What happens when the Kyoto Protocol expires?

The Kyoto Protocol came into force in 2005, but it's set to expire in 2012. See more renewing the grid pictures.
AP Photo/Frank Augstein

­When more than 180 nations signed the Kyoto Protocol in 1997, the idea was straightforward: Take a first step toward saving the Earth from irreparable damage due to climate change. The protocol set forth what the drafters considered to be realistic emissions-reduction goals for developed nations, essentially a decrease in pollution levels that would start to mitigate climate change.

This climate change refers to an increase in average global temperatures attributed at least partly to humans and our greenhouse-gas emissions, mostly the burning of fossil fuels in automobiles, factories and power plants. Carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide are just a few greenhouse gases. They cause heat to be trapped in the Earth's atmosphere much the way a glass ceiling traps­ heat inside a greenhouse. The result is rising temperatures that could alter weather systems and ocean levels around the globe.


With many areas of the world facing record winter lows in 2009, and gas distribution problems in Eastern Europe leaving some of those people without heat, an increase in temperature may not seem like such a bad thing. But the side effects of that temperature increase could be disastrous, including severe flooding, more treacherous storms that happen more often and changes in ocean temperature that affect crucial sea life.

The intent of the Kyoto Protocol was to curb greenhouse gas emissions and thereby hopefully avert this disaster. It aimed for a combined effort that would bring emissions down to 5 percent below what they were in 1990. Of the nearly 200 nations that signed, only the 37 "developed" nations took on emissions-reduction goals; developing nations were given a pass so that environmental concerns didn't interfere with their economic development. Instead, those nations were supposed to host projects that would further the emissions goals -- projects paid for by the developed countries.

Of the 37 developed nations, one never ratified it. Ratification makes a country legally bound to the commitment it made when it signed the document. That one country is the United States, one of the biggest emitters of greenhouse gases. But many countries that did make commitments are failing to live up to them.

In this article, we'll find out why Kyoto has so far failed in its purpose, and see what type of changes might make the next agreement (which will take effect when Kyoto expires in 2012) more successful.

­One of the major problems faced by Kyoto is one that affects all world agreements: Getting the entire world to work toward a single goal is a very difficult feat to achieve. So while the concept behind the protocol may have been straightforward, its implementation was anything but.



Post-Kyoto: Tangled Up in Red

Environmental activists demonstrate for strict emissions regulations at a post-Kyoto conference in Bali.
AP Photo/Binsar Bakkara

­In 2005, the Kyoto Protocol went into effect. It was signed in 1997, but until industrialized nations accounting for more than half of the world's greenhouse gases ratified the treaty, it was a lame duck agreement. When Russia ratified Kyoto in 2005, it became a legally binding document.

Since then, one legally bound country after another has reported that they will not be meeting their commitments. The most recent one is Canada, which had promised to reduce its emission to 6 percent below 1990 levels. Austria, Ireland and Spain are also likely to fall short of their goals. Add to that the fact that the United States, the world's largest polluter, never ratified the agreement; and that two of the developing countries exempt from making reductions are China and India, two of the largest emitters behind the United States. We're left with a very big question: Was Kyoto doomed to fail?


Just like any agreement of this magnitude, the chances of success hinge on a lot of different factors. First, there's the endless red tape of global negotiations. We can look to current attempts to replace the Kyoto Protocol to understand how difficult it is to maneuver the world into any agreement at all. In 2006, thousands of delegates met in Kenya at the United Nations climate talk, where the hope was that they would set out a framework for achieving a post-Kyoto agreement. That didn't happen to anyone's satisfaction. A year later, the world's nations sent representatives to Bali, where success was declared when delegates negotiated their way to an agreement to start negotiating at a future date. In the meantime, the United States was simultaneously lobbying to have emissions caps removed from the post-Kyoto negotiations and hosting its own climate-change summit that produced a heartfelt and completely nonbinding declaration that the G-8 countries along with China, India and Brazil will set emissions-reduction goals in the future. Finally, in 2008, just three years after the Kyoto Protocol went into effect, negotiations began in Thailand to replace it.

Those negotiations reveal some other prime reasons why Kyoto has been unsuccessful so far. One big issue is the refusal of the United States to ratify the agreement. But the problem has as much to do with the relationship between the United States and its trade partners as with the failure of the world's biggest polluter to be involved at all. For one thing, the biggest U.S. trade competitor, China, isn't bound to any reductions. The United States took a stand that this would put an unfair burden on its economy since China would have the upper hand in producing goods without pollution restrictions. Later, Canada, which does the majority of its trading with the United States, declared it would not be meeting its commitment. This is probably at least partly due to its trade status with a country that is not bound to reduce emissions.

