Kyoto Protocol archives

What is the Kyoto Protocol?

In 1992 the world’s governments adopted the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), an important step in addressing climate change on a global scale. Australia signed and ratified this convention, thereby agreeing to do its' best to avoid dangerous climate change.

In 1997 this work continued with the adoption of the Kyoto Protocol, an international treaty designed to limit the amounts of greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere. The Protocol provided for legally binding limits on greenhouse gas emissions and included flexibility mechanisms for reaching those targets (Emissions Trading and emissions reductions out of country). These flexibility mechanisms establish an international "carbon market".

The Kyoto Protocol has been ratified by 184 countries, including India and China but not the US. The Protocol came into force in 2005 and Australia announced ratification in December 2007. The Parties to the Protocol agree to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions by 5%.

The First Commitment Period of the Kyoto Protocol regulates emissions from 2008 to 2012. Negotiations are underway for the second commitment period, and for the emissions reductions that developed country parties to the Protocol will adopt after 2012. For an update on where post 2012 negotiations are at go here. Only the developed country parties to the Protocol are required to adopt binding economy-wide emissions reduction targets under the KP. This is in recognition that it is the developed countries (listed in Annex 1 to the UNFCCC) that have historical responsibility for climate change, and who must bear the first responsibility to fight it.

All parties to the UNFCCC have responsibility to avoid "dangerous interference" with the world's climate.  It is a responsbility held in common by all, but differentiated on the basis of historical responsbility and respective capacity and capabilities. Even among the Annex 1 parties that are parties to the Kyoto Protocol, each has a different target -- and some countries argue that their differing national circumstances should allow them to take less onerous targets than others. For the first commitment period, Australia secured one of the least ambitious targets (an 8% increase!) as well as the notorious "Australia clause" for accounting of emissions from the land sector that was specficailly designed to benefit Australia. You can find information about Australia's ratification of the Protocol, and the communications we've made to the UNFCCC about our emissions under the Protocol here. (For an explanation of the "Australia clause," try here or here.)

The Kyoto Protocol plans for a 5% reduction, but because the United States is not a party to it, because it doesn't cover all sectors of greenhouse emissions, all greenhouse gases, and does not provide for emissions reductions by developing countries it now only covers around 35% of the world's greenhouse gas emissions. Since 2007, as well as negotiating further commitments for developing countries under the Kyoto Protocol, parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change have also been negotiating an agreed outcome under the Bali Action Plan, which called for enhanced action on mitigation, including by developing countries, as well as enhanced action on adaptation, finance and technolgoy transfer.

For the latest on the international talks, including the Kyoto negotiations, and the negotiations for long-term cooperative action, go here.

How high are Australia's emissions?

Despite the Kyoto Protocol, Australia's greenhouse gas emissions are over 500 million tonnes per year and are still rising. You can find out which industries create the most greenhouse gases, by visiting the greenhouse gas inventory pages of the Department of Climate Change.

Australia is responsible for around 1.3% of the world's greenhouse gas emissions, and this puts us in the top twenty highest emitting countries in the world (we are currently number 16). Unlike most other industrialised countries that are party to the Kyoto Protocol, Australia's greenhouse pollution is still rising. The Clean Energy Future package is an important first step, but recent warnings from the International Energy Agency about the limited time available before the world overshoots the amount of pollution persmissble if we're to meet the two degree warming limit make it clear that in the short term, much more needs to be done so that Australia's emissions peak and begin to decline immediately.

Australia has the highest emissions per capita of any country in the developed world. Per capita our emissions are six times as high as China's and we emit more greenhouse gases than Indonesia (with 10 times our population), largely because Australia relies so heavily on coal for electricity. Around three quarters of our electricity comes from burning coal. It is aso because we are a large producers of products that are also very carbon intensive -- aluminum smelting and beef production for example.  It is also because Australians are very wealthy by world standards, eat a lot of meat, use a lot of energy, drive cars, transport food and goods around by road, and buy lots of stuff.



Australia's easy-to-meet Kyoto Protocol target (CANA briefing paper - May 2001)

Australian Government figures show that Australia can meet its Kyoto target by polluting well above current levels. Australia's easy-to-meet target means that the Australian Government should be leading the world in finalising and ratifying the Kyoto Protocol. We should also be committing to a stronger target.

How does the Kyoto Protocol work?

Countries are required to count their greenhouse gas emissions in 1990 and then again in the 'commitment period' 2008 - 2012. They have to show that their emissions have not exceeded their target in the commitment period. In Australia's case it must show that emissions are only 8% above 1990 levels. Meeting the Kyoto target will mean presenting 2 sets of figures - emissions in 1990 and again in 2008 - 2012.

Australia's Kyoto target is one of only a few in the industralised world to increase pollution. Australia pushed for a target in Kyoto well short of the emission reduction effort proposed by most industrialised nations. The Government threatened to walk away from the treaty unless its target was accepted. As a result Australia can increase its greenhouse gas emissions 8% above 1990 levels by 2010. Most other industrialised nations committed to targets to reduce their pollution below 1990 levels:

Country Kyoto target

European Union

8% below 1990 levels


8% below 1990

Central and Eastern Europe

8% below 1990

United States

7% below 1990


6% below 1990


6% below 1990


6% below 1990


6% below 1990


stabalise at 1990 level

New Zealand

stabalise at 1990 level


stabalise at 1990 levels


increase 1% above 1990


increase 8% above 1990


increase 10% above 1990

But the target is even easier…..

