Climate Change and the Kyoto Protocol

Following the completion of negotiations at Marrakesh in November 2001, the Kyoto Protocol to combat global warming is essentially ready for international ratification. The costs for reaching a political agreement were high. Huge concessions were granted to the countries that emit the most greenhouse gases such that the environmental integrity and the Protocol’s impact on equity are weakened. This article presents a summary outline of the present state of international response to the climate change problem and issues for developing countries.


The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) was an outcome of the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development - the ‘Earth Summit’ - in Rio de Janeiro. The Convention set out to control dangerous human-induced climate change by stabilising the atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases. In 1997 work was begun on establishing the Kyoto Protocol as the first legal instrument developed by the Convention to address the impact of developed industrialised countries on climate change. The seventh conference of the parties in Marrakesh (COP7) finalised most of the Kyoto ‘rulebook.’

Selected findings of the IPCC’s Third Assessment Report (September, 2001)

·        ‘The Earth’s climate system has demonstrably changed on both global and regional scales since the pre-industrial era, with some of these changes attributable to human activities.’

·        ‘Human activities have increased the atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases and aerosols since the pre-industrial era. The atmospheric concentrations of key [human-induced] greenhouse gases (i.e., carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4), nitrous oxide (N2O), and tropospheric ozone (O3)) reached their highest recorded levels in the 1990s, primarily due to combustion of fossil fuels, agriculture, and land-use changes.’

·        The global warming effect from such greenhouse gases is ‘positive with a small uncertainty range.’ The gases trap and reflect back to the Earth’s surface heat in the atmosphere, producing a “greenhouse effect.”

·        ‘Globally it is very likely [90-99% chance] that the 1990s was the warmest decade, and 1998 the warmest year’ since 1861.

·        ‘There is new and stronger evidence that most of the warming observed over the last 50 years is attributable to human activities.’

·        Rainfall is predicted to increase, glaciers are projected to continue receding, and sea level is set to rise during the 21st century. Climate change will affect human health, ecological productivity, biodiversity, water supply and economies in a net negative manner.

·        ‘The impacts of climate change will fall disproportionately upon developing countries and the poor persons within all countries.’

Source: IPCC. Climate Change 2001: Synthesis Report, 2001.


Establishing the scientific basis of the Protocol is the prerogative of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a body of several thousand experts drawn from about 120 countries. As a body it does not conduct any research, instead it bases its assessments on peer-reviewed literature. In its latest assessment report the IPCC has presented updated information on the physical factors involved in climate change.

How the Kyoto Protocol addresses climate change:

1.      Developed countries should act first

The mother Convention is designed to allow countries to weaken or strengthen the treaty in response to new scientific developments, the Kyoto Protocol is such a measure. The UNFCCC highlights the responsibility of the largest greenhouse gas (GHG) emitters - early industrialisers such as Europe, North America, Japan and some others - to curb emissions. This is underpinned by the Rio principle of ‘common but differentiated responsibilities.’ Developing countries just beginning to increase their GHG emissions are for the moment exempted from cuts since their first focus should be on poverty alleviation, adaptation to climate change and development.

There is a great deal of political sensitivity around the Kyoto Protocol because the scientific message is that the energy basis of industrial civilisation - fossil fuels which are the principle source of the greenhouse gases carbon dioxide and methane - needs to be dramatically cut back or eliminated. This threatens to hamper the economic competitiveness of the richest countries.

Therefore, despite the principle of ‘common but differentiated responsibilities’ several developed countries, such as the US and Japan, have called for developing country emission reduction targets. This is an unfair demand: US energy consumption is about twenty times greater than China or India on a per capita basis and its net national emissions are about double with a far smaller population. When one also considers the polarised flow of resources between North and South there is furthermore an historical and ecological debt still owed.

In order to enter into force the Protocol requires the ratification of at least 55 countries. Out of these, developed countries who account for at least 55% of global greenhouse gas emissions in 1990 must also ratify. Thus, the conditions for the treaty’s effectiveness are also its weakness. Because industrialised Parties are essential to its success considerable bargaining power is placed in their hands.

This has led to the proliferation of loopholes - flexible mechanisms and forestry concessions - pushed by the developed countries ostensibly to “ease the pain” of change, but which really make the proposed emission reduction targets quite ineffectual and present a long-term barrier to action on global warming by retaining the political and economic privileges of the wealthiest countries. The Convention and its Protocol are quite timid when it comes to calling into question the ‘carbon aristocracy’ of these countries.