But another issue affecting Canada and other countries' ability to meet their commitments is time. Kyoto took effect in 2005 with the intent of meeting emissions goals between 2008 and 2012. It may seem that seven years is plenty of time, but in economic, political and industrial terms, it may be cutting it close. The only countries that are meeting their goals, including Britain and Germany, had started working on energy-saving infrastructure changes years before the Protocol became legally binding.

This time issue is why negotiations for a post-2012 agreement began in 2008. The hope is that giving countries more than ample time to make adjustments will increase chances of success.

­Post-Kyoto talks are focusing on other issues also intended to solve problems in the initial treaty. The biggest points shed light on just how complicated it is to move economies into more carbon-neutral positions.


A Climate-change Agreement: The Post-2012 Outlook

For a post-Kyoto treaty to succeed, developing polluters like China, India and Brazil would have to play a part. The Brazilian Amazon is being deforested rapidly by loggers, ranchers, farmers and developers.
­AP Photo/Paulo Santos


Many experts believe that cutting 2008 e­mission levels in half by 2050, hopefully keeping any temperature increase to less than 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit (2 degrees Celsius), will avoid the severe damage predicted to occur if emissions keep increasing [source: Haag]. Achieving this reduction won't be easy.


A post-2012 climate-change agreement would have to address factors that have stood in the way of the success of the Kyoto Protocol. Two of the major changes on the table are a shift in focus from mitigation to adaptation and the establishment of a global carbon-exchange market.

More than ever, the world's economies are inextricably intertwined. One hope with a post-Kyoto agreement is that the world might use this to its environmental advantage, essentially making it economically beneficial for the entire globe to work together toward mitigating climate change. One approach to that is a global carbon market. Many countries, including the United States and Britain, already have carbon trading markets, where companies can trade carbon credits (see How the Chicago Climate Exchange Works to learn about the United States' version). This basically means that a company that meets or exceeds its pollution-reduction goals can sell "carbon credits" to another company that isn't meeting its goals. The idea is to bring emissions down on average by turning "green" practices into moneymakers. With the meteoric rise of international trade, creating a worldwide carbon market could be an effective way to make reducing emissions a financial player on a global scale.

Another big issue is the failure of the Kyoto Protocol to fully address issues of adaptation for developing countries. Kyoto focused mostly on mitigation of current pollution levels, as opposed to changes that would bring the majority of the world into a more Earth-friendly economic stance. For wealthy countries, adaptation is a viable (if expensive) move. But for poorer countries like South Africa or even China, a shift in production methods may not be realistic. In the Kyoto Protocol, a fund was set up whereby a small percentage of the money spent by a developed country on a clean-energy project in a developing country goes into an adaptation fund. This fund is used for adaptation efforts in poor countries. Nine billion dollars has been collected so far under Kyoto; the World Bank estimates that it would take up to $40 billion to really make a difference in developing countries [source: Haag]. To collect this much money, the new agreement will have to make adaptation a prime focus.

Finally, some developing countries that were exempt from commitments under the Kyoto Protocol, like China, India and Brazil, will have to be included in a new agreement based on their polluting levels. China and India are industrializing at a rate that would cancel out other countries' reductions. Brazil is a major emitter due to its deforestation practices since plants absorb carbon dioxide. When major tracts of forest are eliminated, all of that carbon is pumped into the environment. Highly polluting developing countries will have to make commitments under the new agreement if it is to make a real dent in global emissions. And the new agreement will have to make it economically beneficial for them.

At the 2007 summit in Washington, D.C., China, India and Brazil did agree to make commitments under a post-Kyoto treaty. With China and India participating, along with a U.S. political shift to a Democrat-controlled Congress and presidential branch, it becomes far more likely that the United States will ratify a new agreement.

The timing of that new agreement is crucial. When negotiations began in Thailand in March 2008, delegates agreed to reach a new treaty by the end of 2009. It's unclear at this point whether that's a realistic time frame. Some think 2010 is more likely. The hope is that an early agreement will give countries and companies enough time to prepare for the change, and therefore make success more likely the second time around.

For more information on climate change, the Kyoto Protocol and related topics, look over the links on the next page.


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  • Cropley, Ed. "'Kyoto II' climate talks open in Bangkok." Reuters. March 31, 2008. http://www.alertnet.org/thenews/newsdesk/BKK311250.htm
  • Haag, Amanda Leigh. "Post-Kyoto pact: shaping the successor." Nature. June 7, 2007. http://www.nature.com/climate/2007/0706/full/climate.2007.12.html
  • "Politicians sign new climate pact." BBC News. Feb. 16, 2007. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/science/nature/6364663.stm