(November 2000) The Kyoto Protocol was adopted by the Third Conference of the Parties to the UNFCCC (COP-3), which met in Japan in December of 1997. The negotiations included delegates from 159 countries and featured 11 days of fierce debate. In the end, the Protocol included the following provisions:

  • Industrialized countries (Annex I countries under the UNFCCC) agreed to reduce their emissions of six greenhouse gases. The six gases included carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, and three ozone-damaging fluorocarbons not covered by the Montreal Protocol (which banned global chlorofluorocarbons), specifically hydrofluorocarbons, perfluorocarbons, and sulfur hexafluoride.
  • Collectively, industrialized countries agreed to cut back their total carbon dioxide equivalent emissions of these gases from 1990 levels (or 1995 levels in the case of the three fluorocarbon gases) by at least 5 percent averaged over the commitment period 2008-2012.
  • Each party to the Protocol has its own emissions target. The United States would be obligated to reduce its emissions by 7 percent, while Japan would have to make a 6 percent cut. Most European countries would have to make an 8 percent reduction.
  • The agreement also set forth a number of mechanisms that would allow industrialized countries to achieve their targets through means other than domestic emissions cuts. These include emissions trading among industrialized countries as well as an initiative called the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM), which aims to help less developed countries reduce or slow the growth of emissions through greenhouse gas-reducing projects financed by industrialized countries.

For the Protocol to go into effect, it must be ratified by 55 countries, including industrialized countries accounting for 55 percent of the total emissions of the industrial world in 1990. The United States’ emissions in 1990 were just under 40 percent of the industrial world’s total, so it would be very difficult — though not impossible — for the treaty to take effect without U.S. participation. The U.S. government under the Clinton administration signed the Protocol on December 11, 1998, but has not yet submitted it to the Senate, where it must receive a two-thirds majority for ratification.


Bingham Kennedy, Jr. is an associate editor at the Population Reference Bureau.