Mother Pelican
A Journal of Solidarity and Sustainability

Vol. 11, No. 3, March 2015
Luis T. Gutiérrez, Editor
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The Rise and Fall of the Kyoto Protocol:
Climate Change as a Political Process

Eija-Riitta Korhola

This article is the executive summary of author's doctoral dissertation
at the Faculty of Biological and Environmental Sciences,
University of Helsinki, Finland, 15 November 2014

This research focuses on climate change as a political process: it describes the Kyoto Protocol, its origins and ratification process in the international climate-diplomatic arena, as well as the climate strategy based on the United Nations’ framework convention on climate change, its results and consequences. Ultimately it seeks to explain why so little has been gained during the climate actions. It views the issue of climate change as a decision-making problem focusing on the relationship between climate science, policy development and politics. This monograph revisits the scientific discussion on the topic and prepares an advanced synthesis and a bigger picture on developing policies for mitigating climate change. Some previously unpublished sources like notes, e-mails, transcripts of meeting minutes and diaries are used for the description and analysis of UN Climate meetings and UNFCCC Conferences of the Parties (COP). Parts of this study feature elements of action research: the writer has participated as an active legislator in the topic at hand, as is the case for emissions trading. The study discusses climate change as a so-called wicked problem – i.e. a multi-faceted bundle of problems.

To sum up, it can be said that the Protocol has not met the expectations. Currently, global emissions are at a more than 50% higher level than during the Kyoto Protocol’s reference year, 1990. In the light of current trends and the annual increase in emissions being around 2.5% on average, global emissions have been assumed to double by2030.

The EU’s situation is only seemingly better. The EU has emphasized to show leadership with its climate commitments and it is, indeed, on the right path with regard to the agreed reduction targets. It has also agreed on a binding 40 percent emissions reduction target by 2030 from 1990 levels. The image of the EU’s success is altered, however, if we take into account not only production- but also consumption-based emissions. When analysing international trade volumes, we have to conclude that the EU’s total emissions have increased. We have simply outsourced our emissions.

Gloomy emission levels do not even demonstrate the nature of the whole situation. During the 2008-2012 Kyoto commitment period, the global financial crisis has aided the reduction of production-based emissions. Therefore, at least some of the reductions have to be treated a result of the economic downturn – i.e. not successful climate measures.

The success of climate actions has been disturbed by a massive and unpredictable globalization. In 1997-2002, nobody guessed that China, India and partly South America's economic growth will absorb industrial production so forcefully out of Europe and the US. The emission share of Kyoto countries was marginalised from 63% at the entry into force to 13-14% under Kyoto II. In addition to the absolute increase in emissions, also a relative failure during the Kyoto period can be observed. In this context, we can speak of carbon intensity, which is the proportion of emissions to a country's GDP (the amount of CO2 produced per GDP unit). This precisely can be considered a significant measure of the trends, as an increase in emissions is not a surprise in itself, when the economy is growing. During recent years, the economy’s natural decarbonisation trend has slowed down and energy intensity actually increased. Production has become dirtier, and emissions per production tonne are increasing largely because of the rapid industrialisation of China and India. Although the growth of Chinese emissions has slowed down in recent years, the peak is not to be expected for 20 years. The rapid economic growth means rapid growth in energy demand too, and coal is the easy available option.

UN Climate Conferences present a series of failures: they have created a conference culture that promotes postponing difficult issues to later meetings. The desired and pursued global treaty has not been produced in this framework. For the time being there is no climate agreement in sight, which would limit the growth of developing countries, to which India and China also belong in international climate diplomacy. The EU accounts for around 10% of global emissions. Emissions are especially increasing in countries which have no mechanisms to restrict them.

The study examines new and interdisciplinary research fields, climate change science in relation to classical operating cultures of science. Characteristics and indicators of fulfilling scientific criteria are discussed. A proposition is that climate change science has faced the risk of floating to the margins of science because of, for instance, immense external pressure and political demand. All the so-called post-normal sciences are more or less political by nature, but in the case of climate science politicisation has been particularly strong.

Perhaps, because of the aforementioned reasons, climate change modelers have also decided to sacrifice the principles of the traditional epistemic ideal of science according to which the argumentation for the approval or discard of research results should only be based on cognitive values, not the desirability of results for, for example, political, moral or personal reasons. The worry of the planet’s future is considered to engage the scientist in such partiality in the matter that treasuring the ideal of value-free science is no longer realistic, and value-ladenness should be recognised and admitted. It has been proposed that the researcher should, while interpreting scientific results, be able to accentuate them in the light of global threats. One of the core arguments of this research is that preserving the epistemic or cognitivist ideal of science is still necessary in climate change science. Otherwise, the error margin of the research risks increase and even multiply, when the value-laden preferences accumulate at the various levels of this interdisciplinary field. Researchers should not make political accentuations or risk assessments on behalf of the politician or decision-maker, but rather restrict their research to the production of information that is as reliable and relevant as possible. One of the problems has been that politicians have not recognised the advocacy nature of post-normal climate science, and instead, they treat it like any other type of scientific research.

Climate change is a problem that we would not even know of without climate science. But this scientific field does not give as frightening a picture of the situation as the catastrophe discourse that has been born out of it. The study examines how science-based climate change is communicated to the wider public and which symbols it is harnessed with. This question is interesting because climate science, perhaps more than any other research field, has made a breakthrough in every-day conversation, politics and even popular culture. Climate change has become Climate Change in upper case, which is leading a life of its own, partly separate from its scientific foundations. It bypassed many concrete and severe problems and a record amount of attention and resources were sacrificed to it. Environmental thinking took some steps backwards while climate change was cannibalising other problems. Still, the main environmental problems are caused by overpopulation, poorly planned land-use and over-exploitation of natural resources.

