Kyoto Conference on Greenhouse Gases Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Representatives of more than 150 nations gathered in Kyoto, Japan, to negotiate a protocol committing signatory nations to reducing their production of greenhouse gases over the next fifteen years.

Summary of Event

Global warming, or climate change, became a major international issue in the last two decades of the twentieth century. There were several developments in the period since World War II that contributed to the emergence of global warming onto the world scene. Perhaps the most important of these was the development of mathematical modeling by scientists, which, by charting the changes in the global climate, particularly within recent decades, enabled climatologists to predict likely trends. Utilizing an ever-widening meteorological record, which through new techniques such as ice cores could be projected back millennia, scientists were able to establish patterns of climate change at least since the last major glacial period. Kyoto Protocol Greenhouse effect;Kyoto Protocol Global warming;Kyoto Protocol Climate change;Kyoto Protocol United Nations;environmental policy [kw]Kyoto Conference on Greenhouse Gases (Dec. 1-11, 1997) [kw]Conference on Greenhouse Gases, Kyoto (Dec. 1-11, 1997) [kw]Greenhouse Gases, Kyoto Conference on (Dec. 1-11, 1997) Kyoto Protocol Greenhouse effect;Kyoto Protocol Global warming;Kyoto Protocol Climate change;Kyoto Protocol United Nations;environmental policy [g]East Asia;Dec. 1-11, 1997: Kyoto Conference on Greenhouse Gases[09810] [g]Japan;Dec. 1-11, 1997: Kyoto Conference on Greenhouse Gases[09810] [c]Diplomacy and international relations;Dec. 1-11, 1997: Kyoto Conference on Greenhouse Gases[09810] [c]Environmental issues;Dec. 1-11, 1997: Kyoto Conference on Greenhouse Gases[09810] [c]United Nations;Dec. 1-11, 1997: Kyoto Conference on Greenhouse Gases[09810] Gore, Al Eizenstat, Stuart Bush, George H. W. [p]Bush, George H. W.;environmental policy

These scientific developments led, in 1988, to the establishment of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), under the sponsorship of the United Nations and the World Meteorological Organization. The IPCC’s mission was to bring together all scientific research that bore on the question of climate change. By 1990, the IPCC had come up with its first “assessment report” on the scientific research, embracing the work of some two thousand scientists by the end of the twentieth century. Reports began to come in of warming temperatures everywhere, increases in sea temperatures, and melting glaciers throughout the world—all data that seemed to confirm the hypothesis that the Earth was growing warmer than it had been for several centuries.

By 1992, many people who were dedicated to the health and welfare of the environment were expressing deep concern about the significance of the findings on climate change. Under the sponsorship of the United Nations, a meeting attended by representatives of 172 countries met in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in June of 1992, to express their concerns about the environment. Some 108 heads of state, including U.S. president George H. W. Bush, attended; Bush addressed the delegates and promised that the United States would continue to lead in developing policies that would protect the environment.

In 1995, the leading nations of the developed world agreed that a further international meeting was needed. The IPCC had produced a second assessment report on the scientific data that confirmed all the dire predictions of the first report. The Framework Convention on Climate Change, adopted by the United Nations in 1992, Framework Convention on Climate Change, U.N. (1992) had been signed by the major developed nations, including those belonging to the European Union. This agreement, which entered into force in 1994, did not establish binding targets of reduced emissions of greenhouse gases, however. By 1997, there was general agreement that these targets were needed.

Signatories to the Kyoto Protocol of 1997 agreed to reduce emissions of six greenhouse gases from all sources, including industry.

(Jim West)

Meanwhile, most scientists had come to agree that the greenhouse gases produced by industrial activity in the developed world were largely responsible for the changes that were occurring in the Earth’s climate. Accordingly, efforts were directed at ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, particularly carbon dioxide. In particular, the goal was the reduction of greenhouse gases to the level prevailing in 1990, and the question became primarily one of how to meet that goal. Most authorities agreed that the burning of fossil fuels (coal, oil, natural gas) was the chief cause of the rising temperatures that, if not somehow controlled, could result in disastrous environmental changes. Besides rising temperatures that could affect the way the environment was exploited by humankind, melting glaciers could result in a major rise in sea level. This, in turn, could inundate many coastal communities.

