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The Kyoto Protocol

The Kyoto Protocol was a consequence of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC – coming into force in 1994 with 166 signatories). The convention had the following objectives and was to be assessed and updated at annual ‘conferences of the parties’ (COPs):

It was at one of the early COPs – COP3 held in Japan in 1997 – that the Kyoto Protocol was adopted, with legally binding emissions reduction targets (known as ‘assigned amounts’) during its first commitment period (2008-2012) and with proposed market based mechanisms for meeting them. The Protocol eventually came into effect on February 16th 2005 with 125 countries having ratified it. Listed in Annex B of the Protocol are the nations agreeing to emissions reduction targets, and these countries are known collectively as Annex B parties (the UK is one of them). At its adoption in 1997 there was still much negotiating to be done as to how the Kyoto Protocol mechanisms would work and these issues weren’t resolved until COP7 in 2001. Much of this negotiation concerned the integrity of the proposed methods of reducing emissions – ensuring that reductions were made that were supplemental to a country’s own abatement actions, and ensuring that any emission reduction actions being financially incentivised were as a direct result of the Kyoto Protocol and not just “business as usual”

The Kyoto market mechanisms (see right column for more) were seated on the economic principles of absolute and comparative advantage and the use of trade. What this means in practice is that if it’s cheaper for you to buy something from someone else than do it yourself, you’ll buy it. In Kyoto terms this means that it may be cheaper for an already relatively efficient and clean factory in a developed country to pay a ‘dirty’ factory in a developing country to clean up its act, than to try to go further itself. Market based methods are appropriate for CO2 emissions because reductions in any country benefit all countries equally. It was this principle, however, that was one of the contributory factors to the US government’s decision not to ratify the treaty. The US believed that high emitting developing nations (such as India and China) should also be given emissions reduction targets instead of enjoying the 'free ride' of the stopping of global warming without the effort of reducing emissions. These nations countered that the developed world was enjoying the wealth that had been partly created by unfettered industrial emissions and growth, and should therefore shoulder the significant majority of the burden of resolution.

Kyoyo Protocol

With the Protocol's first commitment period running until the end of 2012 there have been increasingly urgent negotiations aimed at (a) getting countries signed up to a second commitment period, and (b) designing another system to replace the Protocol (in reflection of the fact that the world's largest emitters were either not required to or not signed up to reduce emissions under the existing protocol).

Emissions reduction targets

At the 2010 Conference of the Parties to the Protocol (CoP), held in Cancun, it was agreed that the target of limiting warming to 2oC above industrial levels was still the aspiration, but that, as things stood, existing emissions reductions targets would fail to deliver this aspiration. The Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change recommends that developed countries should have reduced emissions by 25-40% below 1990 levels by 2020, but only the EU, Switzerland, Japan and Norway have targets in this range. Also formalised, for the first time, at Cancun was an agreement that developing countries would take Nationally Appropriate Mitigation Actions (NAMAs) in order to reduce business-as-usual emissions by 2020.

Second Commitment Period

At the 2011 CoP, held in Durban, a second commitment period, to run from 2013 to either 2017 or 2020, was agreed, but with actual emissions reductions targets to follow sometime in 2012. Previous pledges by the countries involved fall well short of the recommended 25-40% needed by 2020, and many developing nations are demanding even greater reductions by developed countries.

Parties expected to take part in the second commitment period include the EU, Australia, New Zealand and several non-EU European countries. Japan and Russia will remain Parties to the KP but will not take on new commitments, while Canada has announced its intention to leave the Protocol. The second commitment period will require emissions reductions from countries that account for only 15% of the global total, and in addition some fear that the carrying over of surplus credits from the first commitment period, brought about by the economic downturn reducing emissions, will mean that no real emissions reductions will take place in the second period. These concerns reinforce the need for a new agreement to replace the Protocol.

Although the agreement to extend the Protocol into a second commitment period theoretically ensures that there will be no hiatus between periods, in practice ratification may take some time and there may be a gap between the periods at the end of 2012. It is not clear how this would be managed. 

After Kyoto

The Durban CoP also agreed the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action - to all intents and purposes an agreement to start again and produce a new "protocol, [another] legal instrument, or an agreed outcome with legal force..." by 2015, to take effect in 2020.

The decision to pursue this new agreement does contain some interesting changes in language, including the absence of any distinction between developed and developing countries, and the absence of reference to "common but differentiated responsibilities" (ie developed countries must do more). The decision does refer to raising the level of ambition and ensuring the highest possible mitigation efforts by all parties.

There is a great deal to be resolved - mitigation, adaptation, finance, technology transfer, capacity building, compliance mechanisms and institutional arrangements - and at this stage there are more questions than answers. Interestingly, the new mechanism would not come into force until 2020 - the year by which developed countries are recommended to have already reduced emissions by 25-40%

Where our
projects are

Forest Carbon leads the way in developing woodland creation and peatland restoration projects for carbon capture and ecosystem services in the UK. We have planted over 10 million new trees in 200+ new woodlands since 2006 with our partners removing over 2 million tonnes of CO2e from the atmosphere, as well as providing a host of other benefits to society, including habitat creation, biodiversity support, flood mitigation, river ecosystem improvement and public access.

Our new woodland schemes spread across Scotland, England, Wales and Ireland. They are certified by the Woodland Carbon Code – which is supported by the UK government and internationally recognised by ICROA. Planting the ‘right tree in the right place’ is required though adherence to the Forestry Commission standards.

Our peatland schemes can be found in Scotland and Wales. They are certified by the Peatland Code which is supported by the IUCN. These certification codes assure the additionality and permanence of each tonne of carbon stored.


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