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The Kyoto Protocol

A satellite image of lights at night

The Kyoto Protocol was the world’s first international agreement on how to tackle climate change, and an important tool that governments around the world have used since it was made law in 2005. By 2009 183 countries had signed up to the Protocol and had made a commitment to reduce their carbon dioxide emissions and five other greenhouse gases by an average of 5.2%. 

Many countries set their own targets. In the EU this was originally 8% but later increased to 20% by 2020, as governments began to realise that much more had to be done. In the UK and Scotland, Climate bills more recently committed to reductions of 80%.

Stopping dangerous climate change

The main aim of the Kyoto Treaty was to hold greenhouse gases at a level that will stop dangerous changes to the planet’s climate system. All of the industrialised nations that signed and ratified the Treaty would collectively reduce their emissions.

Common problem but different responsibilities

The Kyoto Treaty recognised that we have a common problem but that not all countries have contributed to this problem in the same way. Some countries, including China and India, were exempted from targets because they were not main contributors during the period of industrialisation that is believed to be the cause of climate change.


The United States and Australia originally opted out of Kyoto because of the exemptions granted to China, India and developing countries. They also claimed, along with some economists, that it would cost jobs and damage their countries’ economies. However, Australia later signed Kyoto after a change of leadership in 2007, and the US has recently begun working towards its own climate bill. 

Many people criticised Kyoto because its mechanisms created a carbon marketplace, where carbon credits could be traded. This allowed richer nations to avoid cutting their emissions and, in some cases, disguise an increase. 

Other major criticisms included that the original targets of 5.2% would make little impact on the main cause of climate change - human induced emissions.

Has the Kyoto Protocol stopped dangerous climate change?

The first phase of Kyoto is due to expire in 2012. It has had its successes and difficulties, and many countries' emissions have actually increased since ratifying the Kyoto Protocol. Many other countries (such as most European countries, the UK and Scotland) have however succeeded in reducing their emissions. Most people agree that the Kyoto Protocol has been an important step towards recognising and tackling the problem of climate change. It put climate change on the worldwide agenda for governments. 

Most people also agree that not enough has been done to avoid dangerous climate change and that the original Kyoto targets were not strict enough. Since the first Kyoto, climate science has become more alarming and predictions of warming have become more severe.  It is now widely held that temperatures are rising and, to prevent the climate from becoming dangerously unstable, emissions will need to be reduced by at least 80% around the world as quickly as possible.


Photo credit:Data courtesy Marc Imhoff of NASA GSFC and Christopher Elvidge of NOAA NGDC. Image by Craig Mayhew and Robert Simmon, NASA GSFC.

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