto was shaky due to the limited availability of crucial data and knowledge at the time; particularly in regard to positive feedback loops in nature being revealed that amplify warming and prevent carbon dioxide from being absorbed. Scientists studying global warming are finding Nature fighting back in ways they never contemplated daily.

Without the USA ratifying the protocol or recently emerging economic powerhouses such as China reducing emissions drastically; the targets will likely not be met. 

Even the "permissible" degree of global warming generated by target levels (if reached) will have far greater environmental impact that was originally envisioned. 

Kyoto should be viewed as a stepping stone to more drastic action. And that action is required now.

Carbon dioxide offset program via Carbonify

Beyond Kyoto

Politicians and diplomats will continue to argue, finger point and delay massive action due to a silo mentality. Many elected officials are concerned only with the their careers, their political parties, the term of office or winning the next election. The patriots are concerned only with their countries. They have not been trained to think globally in terms of the environment.

The scientific community has made it abundantly clear. We are in deep trouble. This is a global issue that does not care about race, color or creed, nor political affiliation, although ironically the people who produce the least emissions will be the ones to suffer the most. That's always been the way of humanity.

It's down to us as individuals to not only do what we can to reduce our own carbon emissions, but to raise the awareness of others until collectively our shouts are such a mighty voice that no politician can ignore it. Better they hear the shouts of protest now than the screams of agony from wars over natural resources or the wailing of starvation in the future .. and it may well be their own voices amongst the anguish; that's how little time we have left.

Michael Bloch
"Global warming - it's our choice"