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Lessons from Kyoto: A Vision for Effective Global Action on Climate Change

Spencer Schecht's picture
American University

Spencer is a climate policy and communication practitioner with broad international experience. Building on his studies in the biological experiences, his interests branched into climate and...

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  • Aug 29, 2014


Climate change is essentially a crisis of the global commons that requires unprecedented collective action on the international level (Jinnah, 2013, “Governance”). The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) was established in 1992 with the explicit objective of stabilizing greenhouse gases in the atmosphere “at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system (Article 2, 2014).” However, even with this rhetoric agreed upon by over 190 nations, GHG emissions have continued to rise virtually unabated. Atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide reached 400ppm in 2013 for the first time in human history (IPCC, 2013); a threshold many scientists have warned is the tipping point of catastrophic interference with the climate system. The task before humanity is therefore how to act quickly and effectively in reducing greenhouse gases while adapting to the changes already guaranteed by human changes to the planet.

With the end of Kyoto’s first commitment period in sight and no serious action on global GHG emission reductions actualized, the deadline was set at the Conference of the Parties (COP) in Durban in 2011 so by the year 2015 a new UNFCCC agreement would be reached that will take effect in 2020 (Jinnah, 2013). Whether it is improved upon or altogether scrapped, the Kyoto Protocol (KP) as is no longer accommodates for the state of the global economic landscape and what that means for distributing responsibility fairly. Will countries be held to blanket commitments such as under the KP or will each country decide domestically what actions are appropriate according to their own circumstances? Who will provide the funds to the poorest countries and to what projects? What happens if we fail to act in time and climate change begins irreversibly altering weather patterns, livelihoods, and coastlines? We are living through a tremendously transformative period where for the first time humanity is attempting to answer these questions and to cooperate in redefining the fundamentals of economic prosperity to safeguard the global environment from irreversible damage.

This analysis reflects on the lessons that can be derived from the successes and failures of the Kyoto Protocol to conjure collective global action on climate change. From these lessons, along with scholarly perspectives and critical analysis from the author, a new structure for global climate governance will take shape.

The tiring process of climate negotiations. Photo credit: Spencer Schecht.The tiring process of climate negotiations. Photo credit: Spencer Schecht.

Lessons from Kyoto

Possibly the most significant, binding proposal manufactured through the UNFCCC process is the Kyoto Protocol. Agreed upon in 1997 and taking effect in 2005, the Kyoto Protocol required emissions reductions by the world’s most developed nations who were at the time the leading CO2 culprits (Breidenich, 1998).

One of the key pillars of the Kyoto Protocol has been the adherence to the principle of “common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities”(CBDR). In effect, this implies that developed countries should take the lead in domestic mitigation as well as financing for developing countries for low carbon development (Bushey and Jinnah, 2010). This has drawn the battle lines between the Annex I (developed) countries and non-Annex I (developing countries). This may have been a valid argument in 1992 when these definitions were created, however, the global socio-economic landscape has significantly changed in the over 20 years since Rio +20. In fact, it is predicted non-Annex I countries will surpass Annex I countries in cumulative historic emissions by 2030 (Stern, 2013). The projections of continued development among the non-Annex I nations makes the binary categories that were of such importance in developing the Kyoto Protocol all but irrelevant. This is a major roadblock with keeping the Kyoto Protocol alive for a third commitment period because the non-Annex I economies of China, India, and Brazil are undergoing monstrous growth and therefore have become monstrous emitters. Under the KP guidelines as they are now these countries would be immune to the binding commitments the US couldn’t stomach almost a decade ago.

Questions abound as to whether the Kyoto Protocol should be modified to be more inclusive for member nations such as the US or if it should graduate to a separate system. Some arguments submit major polluters from the beginning of the Industrial Revolution such as the US and the EU should finance developing countries mitigation efforts so they could in effect “leap frog” over the high carbon development the first world utilized to raise its standards of living (Petherick, 2013). The logic follows that heavily industrialized economies have the infrastructure, resources, and effective enough governance to cope with climate change that mainly they have created. The model for development in the third world is then predicated upon high carbon development. Developing countries argue that if the best course of action is to forego high carbon development, they should be financed by these already industrialized countries that can afford to foot the bill. Some countries have taken this proposal to the extreme with Brazil submitting that Annex I countries should take responsibility for all of their emissions going back to the beginning of the industrial revolution (Petherick, 2013).

