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Sustainability 54: The Kyoto Protocol

Updated on May 12, 2013
Let's clear the air
Let's clear the air

The Kyoto Protocol has for years been a lightning rod to anyone discussing climate change and Earth’s long-term sustainability for humans.

To green advocates, it represented a best first step forward in mitigating man’s effect on the climate. To climate change doubters, it was — pick your favorite — bad science, misguided policy, economically unsound, a scam, tree-hugger silliness, or all of the preceding. But, what, in truth, is The Kyoto Protocol? And how does it bear on sustainability?

In the late 1990s, the United Nations promulgated The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), a treaty aimed at stabilizing the world’s atmospheric levels of six greenhouse gases (carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, sulphur hexafluoride, hydrofluorocarbons and perfluorocarbons). Those gases have been identified by the world’s scientists as contributors to pollution, declining air quality, acid rain and potentially disastrous climate change. Reduce those greenhouse gases, the logic goes, and you reduce adverse effects on air quality and climate, improving the prospects for our long-term sustainability and survivability on planet Earth.

The Kyoto Protocol was a corollary to the UNFCCC. It set limitations on the allowable increases in emissions of those greenhouse gases by the industrialized nations of the world. The Protocol established a ‘sliding scale’ of limitations, depending on such factors as a particular nation’s existing emissions, its level of industrialization, and its capabilities in emissions control and reduction. Overall, the Protocol sought an average global reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2012 of just over 5% from 1990 levels.

In following years, the Protocol was successively ratified by UN-member nations, eventually taking force in early 2005. The United States was one of the few holdout nations NOT ratifying the Protocol, with the George W. Bush Administration citing various objections. By not ratifying the Kyoto Protocol, the U.S. has severely hobbled the Protocol’s global aims, since Americans are responsible for over 36% of all of mankind’s greenhouse gas emissions.

Over the years since the Protocol was first developed, the U.N. has held additional conferences and undertaken negotiations with member nations, tweaking relatively minor terms and provisions of the treaty.

Progress toward reductions in greenhouse gas emissions has been decidedly mixed. Not only has the U.S. NOT reduced its emissions of 1990, but it also had by 2005 increased its emissions 18%. The world’s other major industrialized nations bound by the Kyoto Protocol more than met their target, by bringing 2005 emissions 14% below 1990 levels. Many of the nations of Eastern Europe, also bound by the Protocol, progressed even farther, bringing their 2005 emission levels to more than 30% below 1990 levels. 

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