The first big environmental agreement of the new millennium

Sayonara: what the Tokio Protocol left on the OECD countries

  • In force between 1997 and 2020, this treaty sought to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

  • After its finalization, and in the midst of the implementation of the Paris Agreement, its successor, we will review the effects of this environmental agreement on OECD member countries.

By Fabián A. Araneda Baltierra, University of Chicago. December 5, 2022.

On December 11, 1997, in Kyoto, the industrialized countries undertook to implement a set of measures to reduce greenhouse gases. The signatory governments of these countries agreed to reduce polluting emissions by an average of 5% between 2008 and 2012, based on 1990 levels. The agreement entered into force on February 16, 2005, following ratification by Russia on November 18, 2004.

The Kyoto Protocol on climate change is an international agreement aimed at reducing emissions of six global warming gases: carbon dioxide (CO2), methane gas (CH4) and nitrous oxide (N2O), as well as three fluorinated industrial gases: Hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), Perfluorocarbons (PFCs) and Sulfur Hexafluoride (SF6), by approximately 5%, within the period from 2008 to 2012, compared to emissions as of 1990. For example, if the contamination of these gases in 1990 reached 100%, by the end of 2012 it should be 95%.

But what happened to the OECD member countries that signed the Tokyo Protocol? To begin with, and due to its military incursion into Ukraine, Russia was expelled from the OECD and from that source it is not possible to access its environmental data related to greenhouse gas emissions. But for the rest of the OECD member countries, an overview of the effect of their participation in the Tokyo Protocol will be given throughout this article.

For context, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) is an international co-operation organization composed of 38 countries whose objective is to coordinate their economic and social policies. The OECD was founded in 1961 and is headquartered at the Château de la Muette in Paris, France. At the OECD, representatives of member countries meet to exchange information and harmonize policies with the aim of maximizing their economic growth and contributing to their development and that of non-member countries.

United States: The Great Outlier

As we begin to analyze environmental data related to greenhouse gases, hereinafter GHG, the first thing that strikes us is the disparity between the United States and the rest of the OECD member countries. Consolidating the data over a 30-year period from 1990 to 2019 shows that the United States accounts for 42.9% of total GHG emissions for that period. Taking that figure to an annual average, the United States has emitted nearly 7 billion tons of GHGs annually. The next country, much further behind, is Japan, which averages about 1.4 billion tons of GHG per year, one-fifth of what the United States emitted in the same period.

Moreover, when we look at the temporal evolution of GHG emissions in the United States, we see that they have not decreased significantly, but rather have consolidated upward through the years. Although over the last 10 years there is a decreasing trend, the overall GHG emissions still higher than 1990 for the country. Because of this we are taking United States out of any further analysis and it is clear that 5% reduction objective on GHG emissions was not achieved.

The Big Picture

Leaving the United States out of the equation, we can see that, initially, the effect of the Tokyo Protocol was negligible: from 8853 billion tons of GHG in 1990, it went to 9419 million tons in 2012. An increase of 6%. But all was not lost.

The second period of the Kyoto Protocol began in 2013, with the Doha amendment, and lasted until 2020. In this second part, the countries committed themselves to a reduction of at least 18% in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, again taking 1990 as the reference year. However, polluting countries such as the United States, Russia and Canada decided not to sign this extension.

When we now look at the results of the Tokyo Protocol in 2019, we see that it was effective, but insufficient: total GHG emissions decreased by only 3.4% compared to 1990.

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And the Winner Is...

Although the overall picture is not very encouraging in relation to the results of the Tokyo Protocol, there is good news in particular terms when we review the performance of some OECD member countries. In particular when we look at other G7 countries, or member countries of the European Union, the data is encouraging.

The big winner is United Kingdom, in the 30 year span between 1990 and 2019 its GHG emissions went down a 44%, way more than the Tokio Protocol goals. It is closely followed by the Germany, which in the same period diminished its GHG emissions by 36%.

But also countries that have shown a high GHG emission rate, such as Japan, second only to the USA in emissions, have shown a positive performance over the last 30 years. The "land of the rising sun" has diminished its GHG emissions by 5% in the same span of time, according to the Tokio Protocol Goals

Countries such as Italy, France and the UK also stand out, showing significant decrease in its GHG emissions.

There will always be Paris

It was at the Climate Summit (COP21) in Paris (2015) that the pact that would replace the Kyoto protocol after its expiration in 2020 was forged. According to the European Union "it is the first universal and legally binding agreement on climate change adopted at the Paris Climate Conference (COP21) in December 2015".

Its objectives are to keep global warming levels well below 2 degrees Celsius, with the intention of reaching a limitation of 1.5 degrees Celsius. The urgent goal? Zero net carbon emissions by 2050.