In 2005 when the Kyoto Protocol went into effect, the agreement covered 63.7% of 1990 emissions from its over 60 signatories (Jinnah, 2013). Only seven years later at the beginning of the rushed start to the second commitment period, less than 15% of emissions were covered (Harrabin, 2012). Further drawbacks to the protocol include just how easy it is to regress on commitments. Once exploitation of billions of dollars of tar sands become possible for Canada, they promptly withdrew from the KP in 2011 (The Guardian, 2011). As far as keeping with the intentions of reducing total human interference with the climate system, the Kyoto Protocol has been a failure.

The “Durban Platform” which arose out of the 2011 COP mandates the development of “a protocol, another legal instrument or an agreed outcome with legal force under the Convention applicable to all Parties, which is to be completed no later than 2015 in order for it to be adopted at the twenty-first session of the Conference of the Parties (COP) and for it to come into effect and be implemented from 2020 (Ad hoc working group, 2014).” In order for this “Paris Plan” to be adequately ambitious to keep climate change from snowballing into a all out catastrophe while accounting for equity in relation to CBDR, it needs to be realistic about what paradigms will work in a rapidly changing world. We will explore fundamental principles the new plan should embody to remain flexible in its structure but effective in its mitigation and adaptation objectives.

Compliments of the UNFCCC. Photo credit: Spencer Schecht

Compliments of the UNFCCC. Photo credit: Spencer Schecht

Vision for a Robust Agreement in 2015

First and foremost, the 2 degree Celsius target should not be negotiated. Some scholars have suggested that by circumventing the 2 degree argument, more action can be taken on local, short-lived pollutants (SLPs)(Andrew et al, 2013).  The UNFCCC should remain focused on its overall goal and therefore the international discourse on climate safety should be hinged on carbon dioxide. Huge climate change abatement co-benefits have emerged from the Montreal Protocol and its regulations on ozone depleting substances. As long as stringent adherence to and periodic updating of the Montreal Protocol is maintained, these co-benefits will continue without redundancy by the UNFCCC. Although there is debate surrounding how realistic it is that global warming can be kept to less than 2 degrees, this guardrail is necessary to maintain proper ambition when accounting for cumulative global mitigation.

The ambitions to regulate SLPs should be acknowledged by national and subnational governments, not at the international level. Resolving the issue of short-lived pollutants such as black carbon and lower atmospheric ozone will result in immediate localized health benefits and “can slow warming on a scale that is relevant for practical adaptation (Burney et al. 2013).” Additionally, these actions need not wait for international consensus. They can be addressed via sub-national governments advocating the betterment of overall public health. This frame is more politically expectable, especially in the US where the machinery of denialism has thoroughly stalled any meaningful action on climate change (Dunlap, 2013).  As public opinion shifts away from denialism, the “secondary” benefits of managing SLPs as climate policy can be moved to the forefront and the groundwork has been laid for localized action that yields immediate, tangible results that mitigates climate change.

As discussed above, removing the Annex I/non-Annex I category system is key to creating a level playing field that is “applicable to all Parties”. This binary classification oversimplifies the nuances of responsibilities and capabilities not just internationally, but intra-nationally as well. Many countries currently labeled as non-Annex I are now emerging economies; not quite developing yet quasi developed nations that reproduce the differentiated responsibilities motif internally (Farber, 2013). Blanket generalizations such as these will be ineffective in a robust climate regime. Instead, ambition can be determined and critiqued by a pledge and review process of commitments from each member country. Rather than top down imposed reduction requirements that sunk the possibility of US participation in the Kyoto Protocol, commitments under the Paris Plan should be unilaterally decided based on national capacity. These commitments are then to be submitted to the Convention for a review and critique. This system of pledge and review may lack the impetus for ambition many actors would like to see from the UNFCCC, however, it improves the probability of participation from all if not most parties. The review period allows consultation from other parties, NGOs, civil society, and educational and research institutions to bolster ambition where it is lacking (Stern, 2013).

Considering this model, ambition may not at first be sufficient to keep warming below 2 degrees, however, it allows for a ratcheting up of ambition after successive reviews by the international community. Ambition in this way may be sacrificed for the sake of equity. Nationally determined commitments allow developing countries to make modest pledges according to their unique circumstances and stage of development. A ratcheting mechanism to incentivize consistently building ambition can be worked into the agreement as well. Timely progress by developing nations can be rewarded by enhanced financing and technological transfer.