Figures submitted by the Australian Government to the UN Climate Change Secretariat and published in official greenhouse gas inventories, show that the last minute "Australia clause" adopted at Kyoto enables a decrease in land clearing since 1990 to be counted. This makes the target easy to reach on paper, while greenhouse pollution from energy and transport increases massively. Table 1 presents a picture of what Australia's Kyoto record will look like, based on the Government's own projections of where it expects greenhouse gas emissions to go.

Table 1 - Australia's possible Kyoto accounts
Australian greenhouse emissions - million tonnes of CO2




Kyoto reporting year





Energy / Industrial emissions

423 1


529 2
(25% increase above the 1990 level)

Land clearing emissions

103 3

65 4

42 5
(Article 3.7) (Article 3.3)





Total emissions:



2010 outcome (this is 8.5% above 1990 levels)

What does the table show?

The figures show that between 1990 - 2010, emissions from land clearing are predicted to decrease at business as usual rates, from 103 to 42 million tonnes of carbon dioxide (Mt). While clearing rates remain too high, emissions in 1998 have fallen to 65Mt, and the expected further decrease will be due to States running out of land to clear. Additional action on landclearing may not need to be taken to reach this level.

Over the same period, from 1990 to 2010, greenhouse emissions from the industrial, energy, and transport sectors are predicted to increase by 25%, from 423 to 529Mt.

Australia meets its Kyoto target with a 25% increase in energy and transport emissions

When these figures are added together in Australia's greenhouse account, they show that Australia can come under its 8%+ Kyoto target while massively increasing pollution from chimneys and exhaust pipes 25% above 1990 levels.

With serious government action to reduce industrial pollution in line with the Kyoto promise, as well as including the projected decrease in land clearing emissions, Australia could have one of the strongest targets in the world. Australia could be leading the world with ratification of the Kyoto Protocol and a better target to reduce emissions below 1990 levels.


Developing nations and the Kyoto Protocol - the key issues (CANA briefing paper - May 2001)

How does Australia compare as a greenhouse gas polluter? 


Total CO2 emissions
(fossil fuel combustion 1997)   

% of world emissions

% of world population


306 mill tonnes




257 mill tonnes




881 mill tonnes




3121 mill tonnes



(Source: UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, Press Kit for COP6, 2000 and The World Gazette, 2000)

Given our small population Australia pollutes more than our fair share of the earth's atmosphere. The Government says that we only pollute 1% of world carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions (the main greenhouse gas), but this is actually a very high amount. With 180 nations involved in the climate change treaty, it does not take many 1% contributions to add up to a lot of pollution. The vast majority of the world's nations do not make anywhere near a 1% contribution to the problem.

Australia is the 16th biggest greenhouse gas polluter in the world in terms of total emissions, and the 8th biggest polluter per person (UNFCCC 2000)

In terms of total emissions we produce more than oil producing nations such as Saudi Arabia, more than most European nations and even more than many large developing nations, like Indonesia and Brazil.

We also have high per person emissions.

Why don't developing nations have targets in the Kyoto Protocol?

The Kyoto Protocol builds upon the Climate Change Convention, which was agreed to in 1992 and has been ratified by over 180 nations, including Australia. The Convention requires all nations to take steps to reduce emissions and for OECD nations to return to 1990 levels by 2000.

In Berlin in 1995 it was recognised that the OECD nations of the world were not meeting the targets set under the Convention, so the "Berlin Mandate" was agreed to by all Parties, including the United States and Australia. This identified that a new protocol needed to be drafted to set legally binding targets for the nations with the largest per person emissions.

The Berlin Mandate agreed to common but differentiated responsibilities for action. Nations with high per person emissions, high standards of living and good access to energy services needed to take stronger action than poor nations with low per person emissions, standards of living and large populations without basic electricity services. These principles were the foundation of the Kyoto Protocol.

Why should industrialized countries act first?

Industrialized countries like Australia account for 80% of the current problem - that is 80% of the human-induced carbon dioxide build up in the atmosphere that occurred between 1880 and 1990 - Figure 2.

Since 1950, the United States has emitted a total of 50.7 billion tons of carbon, while China (4.6 times more populous) and India (3.5 times more populous) have emitted only 15.7 and 4.2 billion tons respectively (World Resources Institute 2000).

What contribution do developing nations make to the problem?

More than 60% of global industrial carbon dioxide emissions originates in industrialized countries, where only about 20% of the world's population resides (World Resources Institute 2000). The remainder is contributed by developing nations and the 80% of the world's population that live in these nations.

There is growth in emissions in developing nations but this is largely because of the provision of basic human needs such as access to basic electricity. On the other hand emissions in industrialized countries contribute to growth in a standard of living that is already far above that of the average person worldwide.

