The Kyoto Protocol

The adoption and entry into force of the Kyoto Protocol

The Kyoto Protocol was finally negotiated and concluded at the 3rd meeting of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) Conference of Parties (COP-3) in December 1997 in Kyoto, Japan, following a series of submissions by Parties to the UNFCCC and talks held by the Ad Hoc Working Group established after COP-1 held in Berlin, 1995. The Kyoto Protocol entered into force generally on 16 February 2005. Australia signed the Kyoto Protocol on 24 April 1998, but did not ratify until 12 December 2007 following the election of the ALP government. To date, 182 parties have ratified the Kyoto Protocol.

The object and purpose of the Kyoto Protocol

The Kyoto Protocol to the 1992 UNFCCC, serves to give effect to the UNFCCC's objective of reducing human-induced greenhouses gases (GHGs) in an effort to address climate change, guided by the UNFCCC's key principles of PRECAUTION, INTERGENERATIONAL EQUITY, sustainable development, and COMMON BUT DIFFERENTIATED RESPONSIBILITIES and RESPECTIVE CAPABILITIES. As a logical extension of this last principle, Parties to the Kyoto Protocol are placed into one of two categories:

  • developed countries, referred to as Annex I countries who are subject to binding GHG emissions reductions targets and reporting requirements involving an annual greenhouse gas inventory and supplementary information to demonstrate compliance with the Protocol, including minimising adverse impacts on developing countries, and
  • developing countries, referred to as Non-Annex I countries, which are not subject to GHG emissions reduction commitments, though they may take part in the Clean Development Mechanism.

The Protocol's objective is sought to be achieved through the imposition on developed countries (included in Annex I) of individually assigned and legally binding GHG emissions targets (prescribed in Annex B of the Protocol), with the attendant commitment to the development and adoption of other relevant enabling policies and measures. Notwithstanding the variation in Annex I countries' emission targets, the goal is to bring about a reduction of GHG emissions (listed in Annex A of the Protocol) by, a collective average of at least 5 per cent below the 1990 emissions levels for the commitment period 2008–2012. More specifically, 1990 is used as a base year for CARBON DIOXIDE, METHANE and NITROUS OXIDE, whereas 1995 is the base year adopted for industrial trace gases (HYDROFLUOROCARBONS (HFCs), PERFLUOROCARBONS (PFCs) and sulphur hexafluoride (SF6)).

Under the Kyoto Protocol, Australia is required to limit its average annual greenhouse gas emissions over the 2008–2012 period to 108 per cent of its emissions in 1990.

Meeting obligations under Kyoto

The parties to the Kyoto Protocol can meet their obligations either by reducing their greenhouse gas emissions or increasing their removals sinks or both. Removals sinks are limited to direct human-induced land-use change and forestry activities (afforestation, reforestation and deforestation since 1990).

The Kyoto Protocol does not specify the mechanisms by which Parties to the Protocol must meet their emissions target, thus providing an Annex I country such as Australia reasonable amount of discretion as to the policies and measures it implements domestically to meet its target. Domestic abatement action should be the primary means by which Annex I countries such as Australia meets their emissions target. Parties are also provided with an indicative list of policies and measures that they may wish to consider. These include promoting sustainable agriculture, promoting the renewable energy, removing market assistance for environmentally damaging economic activities, confronting the issue of transport sector emissions, and so forth.

The Kyoto Protocol also sets out three 'flexibility mechanisms' that Annex I parties such as Australia may use as a supplementary means of meeting its target. These potentially help Annex I Parties cut the cost of meeting their emissions targets:

  • The Clean Development Mechanism—this mechanism allows Australia to implement projects that reduce emissions in developing countries (non-Annex I Parties to the Protocol), or absorb carbon through afforestation or reforestation activities, in return for certified emission reductions that Australia can use towards meeting its own target.
  • The Joint Implementation Mechanism—this mechanism allows Australia to implement an emission-reducing project or a project that enhances removals by sinks in the territory of another Annex I Party and count the resulting emission reduction units towards meeting its own target.

Operationalising the aims of the Kyoto Protocol—the work of COP/MOP

An association of the Parties that have ratified the Kyoto Protocol, known as the Conference of the Parties serving as the Meeting of the Parties to the Kyoto Protocol (COP/MOP), meets around the same time as the UNFCCC COP and is the highest decision-making body of the Kyoto Protocol. The most recent meeting of Kyoto Protocol Parties took place at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Bali, December 2007.

Article 18 of the Protocol tasks COP/MOP with approving appropriate and effective procedures and mechanisms to determine and to address non-compliance. The final agreement on most issues relating to compliance mechanisms was achieved in Marrakech in 2001. The Parties adopted Decision 24/C.7—Procedures and mechanisms relating to compliance under the Kyoto Protocol. The compliance and enforcement measures adopted included both soft enforcement measures, such as persuasion and capacity building, and also more punitive measures, such as exclusion from the flexibility mechanisms and the imposition of penalties.

The Kyoto Protocol’s compliance regime consists of a Compliance Committee made up of two branches—a facilitative branch and an enforcement branch, both of which are composed of ten members. The enforcement branch has the power to apply certain consequences on Annex I Parties that fail to meet their commitments.

The articles of the Kyoto Protocol at a glance

  • Definitions of terms (Article 1).
  • Substantive obligations of Annex I State Parties (Articles 2, 3, 5, 7).
  • Basic UNFCCC commitments for all parties to the Kyoto Protocol (Article 10).
  • Financial assistance to developing countries—this is basically a re-statement of the UNFCCC (Articles 4(3) and 11).
  • The roles of COP, the Secretariat and subsidiary bodies and processes with respect to the Kyoto Protocol (Articles 9, 13, 14, 15, 16).
  • The use of market mechanisms to reduce GHG emissions (Articles 4, 6, 12, 17).
  • Compliance and dispute resolution procedures (Articles 18, 19).
  • Annex I—provides a list of emissions reductions obligations on developed country parties and other parties undergoing the process of transition to a market economy.
  • Annex A— provides a list of GHGs covered by the Protocol.
  • Annex B—lists the emissions targets for Annex I countries.
Further reading:

Text of the Kyoto Protocol.

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