A reward based system for financing creates a competitive landscape for scarce funding, an issue that has plagued the global climate discourse since its inception. Instead of dispersing money in blanket payments to the developing world, it can be rewarded to countries making progress on their ambitions. Indeed, rewarding developing countries for good governance is not all that is needed. Assisting struggling nations that have historically faulty governance regimes is a major piece to combating climate change worldwide. Poor governance tends to lead to environmental degradation and exacerbate climate change inducing processes (Durham, 1995). Incentivizing green development will be regionally and locally sensitive issues. The green financing mechanisms that arise out of the Paris Plan should be inclusive enough to respect these regional actualities while administering financing where it is most needed. Climate finance overlaps with development aid in that climate smart development is also sustainable development. Once again, a properly structured financing mechanism under the UNFCCC offers multilateral co-benefits beyond climate protection.

The issue of equity has continuously reappeared in global climate governance discourse. The foundation of common but differentiated responsibilities should be upheld in designing the new global climate agreement. By definition, developing nations will in time reach the status of developed nations. Countries taking this journey should not be exempt from the criticisms they have thrown on the industrialized countries of the world. In other words, they should not be privy to carbon intensive development such as the 19th and 20th centuries allowed. Instead, the Paris Plan should be built on a win-win narrative. Developing countries will be afforded the opportunity to leverage their natural resources sustainably while elevating their citizens out of poverty without further jeopardizing climate stability. Meanwhile, developed nations can continue to prosper by leveraging partnerships with the developing world that aid in green finance flow and green technology transfer.  There is no need for a conversation of suffering when discussing restructuring social and economic systems to combat climate change. The world it will help create is one of fairness in which opportunity for prosperity is afforded to people all over the world.

A frustrated delegate at COP 19 in 2013, Warsaw, Poland. Photo credit: Spencer Schecht

A frustrated delegate at COP 19 in 2013, Warsaw, Poland. Photo credit: Spencer Schecht         


The UNFCCC has over two decades of experience to draw on in the lead up to COP21 in Paris. Many close to the negotiations are still feeling the hangover from the 2009 disappointment in Copenhagen. Paris is an opportunity to establish a strong yet flexible global climate regime that allows leniency where it is necessary yet stringency of ambition.  The proposed pledge and review process means countries will no longer be holding their cards close to their chest. It facilitates open and honest conversation on ambition and equity while catalyzing the potential for collaboration, creativity, and unforeseen partnerships. The new climate agreement can hybridize the best pieces of a top down approach (maintaining ambition and integrity through a global target of 2 degrees C) and unilaterally determined commitments. The framework can stitch together individual pledges, mobilize private and public funding, and judiciously facilitate action based on CBDR.

The Paris Plan can redefine CBDR without compromising it to accommodate for economies in transition. These “emerging economies” will be critical to the fate of how much climate change we will induce before halting, and reducing emissions. The world’s heaviest emitters, China, India, Brazil, the US, and the EU will have heavy hands in determining the future of climate change and therefore should be heavy players in constructing the new agreement.

The highly homogenized nature of international agreements can potentially derail the effectiveness of even a robust global climate regime. The Paris Plan must be authoritative enough to ramp up mitigation and adaptation globally while respecting regional and local realities. There can be no one size fits all solution to the drivers of climate change. The nuances of individual areas and on the ground implementation must be realized in order for the agreement not to manifest dead-end projects, squandering time and capital.

As progress is made in pockets outside of the international climate dialogues, the UNFCCC has the potential to become a forum for sharing best practices and will allow pathways towards cooperation that are not yet realized. Furthermore, the discourse should not be stifled by the traditional Global North versus Global South arguments. The efforts to remedy the global collective action dilemma of climate change are an opportunity for collaboration and solidarity on an unprecedented scale. Addressing climate change in turn tackles poverty alleviation, food security, access to health care and education, and myriad of issues associated with sustainable development. Actors must step up their ambition, this much is clear if we are to avoid catastrophic climate disaster. But this is not a global fingering pointing blame game. It is the greatest opportunity humanity has at this point in history to facilitate the prerequisites that can lead to a safer, more equitable, more peaceful planet.


Works Cited

Andrew, Jordan, et al. 2013. “Going beyond Two Degrees? The Risks and Opportunities of Alternative Options.” Climate Policy 13(6): 751-769. 

Burney, Jennifer A., Charles F. Kennel and David G. Victor. 2013. Getting Serious About the New Realities of Global Climate Change. Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 69 (4): 49-57.