There were two major disagreements at the Kyoto Conference. The first was over the specific targets for greenhouse gas reductions that each nation would agree to adopt. The European nations advocated higher targets than did the United States, which was prepared to accept the emissions level of 1990 as a goal, while the Europeans wanted to reduce emissions up to 15 percent below that level. Further, the United States argued that unless the developing nations were included (chiefly China, India, and Brazil), industrial activity would simply move from the developed to the developing nations and do nothing to cut emissions worldwide. These disagreements to some extent reflected the different circumstances of Europe, where the collapse of the Soviet Union and the closing of many of its outmoded plants had already sharply cut emissions, as compared with the United States. Moreover, the developing nations argued that cutting emissions all over the world would merely prevent the economic development that Europe, Japan, and the United States had already achieved, making the developing nations bear the brunt of the movement to control emissions.

The United States stuck by its position, sending Vice President Al Gore to the meeting to support the argument. Further, the Americans supported a trading system under which those who had achieved substantial reductions would be given a credit that could be used by those who, for whatever reason, were unable to bring down their emissions. The disagreements led to breaking up the negotiations into small groups in which individual nations worked for their own advantage. Nevertheless, in the end, a measure of agreement was achieved when the protocol had been ratified by fifty-five countries that had been responsible for 55 percent of the emissions produced in 1990. Since the United States had produced more than 25 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions in 1990, its participation was highly important.

In the end, an agreement was reached in which various reduction targets (mostly around 5 percent below 1990 levels) were assigned to different countries. The U.S. proposal to allow trading reduction credits among different countries was adopted. However, the future of the agreement remained uncertain, because even though it had been signed, it still had to be ratified by the signatories. A U.S. senator who attended the meetings indicated that its prospects in the Senate were remote.

The agreement was subject to heavy criticism, especially by representatives of big industry. In the United States, these had grouped together in the Global Climate Coalition to oppose actions to reduce greenhouse gases. The coalition argued that the scientific evidence of global warming was not as overwhelming as the IPCC maintained, particularly because a portion of global warming is caused not by carbon dioxide but rather by water vapor in the upper atmosphere, so reducing carbon dioxide emissions would not avoid that climate-changing effect; and that the cost of any changes to control greenhouse gas emissions would have a decidedly negative effect on the economies of the developed world. By contrast, environmental organizations strongly supported the goals set by the protocol.


As it happened, further negotiations were required until enough nations had ratified the Kyoto Protocol, an especially arduous task when the change of political leadership in the United States in late 2000 led to its withdrawal from the agreement. However, tense negotiations in the early years of the twenty-first century led to its ratification by the requisite 55 percent of producers of greenhouse gas emissions in 1990.

The Kyoto Conference represented the full emergence of environmental issues on the international stage. Although the agreement was less than perfect, and although the United States refused to participate, it signaled widespread recognition that economic development has its dark side, one that could in the long run overwhelm its beneficiaries. Kyoto Protocol Greenhouse effect;Kyoto Protocol Global warming;Kyoto Protocol Climate change;Kyoto Protocol United Nations;environmental policy

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Fisher, Dana. National Governance and the Global Climate Change Regime. Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, 2004. Useful and compact summary of some aspects of the Kyoto process.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gore, Al. An Inconvenient Truth: The Planetary Emergency of Global Warming and What We Can Do About It. Emmaus, Pa.: Rodale Press, 2006. Gore makes the science of global warming accessible. Includes graphs.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ierland, Ekko C. van, Joyeeta Gupta, and Marcel T. J. Kok, eds. Issues in International Climate Policy. Northhampton, Mass.: Edward Elgar, 2003. Collection of essays on the topic of climate policy from a large number of specialists. Valuable for readers interested in the details of international approaches to global warming.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Climate Change 1995. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996. A large volume, particularly focused on the economic and social effects of climate change.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Global Warming: Economic Dimensions and Policy Responses. Paris: Author, 1995. Compact and neat summary of the major issues affecting the Kyoto Protocol.

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Categories: History