15 Years after the Kyoto Protocol Went into Force, the Climate Crisis is Worse Than Ever

The Kyoto Protocol went into force a full 15 years ago today—and yet, the climate crisis is more urgent than ever.

On Sunday, 15 years will have passed since the Kyoto Protocol was ratified on February 16, 2005, which was eight years after it was negotiated back in 1997. Progress stalled because of a failure to achieve the quota of countries required to implement the protocol. The stalemate was finally broken when Russia signed up to the deal: once Russia joined, countries committed to Kyoto produced 55 percent or more of global emissions between them.

The purpose of the protocol was to provide structure to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, or UNFCCC (1994)—a treaty committing industrialized countries to make efforts to reduce emissions and meet individual targets. The UNFCCC itself was more a set of guiding principles laying down objectives than a concrete set of rules with rigid commitments. The Kyoto Protocol changed this by setting targets. These initially added up to an average 5 percent reduction of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions compared to 1990 levels to be carried out between 2008 and 2012.

It was the first international effort to tackle the problem of global warming. Today, 192 parties across the world participate in the Kyoto Protocol, with notable exceptions including the U.S.

However, by all objective measurements, it has been deemed to have failed. Emissions continue to rise, breaking records (again) in 2019, while the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere reached 416 parts per million (ppm) for the first time in recorded history on Monday. Current temperatures are at least 1℃ above pre-industrial levels and according to recent projections, we are on course to exceed warming of 4℃ by the end of the century.

What's more, the Doha Amendment, which was added to the protocol in 2012, has yet to come into force. The intention was to set out a new commitment phase between January 1, 2013 and December 31, 2020 but it never received the 144 out of 192 acceptances required from the parties signed up to Kyoto.

One of the greatest stumbling blocks from the start was the failure of the U.S. to commit—and which occurred for a second time with the Paris Agreement. While the U.S. has typically taken a leading role in international initiatives, there appears to be a strong reluctance to do so in climate-related matters. Just as President Donald Trump took the U.S. out of Paris in 2017, former President George Bush took the U.S. out of Kyoto in 2001.

"If the U.S. had been in from the start, it would have been a different trajectory altogether," Michael Lazarus, a senior scientist and director of the Stockholm Environment Institute's U.S. Center, told Newsweek."There would have been a sense that we were all acting together."

Another issue experts have highlighted is that it did not anticipate the levels of greenhouse gas emissions that have come from developing countries. At the time, China was considered a developing nation and therefore was not bound to the agreement. But the country's emissions skyrocketed almost immediately after the Kyoto Protocol came into force, increasing approximately 50 percent between 2005 and 2014.

Climate Protest, London
Students take part in a climate strike demo on February 14, 2020 in London, England. In the 15 years since Kyoto was ratified, the climate change movement has become more vocal. Peter Summer/Getty

However, there have been some positives. Crucially, Kyoto was the first to set binding targets to combat climate change, paving the way for future initiatives like Paris. At its core, it showed that it was possible for international agreements on climate to work, at least in principle.

"Paris is, in some ways, a step back in terms of ambition in terms of binding commitments and using an enforcement mechanism," said Lazarus. "But it is also a step forward in terms of learning from what didn't work."

And while it may not have succeeded in its second phase, the first commitment period achieved near-complete levels of compliance, Lazarus added. On a practical level, Kyoto also provided a funding mechanism to help countries adapt to a way of living using proceeds from a then newly-established emissions crediting programme—the clean development mechanism (CDM).

In the end, it was not necessarily the agreement itself that was at fault here, but the countries that were a party.

"The ineffectiveness of global action is countries not being ready to act deeply and a global agreement alone is not sufficient to do that," said Lazarus. "That motivation needs to come from the countries themselves and we are seeing more and more of that."

"It has to be thought of as a first step and a product of its time," Steve Herz, the Senior International Policy Advisor for the Sierra Club's International Climate and Energy Campaign, added.

Things have changed a lot in the last 15 years. Not least, the science, which has become more concrete and confident in its assertion that human activity is having a very strong impact on the climate. There have also been improvements in technology, particularly in terms of wind and solar, and electric vehicles.

"The costs have come down. They have become easier to integrate," said Lazarus. In most cases, renewables are cheaper to produce than coal and gas.

Another change is the level of public support for climate policies and a more unified protest movement, driven by an active youth movement. Jennifer Morgan, the Executive Director of Greenpeace International, says she sees increases in the number and type of protestors. More people are prepared to partake in nonviolent action than they were 15 years ago, and we are seeing more mass mobilization and marches, as well as high profile groups like Extinction Rebellion and the school strikers.

"The climate strikes on Fridays are not a 'normal' thing for kids to do, and shows the level of fear and determination they have," said Morgan. "Through Greta Thunberg, Vanessa Nakate and others, young people now see that their voice matters and this has unleashed a huge amount of energy, which is fantastic."

This activism has seeped into more and more people's everyday lives—the rise in veganism being a key example of how people are integrating environmentally-friendly behaviour into everyday life. This year a record 400,000 people signed up to Veganuary.

Texas Wind Farm
States like Texas are embracing renewable technology like wind. The Lone Star state produces the most wind power of any U.S. state. Picture taken April 2, 2019 on Interstate 40, Adrian, Texas. Paul Harris/Getty

But climate activists agree that this is not always being matched by the same enthusiasm and commitment at a political level. There are certainly exceptions to the rule: indeed, many states in the U.S., both red and blue, have adopted renewables not only as a response to the climate crisis but as an economically superior option. Cities and towns, such as Hot Springs in Arkansas, are pledging to switch to renewables. However, this momentum is not necessarily being played out on a national level.

One of the major challenges to emerge is the advent of populist and nationalist politics around the world, Herz told Newsweek.

"The idea that we will be OK if we build walls, if we keep those other people out, if we put our interests first and that is not a realistic or reasonable solution," said Herz.

At the same time, the fossil fuel industry continues to channel vast sums into lobbying at high political levels.

"The fossil fuel is upping its attempts to try to bluff its way out of it," said Morgan. "They are now talking about planting a trillion trees and natural gas as ploys to divert attention away from the fact that their decisions to drill for any fossil fuels—oil, gas, coal—are dooming their children to a chaotic future."

And what of BP's plans to go net-zero by 2050, announced this week?

It's a "great sentiment" and "terrific in principle" but the details are not there, according to Michael, who suggests that they have walked away from similar initiatives like Beyond Petroleum in the past.

When it comes to what to do next, the experts Newsweek spoke to referenced the usual suspects: voting for green-minded politicians, strict laws to curb future emissions, increasing carbon sinks by planting trees and financial regulation to prevent investments in fossil fuel companies. In the lead-up to COP 26 in Glasgow later this year, countries have to "recognize that the science has gotten worse" and "have a stronger pledge on the table," said Herz.

In general, the consensus seems to be that change is happening—but not nearly fast enough.

"Our greatest barrier is our imagination of the change that can happen right on our doorstep," said Morgan.

15 Years after the Kyoto Protocol Went into Force, the Climate Crisis is Worse Than Ever | Tech & Science