Ad Hoc Working Group on the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action.” Ad Hoc Working Group on the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action. UNFCCC, n.d. Web. 08 May 2014. 

Breidenich, Clare et al. 1998. “The Kyoto Protocol to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.” The American Journal of International Law 92(2): 315-331.

Canada pulls out of Kyoto protocol“. The Guardian. Environment. 12 Dec. 2011. Web. 

Durham, William H., “Political Ecology and Environmental Destruction in Latin America,” in William H. Durham and Michael Painter, eds., Social Causes of Environmental Destruction in Latin America, Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1995, pp. 249-264. 

Farber, Daniel. 2013. Beyond the North–South Dichotomy in International Climate Law: The Distinctive Adaptation Responsibilities of the Emerging Economies. Review of European, Comparative & International Environmental Law 22 (1): 42-53.

FULL TEXT OF THE CONVENTION, ARTICLE 2.” United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. UNFCCC, 2014. Web. <>.

Harrabin, Roger. “UN climate talks extend Kyoto, promise compensationNews Science and Environment. BBC News, 8 Dec. 2012. Web. 08 May 2014. Retreived from

IPCC, 2013: Climate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [Stocker, T.F., D. Qin, G.-K. Plattner, M. Tignor, S.K. Allen, J. Boschung, A. Nauels, Y. Xia, V. Bex and P.M. Midgley (eds.)]. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, United Kingdom and New York, NY, USA, 1535 pp. 

Jinnah, Sikina. 2013. Global Climate Governance: Demands, Challenges, and Suggested Reforms. Working draft.

Jinnah, Sikina. “Introduction to Global Climate Change Politics.” American University, Washington DC. 9 Sept. 2013. Lecture.

Weart , Spencer R. 2008. The Discovery of Global Warming. Selections. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Petherick, Anna. 2013. The Muddled Progressive. Nature Climate Change 3:7-9.

Stern, Todd D. “The Shape of a New International Climate Agreement.” Speech. Chatham House, London, United Kingdom. U.S. Department of State. 22 Oct. 2013.

Bushey, D. and Jinnah, S. (2010) “Evolving Responsibility? The Principle of Common but Differentiated Responsibility in the UNFCCCBerkeley Journal of International Law Publicist. 

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Alistair Newbould's picture
Alistair Newbould on Aug 29, 2014

“It is the greatest opportunity humanity has at this point in history to facilitate the prerequisites that can lead to a safer, more equitable, more peaceful planet.”


So hoping you are right! Before attending all delgates should read Ronald Wright, “A Short History of Progress”. 132 pages and less than $5 used on Amazon they could read it at the first lunch break.

Spencer Schecht's picture
Spencer Schecht on Aug 29, 2014

I agree. The rest of the world needs assurance from the two economic heavy hitters to pledge adequate reductions. It is almost like a great big three legged race. Once one or two countries start the momentum, the rest will follow.

Spencer Schecht's picture
Spencer Schecht on Aug 29, 2014

Comments and critiques welcome!

Spencer Schecht's picture
Spencer Schecht on Aug 29, 2014

Seems like a great read! I will have to pick it up. 


One of the most hopeful arguments for global mitigation and adaptation is that they necesitate cooperation and technology transfer. As the world becomes more and more accessible, the likelihood of such cooperation increases.

Peter Lang's picture
Peter Lang on Sep 5, 2014

With two decades of experience to draw on, the UNFCCC may be the most influential forum on climate change in the world.”

The UNFCCC has completely failed.  For two decades it has pushed for policies that have virtually no chance of succeding.  With two decades of experience to draw on, you’d think the UNFCCC and the climate NGO’s and activists that drive it would have learnt by now.  You’d think they woul by now realise they must take notice of the pragmatists, the realists and the economic rationalists.  If they don’t they’ll spend another two decades spinning their wheels.

Lewis Perelman's picture
Lewis Perelman on Sep 6, 2014

I largely agree.

The UNFCCC has been a comprehensive failure, not least by starting with a scientifically erroneous definition of “climate change” as equivalent only to AGW. As Roger Pielke Jr. has explained at length, the result of that has only served to politicize science and intensify polarized political conflict.

In attempting to be pragmatic, Schecht implicitly concedes the failure of the UN framework: “As progress is made in pockets outside of the international climate dialogues, the UNFCCC has the potential to become a forum for sharing best practices and will allow pathways towards cooperation that are not yet realized. Furthermore, the discourse should not be stifled by the traditional Global North versus Global South arguments.”