2.      Set targets for GHG reduction

The Protocol commits industrialised countries to reduction targets for their GHG emissions (i.e., mitigation). However, the issue of legally-binding consequences for ‘non-compliance’ with targets remained unresolved at the conclusion of COP7 (see below). Most industrialised countries and economies-in-transition (Annex 1 countries) are committed to average GHG reduction targets of about 5% of their 1990 levels. Australia is allowed an increase of 8%, Russia and Ukraine are to aim at stabilisation.

The Russian and Ukrainian target for ‘stabilisation’ is somewhat deceptive. Following the collapse of their economies after 1990 their emissions fell far below their 1990 levels. They therefore have a huge amount of ‘spare’ emissions which could be traded to other countries under the emissions trading system. This concession is commonly described as ‘hot air’ and may in fact lead to a net increase in GHG emissions if sold off.

Can targets be met? A recent estimate puts US emissions are expected to be 54% over 1990 emissions by 2020. Although it is refusing to sign the Kyoto Protocol its original target was a 7% reduction of its 1990 level.

Are targets enough? The IPCC has avoided recommending a specific reduction target because this is politically sensitive for developed countries and socio-economic variables are also significant factors in what an ‘acceptable’ stabilisation level may be. The IPCC does attempt to illustrate what are the likely outcomes of various levels of GHG stabilisation. It predicts temperature rises of 5.8°C over the next hundred years unless GHG concentrations are brought below current levels.

The UK’s Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution recommends emissions cuts of 80% in order to stabilise emissions at one-and-a-half times of today’s concentration. Thus, one criticism of the Protocol is that the emissions reductions are too timid. Defenders argue that this establishes a framework for further reductions. Others suggest that the ‘safety’ of a concentration target depends on the other measures taken to adapt to climate change.

It is doubtful whether a framework designed for 5% cuts will be able to pave the way for 80% cuts due to the political-economic implications and the presence of loopholes. Reducing domestic GHG emissions on this scale would entail reworking the political economy of the fossil fuel-based developed countries. The carbon aristocrats are hardly likely to support such a radical change.

At very best Kyoto is likely to promote present energy and emission patterns rather than small improvements in energy efficiency, or environmentally sound and zero emission technology. Outside the Kyoto Protocol, China has already managed to de-link rising energy emissions from economic growth, which suggests some grounds for optimism. On the other hand, research by UK-based PLATFORM suggests that it will take 1,250 years for oil giant BP’s renewable energy production to outstrip its oil and gas production. In any case there are considerable costs involved in mitigating and adapting to global warming.

3.      Market mechanisms to ease costs

In order to ease the financial costs of developed country mitigation the Protocol allows the use of three market-based ‘flexible mechanisms.’ Originally proposed by the US around COP3 in Kyoto, much attention has been focused on these measures as they are expected to be reasonably lucrative and help deflect the odious task of domestic emission reduction for Annex 1 countries. The operating rules for the mechanisms were finalised in COP7.

The mechanisms allow Annex 1 countries to acquire and/or trade credits towards meeting their reduction targets. The three mechanisms are: emissions trading, joint implementation (JI) and the clean development mechanism (CDM).

Emissions trading allows Annex 1 countries to buy and sell credits amongst each other such that those who fail to meet their target can always buy their way out. JI and CDM let a country earn credits from abroad. JI allows an Annex 1 country to receive emissions credits for GHG mitigation projects conducted in another Annex 1 country (e.g., a plantation project or lower-emission power plant). CDM allows an Annex 1 country to receive credit for financing GHG abatement projects in non-Annex 1 (developing) countries.

The CDM was also envisioned as a way to facilitate environmentally sound technology transfer to developing countries, although not as a substitute for existing developed country commitments to technology transfer.

Originally, the credits generated under each mechanism were separate and in some cases static, i.e., once ‘earned’ they could not be traded. Following COP7 it was decided that all the credits generated under the mechanisms were equivalent and equally tradable. This has increased the financial interest in the mechanisms whilst undermining environmental integrity. Many of the safeguards instituted to prevent abuse of the mechanisms and to ensure actual reductions have been circumvented or removed. There are considerable dangers of a speculative market and double accounting.

Originally there were suggestions for a ‘cap’ on the degree countries may use mechanisms to meet targets. This was to allow space for domestic reduction efforts (where we could see shifts away from fossil fuels towards low emission technology, for example). Following developed country opposition there is now no cap. This means that fossil fuels will probably stay and GHG “reduction” will be achieved through carbon trading. At least on paper. Fortunately, nuclear was effectively excluded from the mechanisms in COP6.

