The Kyoto Protocol and climate change: an ambition lacking in substance?

International environmental law is a crucial field which, unfortunately, remains outside the international community’s main agenda. Although important steps were made, especially, with the creation of the Kyoto Protocol in 1997, no consequent agreement was as impactful to follow those efforts.

No doubt, pollution knows no boundaries: it is transnational in nature. This makes for an international problem, where no country is sparred from the issue. Tackling this matter requires important commitments to be made by states worldwide, but the current lack of state efforts in this area is concerning.

The context of the Kyoto Protocol

Prior to the Kyoto Protocol, states had been keen to coordinate their approaches regarding environmental pollution. This was notably seen by the creation of the Vienna Convention for the Protection of the Ozone Layer in 1985, followed by the Montreal Protocol in 1987 which created a common response to ensure that the ozone layer was no longer depleted.

Furthermore, the creation of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in 1992 and the Rio Convention, which followed right after, were significant in finding a global approach to reduce global warming. With the exception of the Montreal Protocol, none of these Conventions had been legally binding.[1] Although these agreements were crucial in coordinating state action in this domain, there was a lack of precise targets to be achieved, with no concrete due dates. To fill these gaps, the Kyoto Protocol was created in 1997 to create binding commitments at the international level.

The Kyoto Protocol

The Kyoto Protocol was established in 1997 and came into effect in 2005 creating binding obligations on States to limit the emission of pollution, notably, the emission of greenhouse gases.[2] It established targets that were to be reached within a four-year period, from 2008 to the 2012, and through the ‘common but differentiated responsibility’ principle, it created different responsibilities between developed and developing countries with more stringent obligations and limits being placed on developed countries.[3]

The coming into force of this Protocol was significant as it allowed the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change to gain enforcement power and gave it a hard edge under international law.[4] This Protocol also gave countries flexibility in reaching the targets which they set themselves through mechanisms which were mainly based on emission trading permits.[5] Hence, this Protocol was revolutionary in that it allowed the international community to fathom the possibility of reducing international pollution emissions and gave international climate law a binding reach.[6]

How effective has this Protocol been?

Although very ambitious, the Kyoto Protocol has not panned out as initially desired. The Protocol did ensure that some states decreased their pollution production; however, it did not have a long-lasting international effect. The original hopes had been that before the expiry of this Protocol, a new instrument would succeed it, which would introduce harsher targets to, eventually, ensure that only the most minimal production of greenhouse gases persists.

However, the ‘common but differentiated responsibilities’ principle disincentivised the developed states from wanting to ratify such an agreement again in the future as it forced them to curb their emissions, whilst the developing states had less rigorous obligations. Although this solution seemed sensible, seeing how developed states had had a head start in their industrialisation process led to the failing of such initiatives in the future due to a lack of ratification. Ultimately, this led to the Protocol not achieving its intended goals as it failed to effectively restrict the issue of global warming.[7]

What has been done to fix the gaps in this Protocol?

In 2012, the Doha Amendment was put into place to prolong the Kyoto Protocol until 2020 but also to implement new objectives.[8] This Agreement only gained enough signatories to come into effect on the 28th October 2020 and it officially entered into force on the 31st December 2020.[9] This Amendment was originally meant to serve until 2020 but, instead, it was only ratified by this date.[10] Hence, the limits of state cooperation to contain the issue of climate depletion and global warming are being exposed.

The emergence of the Paris Agreement has tried to fix the existing gaps in order to tackle the issue of climate change. This created a legally binding treaty which entered into force in 2016.[11] This treaty has been very important as it aims to reduce global temperatures and seriously reduce the amount of greenhouse gas emissions worldwide.[12] Although this treaty made global cooperation in this area appear possible, global temperatures are still rising and this instrument has been deemed as not enough to change the world’s depreciating climate fate.[13]


Although efforts are being made to reduce the human carbon footprint in the form of treaties and agreements, these remain insufficient to have a real effect on reducing climate change. State cooperation is lacking and as pollution is a transboundary problem, collective action is vital. All states worldwide must play their part to ensure that greenhouse gas emissions are kept to a minimum.

Future agreements should perhaps have a greater focus on reaching collective targets, rather than focusing on individual state targets, in order to ensure the wellbeing of our environment internationally which in turn will hopefully help us effectively curb the issue of global warming.


[1] International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD) ‘Introduction to the Ozone Regime’ (IISD Reporting Services, 2009); & Environmental and Energy Study Institute (EESI) ‘Timeline of Major UN Climate Negotiations’ (EESI). [2] United Nations Climate Change, ‘What is the Kyoto Protocol?’ (United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change). [3] Ibid. [4] Ibid. [5] Ibid. [6] Tim Schauenberg ‘Tackling Climate Change from Kyoto to Paris and beyond’ (Deutsche Welle (DW), 16th February 2020). [7] Ibid. [8] (N2). [9] United Nations Climate Change ‘The Doha Amendment’ (United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change). [10] (N2) & (N9). [11] Helen Briggs, ‘What is the Paris climate agreement and why did the US rejoin?’ (BBC, 22nd April 2021). [12] Ibid. [13] Lindsay Maizland ‘Global Climate Agreements: Successes and Failures’ (Council on Foreign Relations, 29th April 2021).

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