There are ample forums for knowledge sharing and collaboration already. The UNFCCC adds nothing to that. To say that persistent North-South arguments should be avoided is to say that the UN should be avoided.

Peter Lang's picture
Peter Lang on Sep 8, 2014

Lewis Perelman

 Thank you for your response.  I largely agree with you too.

 However, I really think almost everyone is barking up the wrong tree.  The approach pushed by the activists almost certainly will not succeed.  Until they genuinely listen to the 97% of the world population who want lower cost energy not higher cost energy the climate activists and doomsayers will make no progress.

 We can have what nearly everyone wants (except a few special interest groups with their own agendas that they use climate alarmism to further their aims).  But any policy that will raise the cost of energy or damage the world’s economies has no chance of succeeding.  We can’t even get agreement to world trade agreements that would give enormous benefits to nearly all stakeholders, so there is near zero probability of getting broad agreement to treaties to raise the cost of energy and damage all economies that participate in it?

 My submission to the Australian Senate inquiry into repeal of the carbon tax legislation explains why global carbon pricing will not succeed (see Submission No. 2 here). 

There is a way that almost inevitably will succeed.  It has a history of succeeding since humans first began to communicate and trade stone tools.


Lewis Perelman's picture
Lewis Perelman on Sep 8, 2014

You’d think they woul by now realise they must take notice of the pragmatists, the realists and the economic rationalists.”

The “they” you refer to for the most part make a living (often lucrative) pushing climate protection schemes that have no chance of working. Collateral players who are not remunerated directly, are driven by social or other incentives. As long as the proponents are rewarded for that activity, they are likely to keep it up, regardless of the sentiments of the larger majority of the population. They seem to infer that decades of failure warrant redoubling of effort rather than rethinking of strategy. 

Indeed, some seem to consider their efforts to “save the planet” too urgent to be hindered by inefficient democratic processes; dismiss lack of public support as the product of oil company conspiracies; and look admiringly to more authoritarian solutions.

As for your comment below that carbon pricing won’t work (at least to change behavior to the extent demanded), that conclusion is bolstered by Jesse Jenkins’ recent 3-part assessment elsewhere here in TEC.

Peter Lang's picture
Peter Lang on Sep 8, 2014

Lewis Perelman,

Yes. I agree with these comments and appreciate your pragmatic and realist insights.

I followed Jesse Jenkins’ articles and posted quite a few comments on them (at one stage the discussion got sidetracked into debating the evidence for CAGW and the whole sub-thread was deleted, as it should have been in my opinion).  You may be interested in my responses to Jesse Jenkins’ questions he put to me in the comments on Part 1; and also my suggestion for a better way forward.

Spencer Schecht's picture
Spencer Schecht on Sep 14, 2014

The shortcomings of the UNFCCC can serve as an impetus for national and regional policies. By accepting that top down leadership is fumbling on climate change, actors may realize no one is coming to the rescue accept themselves.

Peter Lang's picture
Peter Lang on Sep 15, 2014


Thank you for your reply.

The leadership of the world’s most influential countries are moving to accept the consensus of their people; i.e. that what is most important is economic growth.  Ecoinomic growth is the best way to prepare for nearly all future problems, including major risks to humanity.  Therefore, if CO2 is an issue, the best way to handle the consequences is by having a richer world.  

When the CO2 alarmists accept that econmomic growth will always be the driving force for policy decision making in all sovereign states (195 of them currently), the CO2 alarmists will be willing to accept that they can have what they want (reduce global GHG emissions) as well as allow the 97% majority of the world who want a better life and improved well being for all humanity to have what they want to.

Therefore, any policies that will raise the cost of energy are highly unlikely to succeed.  They almost certainly cannot succeed over the long term.  They cannot gain long and lasting support.

There is an option: it is promote economically rational solutions – for example, stop preaching BS and lies about nuclear power (as just one example of many irrational distortions we’ve imposed on markets and technologies).  We need to remove the impediments that have been inposed on nuclear power as a result of 50 years of anti-nuke misinformation, propaganda and scaremongering.  

When the CO2 alarmists start listening to the realists and pragmatists, then they might begin to make some progress towards achieving what they want.

Most people want a better life for them, their family, their children and their children, and for all people on the planet.  Raising the cost of energy is the opposite of what is needed to meet these objectives and those of 97% of the world’s populartion.  The CO2 alarmists need to understand this basic fact and make addressing it the fundamental first principle of their agenda. 

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