By arguing against developing nations, the Australian Government is arguing against basic development needs such as lighting and heating. It is like diners at a 5 star restaurant refusing to pay their bill till the people in the soup kitchen stop eating.

Many developing nations are using energy more wisely than Australia

Many developing nations are taking energy efficiency and pollution issues seriously, and this shows in their greenhouse emissions figures. The following table shows that greenhouse emissions in many developing nations have been dropping while Australia's continue to increase.

Carbon Dioxide emissions 1997 - 1999 in Australia and a range of nations in Asia (million metric tonnes of carbon equivalent from the consumption and flaring of fossil fuels)





% change





5% increase





17% decrease





7% decrease





2.5% increase





4% decrease

South Korea




7% decrease

Source: US Department of Energy 2001

Coal use drops in China and increases in the US

According to BP Amoco Statistical Review of World Energy 2000, US coal consumption grew from 477 million tonnes in 1989 to 544 million tonnes in1998 - a 14% increase. This creates to about 2.3 billion tonnes of CO2, about 10 per cent of all fossil fuel CO2 emissions in the world. The US is now by far the largest coal user in the world.

China also increased coal use during 1989 to 1996, however since 1996, coal use has reversed. In 1999 there was 511 million tonnes of coal used in China, a 25 per cent decrease in just three years.

  • Between 1990 and 1995 fossil fuel subsidies in 14 large developing nations decreased by 45% from $60 billion to $33 billion Compared to fossil fuel subsidies in OECD nations which were decreased by 20% in the same period (UNFCCC 1999). Australia continues to subsidise fossil fuels and recently increased subsidies for diesel fuel consumption as part of the tax package.
  • By 1993 12% of China's installed electricity was produced through cogeneration, which is a more efficient way to produce power. China unlike Australia has a mandatory requirement that large industrial developments install cogeration power (World Bank 1996).
  • Mexico, India and Brazil have specific energy efficiency and renewable energy programs. Mexico has standards for boilers, refrigerators, air conditioners, buildings and electric motors. India subsidies renewable energy, with wind turbines qualifying for 100% accelerated depreciation. Brazil has had a program since 1976 to use ethanol instead of petrol with 200 000 barrels produced per day and making up a large proportion of Brazil's transport fuel. (World Resources Institute, 1997) 

This concern, referred to as "carbon leakage" is overstated by industry. One could argue that any domestic legislation or tax is a threat to industry and requires them to move offshore, and indeed such arguments emerge during discussions about everything from native title to tax reform.

The decision that industry makes in locating its business is based on many factors, with energy being far less important than labour issues, tax requirements, and proximity to primary resources and size of local markets.

The "carbon leakage" assumption is also based on a flawed idea that developing nations will have much looser energy efficiency requirements than Australia and other OECD nations, because they don't have a Kyoto target. It is presumed that industry will then choose to locate in developing nations rather than in industrialised nations because of energy policies.

A study commissioned by the United States Environmental Protection Authority and Department of Energy found that the iron and steel sector in South Korea and Brazil are more energy-efficient than in the US, while these sectors in Mexico and India have achieved an efficiency level equal to the US. For cement production South Korea, Brazil, Mexico and India are more energy efficient than the US.

Nobody builds a new power station, an aluminum smelter with worse energy efficiency and environmental performance than the average stock. For example the aluminum smelter being built in Mozambique is better than average smelter in US, Canada, Norway or Sweden.

The way of the future

Carbon dioxide emissions from developing countries need to be monitored. But before we apportion blame for reducing emissions, we need to look carefully at who is causing global warming and when is the appropriate time for developing nations to be required to meet targets.

There is no doubt that the developing nations will hold the high moral ground on this issue until there is real movement from the biggest per person polluters of greenhouse gases, like Australia. If on the other hand the industrialised world implements the Kyoto Protocol by 2010, it will be much easier to convince and require developing nations to accept targets.


Responsibility for Greenhouse Gas Action

(Source: Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Centre & World Resources Institute in, Pew Centre for Global Climate Change "Equity and Global Climate Change", 2000)

Out of 180 nations, Australia is 18th in terms of total CO2 produced, and 9th in per person pollution levels

Following is a selection of nations to compare Australia to:

  CO2 emissions per person (1995)
(tonnes / person)
Total CO2 emissions (1995)
(thousand metric tonnes)
GDP per capita
(1995 US$)
United States 19.4 5156 190 26 026
China 2.6 3 192 484 2 970
Japan 9.2 1 126 753 21 930
Germany 10.3 835 099 20 120
United Kingdom 9.2 542 140 19 300
India 1.1 908 734 1 420
South Africa 7.3 305 805 5 240
Indonesia 1.5 296 132 3 970
Australia 16.1 289 808 19 630
Philippines 0.7 61 159 2 760
Sweden 5.1 44 591 19 310
Switzerland 5.5 38 853 24 900
Bangladesh 0.0 20 932 1 380
Kenya 0.4 6 683 1 430
Costa Rica 1.5 5 232 5 920
Kiribati 0.4 22 -


Further articles on the Kyoto Protocol

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