Convertibility between all credit units means that the restrictions placed on stockpiling JI or CDM credits towards future ‘commitment periods’ beyond 2012 can be circumvented. All this opens the way for the carbon credit ‘rich’ to shape the future market, this is a matter of concern for developing countries should they find themselves saddled with commitments in the future. The issue of developing country targets is on the table for COP8 and COP9 and we can expect strong pressure from the largest economies - the US, Japan and EU - on this issue.

There are thus worries that developing countries may mortgage their future by giving their emissions capacity to developed countries especially by partaking in scientifically dubious forestry and related projects (‘sinks’) as part of the CDM, a move championed by Japan, Russia, Australia, New Zealand and Canada despite resistance from other parties such as the EU and the Group of 77/China. 

4.      Allowances for carbon absorption by forests, soil and land use changes (sinks)

Countries with targets may receive credits for carbon absorbed by forests, agriculture and land-use changes. The inclusion of sinks is predicated on the hypothesis that forests (and soil) have the capacity to absorb large amounts of carbon dioxide. These ‘sinks’ have been championed by developed countries with large forest cover and/or powerful forestry industries such as Japan, Canada, Australia and Russia for the JI and CDM.

However, science is divided on how much carbon such sinks can absorb, or if they can even retain it in the long term. Recent research suggests that absorption capacity may disappear altogether. There is a danger that mechanisms projects will be nothing but forestry plantations which will involve land rights and ecological management problems. The large tracts of land required to subsidise the North’s carbon lifestyle would amount to a small sized developing country. This threat has led to accusations that the Kyoto Protocol promotes a ‘carbon colonialism’. 

The IPCC recognises that sinks can ‘offer significant carbon mitigation potential,’ although this is ‘not necessarily permanent.’ It suggests that the advantage sinks offer is to buy time for other emissions reductions options to be developed and implemented. Discussion of the capacity of sinks to resist ‘leakage’ is being deferred until later. This also sets back substantive domestic reduction efforts.

The excessive use of sinks has been restricted to the first commitment period (2008-2012) which means that they are likely to dominate the mechanisms for that time, which also crushes any hopes for substantive technology transfer with the CDM. Nonetheless the damage will be done due to the distorting effect of stockpiling on the market.

The scientific uncertainty around sinks raises another problem with the environmental integrity of the mechanisms and therefore the Kyoto Protocol itself. Assume first that credits are issued for carbon absorbed by forest or land-use practices and subsequently enter the market and the balance sheet of Annex 1 reductions. If these sinks are later discovered to have ‘leaked’ (through illegal logging, net emission of carbon, lower than expected carbon uptake, etc.) then what is to be done with the credits issued? After it has been sold, does an arbitration body recall the credit from the original owner or the current one? In either case, there are problems of tracking if the credit has been converted into another non-sink unit.

In COP7 Russia was able to double the amount of sinks credits it is assigned, from 17 million tonnes of carbon to 33 million tonnes. This was achieved by simply putting in a written complaint with no scientific backing during the resumed session of COP6 in Bonn. By withholding agreement on the Kyoto rulebook until the eleventh hour at Marrakesh it succeeded in cementing this demand. The assignments, as this shows, are quite arbitrary and based on politics rather than science.

5.      Non-binding compliance regime

The Kyoto Protocol has a detailed compliance regime which includes penalties for failing to meet emissions targets, suspension from selling mechanisms, and the development of a compliance action plan.

However, and this is a big “however”, a decision has not been reached on whether non-complying countries can be legally prevented from trading in emissions. This may be made legally-binding should an amendment to the Protocol be ratified.

Malaysia’s chief climate negotiator Chow Kok Kee has expressed concern that Parties may technically ratify the Protocol and participate in the mechanisms market and yet refuse to ratify the amendment, thus making the compliance regime not legally-binding and thus quite meaningless. The environmental integrity of the Protocol is therefore very weak. It also means that should developing countries be saddled with commitments they will be at a disadvantage should these be made legally-binding.

“Kyoto Optimists” may say that the moral pressure for countries to ratify the legal amendment may be sufficient, but it is always possible that the case could be made for voluntary action. If the carbon trading market takes off it may look on paper as if much is being done without actually making deep cuts in emissions.


The Kyoto Protocol has become a political barrier due to its obsessive focus on technical detail and the physical factors of climate change. The countries who least want to change hold the most bargaining power which produces a considerable distorting effect. The money-making opportunities of the flexible mechanisms have overshadowed domestic action which means that developed countries are avoiding their responsibilities. Climate commentator Larry Lohmann has observed that the overwhelming impression from the Kyoto Protocol process is that planting trees, investing in energy projects abroad, and managing agricultural land are climatically equivalent to cutting emissions of fossil fuels.

