The UNFCCC was a theoretical framework and lacked the substantive details required for a comprehensive emissions-reduction plan. All eyes were therefore set to the meeting of the third Conference of the Parties (COP) at Kyoto, where a legally-binding deal on emissions reductions for developed countries was to be agreed. By the mid-1990s, recent political developments had attracted a lot of international interest in climate change. The Second Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was released in 1996, highlighting with greater certainty the damaging effects of climate change. However, despite growing scientific consensus, it remained the norm for industries to combat measures against climate change.

By 1997 the wave of post-Cold War optimism which propelled the initial climate talks had evaporated. Concerns over the economic impact of GHG reductions were steadily rising. For many involved in the process, Kyoto was seen as a crucial turning point. Could the world’s economic powers unite and agree on a mutual reduction of GHG emissions? 

We often forget that the Kyoto Protocol was not expected to pass, as the protocol had to capture a minimum of 55% of global emissions in order to be implemented. This required a heroic effort by the European Union to convince Russia and Japan to ratify the protocol. This period witnessed the exit of the United States from the international climate policy scene. US Vice-President Al Gore signed the Kyoto Protocol on behalf of the United States, while simultaneously the US Senate passed a resolution barring participation in any international agreement that would impose legal emission reduction obligations – a remarkable contrast within the same national government. The Byrd-Hagel Resolution (1997) passed the US Senate unanimously by a stunning margin of 95-0. The United States withdrew from the Kyoto Protocol in 2001, under the auspices of President George W. Bush.

The Kyoto Protocol should be hailed as a remarkable achievement – the first global-scale agreement of its kind – but it exposed the differences in opinions that had emerged over what a universal climate deal should entail. Domestic economic and energy security concerns topped the policy agenda for many, and, increasingly, parties disagreed over the exemption of developing countries from binding emission reductions. As a result, countries began setting targets conditional on the reciprocity of other nations. Seemingly cast aside, and with initial hopes of international assistance severely dampened, developing countries interpreted this lack of leadership as a fundamental failure of the UNFCCC.

The absence of the US following Kyoto firmly rooted the European Union as the global steward for environmental progress. It became a stalwart defender of optimism that an effective global deal was within reach. However, it is often overlooked that the US was much more the architect of the UNFCCC and even the Kyoto Protocol than the European Union at the time, largely due to the efforts of Vice-President Al Gore. The rise of the European Union as the primary driver of climate negotiations only truly began following the US’ secession from Kyoto. Misinformation and scepticism over the credibility of climate change science in the United States led to a regression in environmentally proactive policies.


Tim Dobermann is the Project Lead for Research & Policy at SDSN Youth. He is a Country Economist for the International Growth Centre and has participated widely in both research and in policy dialogues pertaining to economic development and climate change. He holds a postgraduate degree in economics from the London School of Economics (LSE). All opinions expressed on the blog are the opinions of the authors and not that of SDSN Youth.