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The Kyoto Protocol

Named after the Japanese city where it was concluded in 1997, the Kyoto Protocol is an international agreement to address global warming and delay climate change - it aims to reduce the total greenhouse gas emissions of developed countries (and countries with economies in transition) to 5 per cent below the level they were in 1990.

Led by the United Nations, the Protocol sets targets for the greenhouse gas emissions of developed countries for the period 2008 to 2012 (the first commitment period). Different countries have different targets they have to achieve. New Zealand's target is to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions to the level they were in 1990, or take responsibility for excess emissions.

The Kyoto Protocol had to be signed and ratified by 55 countries (including those responsible for at least 55 per cent of the developed world's 1990 carbon dioxide emissions) before it could enter into force. This was achieved after Russia ratified in late 2004, with the Protocol entering into force on 16 February 2005. New Zealand ratified on 19 December 2002. Only countries that ratify the Protocol are bound by it.

The text of the Kyoto Protocol is available from the UNFCCC website .

How does the Kyoto Protocol create emissions reductions?

The Kyoto Protocol contains legally binding emissions limitation or reduction objectives (targets) for developed countries. For the first commitment period (the five years from 2008 to 2012), individual developed country targets range from eight per cent below, to ten per cent above 1990 levels.

Parties are allocated an assigned amount of emissions units equal to their target multiplied by the number of years in the commitment period. For example, in the first commitment period New Zealand is allocated Assigned Amount Units (AAUs) equal to five times its 1990 emissions levels.

Parties may implement domestic policies and measures to limit or reduce emissions to a level equivalent to or less than their assigned amount, or take responsibility for any excess emissions through the flexibility mechanisms provided for in the Kyoto Protocol. The flexibility mechanisms are: International Emissions Trading, Joint Implementation, and the Clean Development Mechanism. 

These mechanisms allow developed countries to purchase emissions units from other developed countries or from emissions reduction projects implemented in other countries and use these for compliance with their Kyoto Protocol obligations.

The flexibility mechanisms thus allow a country to comply with its target even though its domestic emissions may exceed its assigned amount. The Kyoto Protocol recognises that reducing global greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere can be achieved by reducing the quantity of greenhouse gases emitted or removing carbon dioxide presently in the atmosphere by increasing and maintaining carbon sinks (for example, managing forests).  

How does the Kyoto Protocol affect New Zealand?

New Zealand is a Party to the Kyoto Protocol, having ratified it in 2002.  Our ongoing obligations under the Protocol include:

  • Submitting an annual inventory of greenhouse gas emissions to UNFCCC (Article 7);
  • Formulating, implementing and publishing regular updates to national and regional programmes containing measures to mitigate climate change and measures to facilitate adequate adaptation to climate change (Article 10); and
  • Cooperating internationally in relation to policies and measures including scientific and technical research and development and facilitating public awareness and access to information on climate change.

In the first commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol (2008-2012) New Zealand committed to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels on average over the five year commitment period, or take responsibility for any emissions over these levels.

Our latest greenhouse gas inventory shows that New Zealand's total emissions have increased between 1990 and 2010. The latest net position report projects New Zealand’s net emissions over the first commitment period. The net position estimate provides an indication, using best available information at the time of projection, on how New Zealand is heading towards meeting its commitment under article 3.1 of the Kyoto Protocol.

For the period 2013-2020, developed countries have the option of signing up to a Second Commitment Period (CP2) under the Kyoto Protocol or taking their pledges under the Convention Track.  The Government has decided that New Zealand will take its next commitment under the Convention Framework, aligning its climate change efforts with developed and developing countries which collectively are responsible for 85% of global emissions. This includes the United States, Japan, China, India, Canada, Brazil, Russia and many other major economies.

New Zealand remains a member of the Kyoto Protocol with all other obligations remaining, including meeting our first commitment period target.  We also intend to apply the Kyoto framework of rules to our unconditional responsibility target of 5 per cent below 1990 emissions by 2020.

Negotiations for a future international agreement

In December 2007, The United Nations Climate Change Conference in Bali culminated in the adoption of the Bali Road Map, which set the direction for securing a post-2012 agreement in Copenhagen in December 2009.

