Common Responsibility: The Failure of Kyoto

Harvard International Review, Summer 2012 | Go to article overview

Common Responsibility: The Failure of Kyoto


Over the last, two decades, environment issues, specifically those of climate change, have been imbued with an increasing sense of urgency, and as a result are occupying a more prominent space in the global political consciousness. Both the high incidence of sudden and devastating natural disasters in recent years and the incremental, yet significant, changes to ecosystems worldwide have lent credibility to this analysis, and have spurred strong reactions from concerned individuals around the world and somewhat more modest ones from the industrial sector. Given the general consensus regarding the importance of addressing climate change as a global issue, the lukewarm response to this prob1em from international actors appears on the surface both surprising and alarming. However.the relative inaction of the global community in the face of climate change obscures the difficulties of addressing an issue that acknowledges neither governments nor borders, and in which accountability is obscured by regional politics and historical claims. Perhaps the best symbol of these difficulties is the Kyoto Protocol, the foremost international climate agreement. This accord, linked to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, was to be a statement of intent of international cooperation in dealing with climate change and, symbolically, on environmental issues. Instead, it has been mired in structural problems that have hampered its legitimacy to this day.

The Kyoto Protocol was adopted in Japan in 1997 and enacted in 2005, with the goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions worldwide. It put forth emission reduction targets for 37 nations, known as "Annex I parties all of which are industrialized or in the process of industrializing and most of which are located in Europe. Crucially, the United States withdrew from the agreement twenty days into the George W. Bush presidency, arguing that "the Kyoto Protocol is fundamentally flawed, and is not the correct vehicle with which to produce real environmental solutions, Ten years after this event, the protocol has been dealt a further blow by the decision of several key members, chiefly Japan, not to renew their participation and Canada's subsequent and effective withdrawal in December 2011, a year before its expiration.

The criticism most commonly leveled at the Kyoto Protocol, both by the United States in 2001 and by Japan and Canada in 2011, is that it is not far-reaching enough in its restrictive measures; after the departure of the United States, the protocol only accounted for 30 percent of the global greenhouse gas emissions, as India and China, two of the world's largest emitters, were never subject to binding targets because of their status as nations that had not yet fully industrialized. At the heart of this tension is a problem central to the Kyoto Protocol's very conception, the notion of "common, but differentiated responsibilities" outlined in Article 10. Detractors of the protocol have claimed that certain high emitting countries have been able to hide behind this principle to guarantee their exclusion from any concrete policy change.

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