Russia’s ‘hot air’ and huge sinks credit is essentially a pollution subsidy for other countries. Key developing country negotiators as well as industry also feel that the CDM will not be favoured as its rules are more complex than the JI and environmentally sound technology transfer is unlikely to happen. The finite pool of capital will have but a few drops left for CDM. There are also worrying moves by some developed countries to make CDM an additional condition for existing overseas development assistance (ODA). Indigenous people as yet cannot participate in the official process even though the sinks issue strikes at the heart of many of their concerns, not to mention the commodification of air entailed in the mechanisms.

Is it too early to write off the Kyoto Protocol? Optimists say it offers a basis for more far-reaching solutions but any such hope needs to recognise the drastic lop-sidedness of the present agreement. As a stand-alone treaty the Kyoto Protocol will do little to abate global warming, it may even make it worse. The US refusal to ratify is also a problem.

Efforts will need to continue outside and within the Framework Convention on Climate Change rather than the Kyoto Protocol. The progress made by China is one such case of the former, although this has been possible due to the transition from coal which is emission-intensive to cleaner variants and other power sources. Taken further, we could also see efforts by campaigners and communities to oppose the extraction of more fossil fuels as a “climate-positive” effort in addition to its other communitarian and environmental benefits.

Alternative efforts within the FCCC should look towards COP8 in 2002 where developing country GHG reduction commitments are likely to be raised as developed countries try to evade their ‘common but differentiated responsibilities.’

Key issues for developing countries would include: comprehensive adaptation programmes and funding for national action and capacity building; refusing binding emissions reduction targets  and bad CDM by pushing for a strong clean technology transfer mechanism and North-South research partnerships; ensuring that developed countries produce substantial net reductions in GHG emissions that serve to mitigate adverse climate change; link the UNFCCC to other existing international commitments to assist and favour developing countries; and, ensuring that all climate change efforts should be guided by strong principles of environmental justice and sustainable development rather than the protection of vested geopolitical interest.

All this is well and good. But one cannot help feeling that the FCCC process misses more than it hits, and creates situations requiring damage control rather than controlling climate change. By way of conclusion let us consider a deeper problem that is perhaps more pressing in part due to its invisibility in the UNFCCC process.

Climate Justice

Despite the far-reaching effects of global warming, the presentation of the issue and the FCCC’s remit is actually quite narrow thus far. In the early 1990s and up to 1997 there was considerable public pressure, particularly in the North, for governments to act on the global warming problem. Thus the FCCC and the Kyoto Protocol are “children” of those days and those particular politics. Yet they do not reflect the broader issue of climate-related politics per se.

Global warming is but one “cousin” on the climate family tree. It sits on top of already-existing climate dynamics that produce natural disasters year on year, acting as an exacerbating factor. The message of the IPCC is that with global warming climate risk will increase since the net effects are deemed to be negative. The problem of climate disasters is recognised in the FCCC under the little discussed umbrella of ‘adaptation’ and ‘vulnerability’. But this is mostly in terms of adaptation and vulnerability to projected global warming rather than adaptation and vulnerability to adverse climatic events per se.

However, climate has always played a strong role in the fate of societies. The UNFCCC ‘Beginner’s Guide’ tends to understand this in pseudo-Darwinian terms: ‘Shifts in climate have shaped human destiny ever since, and people have largely responded by adapting, migrating, and growing smarter.’ This is reflective of an underlying Fortress/Survivalist mentality that is reflected both in the official process and many of its civil society critics. This plays into the heavy emphasis placed on technology and technical detail in the Kyoto Protocol. Presented in such monolithic terms one may declare that combating climate change involves too great a structural revolution (“It’s pointless” or “Our lifestyle is not up for negotiation”), or throw oneself into the struggle against the “system” in order to rework the basis of production (“Civilisation itself is at stake” or “Carbon rights for everyone!”). But these efforts, in their indifference or their zeal, miss an important politics related to climate, which is rooted more in the violent practices of economic liberalisation (the opening of markets) and the geopolitical stratification of power that some dub “imperialism”.

The three factors of climate, markets and imperialism have had a profound effect on the condition of the poor in all countries and the developing world especially for the last two hundred years. The forcible opening of markets - whether from the IMF and World Bank or Commodore Perry’s Black Ship and the Opium Wars - create destabilisations of power, access to resources and social entitlements. Systems of imperialism ensure that the resources of marketised societies flow to the imperial centre(s) rather than to the local producers. Climate events, such as the El Niño oscillation cycles, can act as a trigger for famine when adequate social provisions are absent often due to the process of marketisation.

