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The Kyoto Protocol – currently the most important global environmental agreement

The Kyoto Protocol was adopted in December 1997 at the 3rd session of the Conference of the Parties (COP 3) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). It is the most important global environmental agreement. Over and above its significance as a milestone in global efforts to combat climate change, it has a great impact on development policy and constitutes a new component in the world economic order. As an element of effective global governance, the Kyoto Protocol is symbolic and acts as a model.

The Kyoto Protocol entered into force on 16 February 2005 following its ratification by Russia in late October 2004, which meant the condition for entry into force had been met: at least 55 Parties to the UNFCCC, accounting for at least 55% of total CO2 emissions for 1990 of the so-called Annex I Parties (industrialised countries), had ratified it.

A total of 192 states have since ratified the Protocol. The EU member states deposited their instruments of ratification on 31 May 2002. Among the industrialised countries, only the United States and Australia have not ratified the Protocol. Australia intends voluntarily to cut its emissions to the level that would have been required if it had ratified the Kyoto Protocol. The vast majority of emerging economies and developing countries, including China, India and Brazil, have ratified the Protocol.

The Kyoto Protocol – a milestone in global efforts to combat climate change

With the Kyoto Protocol, the international community agreed for the first time on binding targets and measures for combating climate change. The Kyoto Protocol stipulates global ceilings for greenhouse gas emissions. The industrialised countries recognise their historical responsibility for global warming: accordingly, they (rather than the developing countries) are taking the first step by undertaking to cut emissions in the first commitment period 2008-2012.

The industrialised countries have recognised their historical responsibility for global warming: accordingly, they (and initially not the developing countries) took the first step by undertaking to cut emissions in the first commitment period 2008-2012. Besides cutting their own emissions, countries have at their disposal three flexible instruments to help attain this goal: Emissions Trading (global trading in emissions rights), Joint Implementation (technology development and transfer) and the Clean Development Mechanism (implementation of measures in developing countries).

Germany’s commitment

The European Union has pledged to reduce its joint emissions of the main greenhouse gases by at least 5.2% as against 1990 levels over the period 2008-2012. It has lived up to its commitment: in the period 2008-2012, emission levels in the then 15 EU member states fell by an average of 12.2% against 1990 levels. Within the framework of the EU burden-sharing mechanism, Germany had undertaken to cut its greenhouse gas emissions by an average of 21% as compared to 1990 levels by 2012. Germany did indeed manage to reduce its emissions by an average of 23.6% in this period.

The Kyoto Protocol’s first commitment period expired at the end of 2012. At the Conference of the Parties in Durban in 2011 and Qatar in 2012 a second commitment period, to expire in 2020, was agreed. Further European countries and Australia are participating alongside the (then) 27 EU member states. They have pledged to reduce their emissions by an average of 18% (as against 1990 levels) over the period 2013-2020. Within this framework the European Union pledged to a reduction of an average of 20%. For Germany that means reducing its emissions by an estimated 30-33%. However, other industrialised countries, namely Russia, Canada, New Zealand and Japan have refused to take part in the second commitment period.

Flexible instrument

The Kyoto Protocol uses a unique system for monitoring compliance. Moreover, three funds were set up to help the developing countries adapt to global warming and implement their own climate protection measures. As well as reducing their own emissions, states can use three flexible instruments to achieve their Kyoto goals:

  • Emissions Trading (global trading in emissions rights),
  • Joint Implementation (technology development and transfer),
  • Clean Development Mechanism (implementation of measures in developing countries).

Last updated 18.02.2015

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