As every student of diplomacy knows, broad international agreements are far easier to craft than specific ones, especially when compliance involves potentially costly domestic actions. While committing the United States and more than 150 other nations to the goal of stabilizing atmospheric greenhouse gas (GHG) concentrations at a level that would “prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system,” the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (FCCC) was mostly silent on implementation. The Kyoto Protocol is an attempt to move beyond the convention's general obligations and establish specific reduction targets for industrial nations for an initial accounting period, 2008–12.
Scholars will no doubt continue to debate whether an alternative protocol design, perhaps one starting with more modest emission reductions among a broader group of nations, might ultimately have yielded stronger results. However, neither the limitations of the protocol's architecture, nor even the gaping hole in coverage among industrial nations caused by the withdrawal of the United States from the agreement alters the fact that, once ratified, the Kyoto Protocol is likely to endure for many years as the only functioning international mechanism for achieving near-term emissions reductions.
A glance into the crystal ball suggests we are entering a period of relative quiescence in the international climate policy process. During this period, the focus of attention will likely shift to the domestic actions undertaken in industrial nations.