On December 11, 1997 in Kyoto, Japan, the United Nations adopts a new treaty for the purpose of limiting greenhouse gas emissions. The Kyoto Protocol to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change was a revolutionary attempt to forestall climate change, an admirable effort that yielded mixed results.
In the ’80s and ’90s, the international community began to fully internalize the ramifications of climate change and the impact of human activity on the environment. The Kyoto Protocol committed different nations to different actions. Some nations were held to binding targets for reducing emissions of carbon dioxide, methane and other greenhouse gases, while others, including major emitters like China and India, did not having binding targets. Nations that could not meet their objectives had options of ways to contribute to emissions reductions in the “developing” world by doing things like investing in emissions-reducing infrastructure or “trading” emissions by purchasing another nation’s rights to a certain amount of emissions.
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84 nations signed onto the Kyoto Protocol, and nearly every United Nations member became a party to it. The most notable exception was the United States. President Bill Clinton signed the treaty on his country’s behalf but did not send it to Congress for ratification, understanding that it would not pass. His successor, George W. Bush, opposed the agreement, saying that the United States’ economy would be harmed if it committed to reductions while so many other nations were exempt. Many nations exceeded their emissions targets during the first phase of the Protocol—Canada, Australia and New Zealand chief among them. Others, like the United Kingdom and Germany, met their goals. Many Eastern European nations dramatically outstripped theirs, almost certainly because of the drop in production due to the breakup of the Eastern Bloc.
In 2011, Canada announced its intent to withdraw from the Kyoto Protocol. A second phase of the Protocol, the Doha Agreement, was drafted in 2012, but fell seven signatures short of ratification. Innovative but only somewhat effective, the Kyoto Protocol exemplifies both the strength of the international will to improve the climate and the inherent difficulties of bringing world leaders together for that purpose.