The complexity of the climate problem is a good example of problems that are called ‘wicked’. These are systemic, self-fuelling tangles of problems, which are multidimensional, hard to define and which get out of hands and easily generate new problems when one tries to solve the old ones. There is not necessarily a certain point, at which the problems could be declared as “solved”. Main reasons for the increase of wicked problems lie in the massive growth of information, globalisation and technological development, i.e. the accelerated speed at which everything happens nowadays, the continuous circle of increasing interaction, consecutive effects and reactions. Wickedness characterises the changed operational environment of politics. We are increasingly concerned with problems, which are wicked or super-wicked. Ultimately, the climate problem can be seen as a problem of decision-making.

The decision-making is one central theme in this study. The aim is to elucidate the difficulties which are arisen when this kind of wicked problem is misunderstood and processed with an outdated and prolonged decision-making procedure. One section of the study consists of analyses of various solution models to combat climate change. In conjunction with these, the underlying ideology and attitude towards the development of events and their inevitability are outlined. The way the problem is defined dictates to a great extent from which direction we should start looking for the solution. The aim is to analyse and criticize the most traditional, the so-called orthodox or climate puritan strategy, which has been represented by the Kyoto model. It has assumed the climate problem to be far simpler than it is in reality, and therefore, it believes one-dimensional policies of restriction to be effective.

Next, EU's climate legislation is addressed, which has evolved with a view of committing to Kyoto. A large number of academic research papers has been written on this topic, and the writer does not even attempt to refer to all of them. Instead, the insider view as a legislator is illustrated. When dealing with politics, coincidence, opportunism, plotting, vanity, personal chemistry, political passion and latest trends affect the final result just as much as content-related factual issues - and we must face these other elements, too.

In this regard, emissions trading is referred to – an issue in which the author has been an active participant having significant responsible positions throughout the process – albeit as a rather critical voice. An evaluation point of a legislator can contribute new elements into the discussion. It explains why such a genius system in theory has not been able to show its strength and results in practice for the EU. The legislative overlaps, mistakes being patched up, and a severe lack of coordination can be considered a key reason. Different correcting measures to fix these overlaps have created an unpredictable and insecure investing environment for the European industry. Also the unilateral economic burden has proven to be problematic, when solving the global problem of climate change has been attempted by local means.

The problems of unilateral action are embodied in the phenomenon of carbon leakage. It is not relevant whether carbon leakage can be proven, but rather that EU climate policy generates a cost increase that competitors do not have. In these circumstances, the EU`s uniteral and expensive climate measures cannot be considered as ’climate’ politcs. It can be called decarbonising of the production or outsourcing the jobs or emissions, but the EU strategy does not meet the expectations of mitigating the emissions globally. The issue is important, because climate has been a dominant environmental question for more than ten years to which politics, businesses, and academic research have attempted to find a solution. The economic costs of climate policies to EU have been hundreds of billions euros - perhaps more one than all other environmental protection programmes combined from 1995 to 2014.

Finally, the aim is to introduce certain alternative solution models and points of view to the climate problem and how to discern it. Future climate policy is more practical and is composed of parallel elements. The special place of carbon dioxide may be challenged and the prevention of pollutants like black carbon will also be placed next to it. Reaching a global agreement is more and more unrealistic. Instead of emission ceilings the major emitters favour decarbonising the economy and technological investments. The EU should approach others and it should stop waiting for others to jump onto the Kyoto bandwagon. Emissions trading may well be functional as an emission-reduction instrument. It could also work well in the reduction of soot, i.e. black carbon, especially in China and India.

Climate policy should be split into pieces that are promoted decisively. Poverty, energy shortages, loss of biodiversity, desertification or the problems of developing countries cannot be reduced to a mere climate problem. Scientific uncertainty is an acceptable fact of life, and the discussion on the causes of climate change will continue. We will never reach a stage in which research should end and politics should start based on this. Both have to be advanced simultaneously, also while uncertainty reigns. This poses a challenge to politics: it has to be so robust, sturdy or grounded in certainty and focused on relevant issues, that it does not have to be regretted significantly when scientific truths change.

The study is an exceptionally wide-ranging review to several directions, which many of them alone could be topics of a doctoral thesis. It is, however, a conscious choice in which the writer has benefited from the opportunity of crossing the frontiers between research and political decision-making. The aim is to demonstrate one of the major issues that the climate-scientific discussion suffers from, i.e. the lack an overall picture. Both scientists and politicians suffer from this. In decision-making the issue is rather aggravating. Most parties assume things on behalf of one another and think too highly of each other’s abilities. There is much more uncertainty and persuasion in the field of climate policy than it is commonly assumed. Only a broad overall picture will reveal the extent the climate change discussion is based on the assumptions concerning other people's knowledge. Hence they form a network of assumptions of which soundness should be assessed since significant and publicly financed political endeavors are grounded on it.

Note: The complete text of the dissertation is available online.


Eija-Riitta Korhola is a Finnish politician and former Member of the European Parliament, first with the Finnish Christian Democrats 1999–2003 and then with the National Coalition Party, both part of the European People's Party, until 2014. During her MEP years, Korhola served on the Committee on the Environment, Public Health and Food Safety. She was also member of the ACP-EU Joint Parliamentary Assembly and a deputy for the Committees on Budgetary Control and Foreign Affairs. For more information about this author, visit her website. She can be contacted via email at

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