Ryōan-ji, a Zen temple in northwest Kyoto, is site to Japan's most famous rock garden. Janis Malcomson

Kyoto since the Protocol

Revisiting an important waypoint in the story of climate change

Illustrations courtesy of Janis Malcomson

From 812 May 2019, scientists will return to the scene of the Kyoto Protocol signing for the 49th session of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Alongside, the Global Landscape Forum (GLF) Kyoto event will explore landscape-based solutions for the climate challenge. Sign up online or register for the free digital edition.

It’s an interesting quirk of international summits that they can confer accolades or notoriety on the cities in which they take place. In environmental circles, the city of Rio de Janeiro likely holds a rosy association with the 1992 Earth Summit and the agreements it forged, while Copenhagen is tarnished with frustration and disappointment for many, as the site where climate negotiations broke down and failed to deliver a binding treaty in 2009.

Perhaps few cities have taken the association quite so far as Kyoto, which hosted the 1997 U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) conference that birthed the Kyoto Protocol – the first legally binding international treaty to cut greenhouse gases (GHGs). Since then, the city has positioned itself as a world leader in urban resilience and sustainability.

In 2005, Kyoto was the first city in Japan to enact an ordinance specifically addressing global warming. In 2016, it was selected as one of the world’s 100 Resilient Cities by the Rockefeller Foundation. The local government has even repurposed “Kyoto” as a verb, meaning “to act in an environmentally friendly way,” and a city-wide campaign “Do You Kyoto?” puts the pressure on residents to behave as befits the city’s ‘clean green’ aspirations.

Kimono-wearing women are a common site on the city’s streets. Janis Malcomson


The Kyoto Protocol was a landmark in climate change negotiations, says Agus Sari, an Indonesian environmental entrepreneur and former member of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), who attended the conference where the deal was made. “It was a big deal to reach an agreement like that for the first time, and the Protocol is still a big deal even now,” he says. “At the time, I remember that everyone in the room was excited – it felt like an amazing thing. We all clapped, we were really happy.”

But the jury is still out over Kyoto’s success, Sari notes. While all 36 of the countries that committed to the Protocol complied with their emissions targets, the largest GHG emitters, the U.S. and China, didn’t commit to it. What’s more, 10 of the countries only achieved their targets by buying carbon credits, and further reductions may have only been achieved by “carbon leakage” – shifting emissions to developing countries rather than stopping them altogether.

The Protocol also fails to take into account the fast-rising emissions from aviation and shipping. Some observers also argue that without the financial crisis of 2008 slowing economic growth, the 36 countries would have been unlikely to have met their collective target.

However, Kyoto made an important start on getting countries to agree to binding commitments, says Markku Kanninen, an IPCC member and Professor of Tropical Silviculture at the University of Helsinki, who also attended the Kyoto conference. He believes the 2015 Paris Agreement was then able to pick up these commitments and take them further.

“Twenty-five years ago, when we signed the Protocol, we already knew what we needed to do, but our societies were not ready to take action,” he says. “These processes are very slow; I understand that now. That’s why I am more hopeful now than I was at the time when the Kyoto Protocol was signed, because I see that things are finally moving in the right direction.”

Kyoto is home to more than 100 Michelin-starred restaurants, many of which focus on the city’s famous kaiseki cuisine. Janis Malcomson


Kyoto’s moment in the sustainability spotlight didn’t spring from nowhere. The 1,200-year-old former Imperial capital has always been something of a green haven. Three-quarters of the city is covered in forest. Most inner-city rivers are highly polluted, but the Kamo River, which runs through Kyoto’s downtown district, is glassy and clear, home to fish species that can only survive in clean water.

The ancient city boasts a fifth of the country’s national treasures, temples and shrines, including 14 World Cultural Heritage sites, and its beauty and heritage have always been draw-cards with tourists, attracting around 50 million visitors every year. The city is also home to the kaiseki cuisine tradition, which involves multiple courses of seasonal, locally-sourced food and places emphasis on balance and harmony with nature.

Since 1997, the city has stepped things up even further. “Kyoto City is very proud of the Protocol,” says Mika Shimizu, a professor at Kyoto University who was involved in drafting the city’s just-announced Resilient City Strategy. “It was a historic event, and there is a strong feeling of responsibility towards it,” she says. “So I think the local government has been working very hard on environmental initiatives because they feel they need to lead the way in these kinds of strategies.”

In 2003, the government set up a large-scale solar power system. The following year, it established facilities to help people fuel their cars from used cooking oil. It also adopted a program to promote the use of electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles.

Bicycling is a popular mode of transport in Kyoto, which is consistently deemed on of the most bike-friendly cities in the world. Janis Malcomson

The city is a leader in environmental education: in 2005, the city government began delivering a global warming curriculum in elementary schools, which focused on the ‘big picture’ of warming as well as eco-friendly changes that students can make in their daily lives. In 2010 all municipal elementary schools adopted the curriculum, and 11,000 students now take the classes every year.

The Kyoto Protocol entered into force on 16 February 2005. Since then, the 16th of every month has been designated “Do You Kyoto?” day in the city, when people are encouraged to take environmentally friendly actions. Some of the citizens’ collective efforts include ‘No Car Day,’ where people opt for public transport instead of personal cars; ‘Lights Down,’ which aims for everyone to turn off their outdoor lights throughout the Kyoto region; and ‘Kyoto Light Dinner,’ where restaurant-goers across the city enjoy dinner by candlelight instead of using electric lighting.

The Mikayo Ecology Center, which opened in 2002 to commemorate the signing of the Protocol, is an important hub for the city’s environmental education and protection efforts. The venue itself is an impressive feat of green building, including solar panels, rainwater collection, geothermal energy generation, outer walls with high thermal insulation, and the use of natural materials and recycled construction materials. It also has its own small-scale rice field, farm and pond.

In 2010, the city government set the ambitious goal of reducing its GHG emissions by 25 percent by 2020 and 45 percent by 2030 compared with 1990 levels – one of the highest targets in the world. Although economic growth has increased energy demand, the city is well on track to meeting the 2020 target, having already reduced emissions by 24 percent in 2017, says Shimizu.

However, Shimizu notes that while emissions from transportation and industry have declined, they’re actually increasing in the small business and household categories. “So that’s one of the challenges for meeting the 2030 target,” she says.

Kyoto’s residents are generally well-educated and engaged in environmentally-friendly activities like recycling, she notes. But she’s still hoping to see “more collaborative efforts to link research and civic activities to city policies” to take Kyoto’s initiatives to the next level and meet the 2040 targets – ensuring that the city’s reputation for environmental leadership stays well-deserved.

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carbon emissionscitiesclimate changecommitmentsemissionsGLF KyotoIPCCJapanKyotoKyoto Protocolsustainabilitysustainable citiesurban growth



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