The Bali Road Map divides the negotiations into two tracks: the Ad-hoc Working Group on Further Commitments for Annex I Parties under the Kyoto Protocol (AWG-KP), and the Ad Hoc Working Group on Long-Term Cooperative Action under the Convention (AWG-LCA). The AWG-KP works on future commitments of Parties listed in Annex B to the Kyoto Protocol, while the AWG-LCA works on a broad negotiation under the UNFCCC involving all countries (developed and developing) on matters relating to the Bali Action Plan. The Bali Action Plan includes developing a shared vision, including a long-term global goal and looks at ways to enhance mitigation, adaptation, technology and finance in the context of addressing climate change.

These two Ad-hoc Working Groups closed at the 18th Conference of the Parties (COP 18) in Doha in December 2012.  Parties are now focussed on negotiating a new comprehensive global agreement applicable to all Parties by December 2015, to come into force in 2020.  These negotiations are taking place under the Ad-hoc Working Group on the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action (ADP).

The Copenhagen Accord

New Zealand has associated with the Copenhagen Accord, a political declaration that was noted by the Conference of the Parties at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen in December 2009.

The Copenhagen Accord is a constructive step forward to developing a comprehensive global deal on climate change. The Copenhagen Accord has strong support from both developed and developing countries and represents agreement at the highest political level for a global response to climate change. Joining the Accord reinforces New Zealand’s ongoing commitment to doing our fair share to resolving this global problem.

For more information on the international climate change negotiations visit the International Climate Change Policy page.

Polices and measures

2020 Targets  

New Zealand will take responsibility for reducing emissions to 5 per cent below 1990 levels by 2020.  New Zealand is also prepared to take on a conditional responsibility target for greenhouse gas emissions reductions of between 10 per cent and 20 per cent below 1990 levels by 2020.

A ‘responsibility target’ means that it is expected that New Zealand will meet its target through a mixture of domestic emission reductions, the storage of carbon in forests, and the purchase of emission reduction units in other countries.

Further information on the conditions associated with the 2020 target is available on the Government’s Climate Change Information website.


The New Zealand Emissions Trading Scheme (NZ ETS) is the principal tool to help New Zealand meet its international obligations in the most cost-effective way. The NZ ETS introduces a price on greenhouse gas emissions to provide an incentive for people to reduce those emissions and plant forests to absorb carbon dioxide.

Other polices and measures

In various sectors (such as energy, forestry and agriculture), the Government is also undertaking a range of other policies and measures that are contributing to reducing greenhouse gas emissions. This approach involves sector-specific agencies who are responsible for policies and measures within their sectors.  Many of these policies and measures have co-benefits; for example they may help to improve public health, reduce erosion or save money.

Relevant publications

Sixth National Communication

The Sixth National Communication (December 2013) updates New Zealand’s progress towards its commitments under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and towards implementation of the Kyoto Protocol. It is a mandatory requirement under the UNFCCC and the Kyoto Protocol. The report covers all aspects of New Zealand’s commitments under the UNFCCC including information on:

  • trends in emissions and removals of greenhouse gases
  • policy measures targeted at reducing greenhouse gases and protecting and enhancing sinks
  • projections of emissions and removals of greenhouse gases
  • vulnerability to the impacts of climate change and adaptation measures
  • financial contributions and technology transfer to assist developing countries address climate change
  • efforts undertaken to collaborate on and promote climate change research and monitoring
  • public participation and awareness raising.

Included in the same publication is the Report on the Global Climate Observing System which is required to be submitted with the national communication. 

 Net Position Report

The net position estimate provides an indication, using best available information at the time of projection, on how New Zealand is heading towards meeting its commitment under article 3.1 of the Kyoto Protocol. It is produced each year by the Ministry for the Environment. The net position is not a requirement of the UNFCCC or Kyoto Protocol.

The net position is calculated consistent with the Public Finance Act 1989 (section 26U) that requires the net position to incorporate to the fullest extent possible, all government decisions and all other circumstances that may have a material effect on the projection and that can be quantified with reasonable certainty.

New Zealand’s net position under the Kyoto Protocol

Last updated: 15 April 2010