In the years between 1876 and 1902 a wave of famines swept across the Southern Hemisphere leaving an estimated sixty million dead in China, India and Brazil. Dramatic El Niño oscillations unleashed a seemingly unbreakable cycle of drought, crop failure and eventually famine. It was not merely the weather that was responsible for this devastation, the fatal equation was completed by the absence of socio-economic safeguards under the rule of unsympathetic imperial regimes - administered by a deadly combination of Malthusians and free market fundamentalists.

While India was producing mountains of grain for export its people were starving. Railroads, the high technology of the time, had been hailed as a means to alleviate any potential famine but were instead shuttling grain to the ports and thence to London. The elimination of price controls in favour of the wisdom of market pricing meant that grain was well beyond the reach of the starving peasant. Food security had already declined as gram was replaced by cotton cash-crops. Like latter day Nero’s the British Raj fiddled whilst India burned.

In Late Victorian Holocausts Mike Davis argues that the mass famines of the nineteenth century paved the way for the creation of the Third World. He ponders ‘the fate of tropical humanity at the precise moment when its labour and products were being dynamically conscripted into a London-centred world economy.’ In the case of China he outlines a deadly matrix of the erosion of state capacity and popular welfare that ‘seemed to follow in lockstep with the empire’s forced “opening” to modernity by Britain and the other Powers.’ In the latter days of the Qing empire a phenomenal system of granaries, transport and hydraulics was in place to deal with famine which rapidly crumbled in the lead-up to the Opium Wars.

In an eerie synchronicity the finalisation of the Kyoto Protocol in COP7 occurred in the same week as China’s accession to the World Trade Organisation. Markets, imperialism, and climate. The chances for such a fatal equation are little different in our own time from the late Victorian period. The Kyoto Protocol after all has its carbon aristocrats who occupy the imperial positions in the present world order and exercise influence over a range of areas that underpin life.

Food and famine expert Michael Watts points to the African famines of the 1980s and 1990s.

During this period, Africa was on the receiving end of a series of homicidal pincer movements, caught between El Niño, market-driven austerity and neoliberal insecurity, a crisis of the post-colonial nation-state, often compounded by hardball Cold War politics, and an unaccountable humanitarian relief system. Their toll: perhaps three to four million deaths from famine, perhaps twenty million refugees, and an average standard of living lower in 2001 than in 1960. ...In the spirit of Brecht, one might say that starvation can be ‘organised’ in a variety of ways.

We are a long way from the technical detail of the Kyoto Protocol, but perhaps closer to the nub of the climate problem, because the latter is not just a case of just the climate and global warming. As both the Kyoto Protocol and the examples of organised famine show, there are persistent divisions of power alongside historical legacies and policies of pauperisation that produce climate risk. As Watts has said elsewhere, ‘climate risk is not naturally given.’ It is the outcome of social failure or externally-driven ruination.

If the FCCC process ever produces the massive 80% cuts that may prevent global warming we are still left with a problem that predates global warming and the industrial age. The climate problem is not just a matter of cutting back consumption or ensuring equal per capita emissions, but taking the climate issue and climate vulnerability as an integrated project of social justice. Not just the loss of rights to the atmosphere but fighting the silent violence of ecological-economic-social injustice.

This will require action in adaptation and reducing vulnerability which will require concrete advances in national and international policy, meteorological expertise, sound food security, ensuring the globalisation of markets does not produce the concentration of climate risk in the developing world, re-examining the role of the military in the capacity of disaster relief, and crucially, to bring together experts and groups who can address the issue of climate injustice comprehensively. If the latter is not done then we may continue on our present fragmented path and risk thinking that the FCCC and its Protocols are the last word on the climate issue.

Further resources

Corporate Europe Observatory, ‘Greenhouse Market Mania - UN Climate Talks Corrupted by Corporate Pseudo-solutions’, November 2000 [].

Davis, Mike. Late Victorian Holocausts: El Niño Famines and the Making of the Third World, London: Verso, 2001.

Lohmann, Larry. ‘Carbocracy or Democracy? Intellectual corruption and the future of the climate debate’, The Cornerhouse, 24, 2001


Watts, Michael. ‘Black Acts’, New Left Review, 9, 2001, pp. 125-139.

This article is adapted from a longer report: ‘Weather report from COP7: Calm before the storm,’ [].