United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change

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United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change
Drafted 9 May 1992
Signed 4 June 1992
Location New York City, New York, U.S.
Effective 21 March 1994
Condition ratification by 50 states
Signatories 165
Ratifiers 197 (all Member states of the United Nations, as well as State of Palestine, Niue, Cook Islands and the European Union)[1]
Depositary Secretary-General of the United Nations
Languages Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Russian and Spanish

The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) is an international environmental treaty negotiated at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro from 3 to 14 June 1992, then entered into force on 21 March 1994. The UNFCCC objective is to "stabilize greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system".[2] The framework set no binding limits on greenhouse gas emissions for individual countries and contains no enforcement mechanisms. Instead, the framework outlines how specific international treaties (called "protocols" or "Agreements") may be negotiated to set binding limits on greenhouse gases.

Initially an Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee produced the text of the Framework Convention during its meeting in New York from 30 April to 9 May 1992. The UNFCCC was adopted on 9 May 1992, and opened for signature on 4 June 1992.[3] UNFCCC has 197 parties as of December 2015. The convention enjoys broad legitimacy, largely due to its nearly universal membership.[4]

The parties to the convention have met annually from 1995 in Conferences of the Parties (COP) to assess progress in dealing with climate change. In 1997, the Kyoto Protocol was concluded and established legally binding obligations for developed countries to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions in the period 2008-2012.[5] The 2010 Cancún agreements state that future global warming should be limited to below 2.0 °C (3.6 °F) relative to the pre-industrial level.[6] The Protocol was amended in 2012 to encompass the period 2013-2012 in the Doha Amendment, which -as of December 2015- not entered into force. In 2015 the Paris Agreement was adopted, governing emission reductions from 2020 on through commitments of countries in ambitious Nationally Determined Contributions.

One of the first tasks set by the UNFCCC was for signatory nations to establish national greenhouse gas inventories of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and removals, which were used to create the 1990 benchmark levels for accession of Annex I countries to the Kyoto Protocol and for the commitment of those countries to GHG reductions. Updated inventories must be regularly submitted by Annex I countries.

The UNFCCC is also the name of the United Nations Secretariat charged with supporting the operation of the Convention, with offices in Haus Carstanjen, and UN Campus [known as: Langer Eugen] Bonn, Germany. From 2006 to 2010 the head of the secretariat was Yvo de Boer. On 17 May 2010, Christiana Figueres from Costa Rica succeeded de Boer. The Secretariat, augmented through the parallel efforts of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), aims to gain consensus through meetings and the discussion of various strategies.


The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) was opened for signature at the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) in Rio de Janeiro (known by its popular title, the Earth Summit). On 12 June 1992, 154 nations signed the UNFCCC, that upon ratification committed signatories' governments to reduce atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases with the goal of "preventing dangerous anthropogenic interference with Earth's climate system". This commitment would require substantial reductions in greenhouse gas emissions (see the later section, "Stabilization of greenhouse gas concentrations")

Article 3(1) of the Convention[7] states that Parties should act to protect the climate system on the basis of "common but differentiated responsibilities", and that developed country Parties should "take the lead" in addressing climate change. Under Article 4, all Parties make general commitments to address climate change through, for example, climate change mitigation and adapting to the eventual impacts of climate change.[8] Article 4(7) states:[9]

The extent to which developing country Parties will effectively implement their commitments under the Convention will depend on the effective implementation by developed country Parties of their commitments under the Convention related to financial resources and transfer of technology and will take fully into account that economic and social development and poverty eradication are the first and overriding priorities of the developing country Parties.

The Framework Convention specifies the aim of developed (Annex I) Parties stabilizing their greenhouse gas emissions (carbon dioxide and other anthropogenic greenhouse gases not regulated under the Montreal Protocol) at 1990 levels, by the year 2000.[10]

Kyoto Protocol

Main article: Kyoto Protocol

After the signing of the UNFCCC treaty, Parties to the UNFCCC have met at conferences ("Conferences of the Parties" – COPs) to discuss how to achieve the treaty's aims. At the 1st Conference of the Parties (COP-1), Parties decided that the aim of Annex I Parties stabilizing their emissions at 1990 levels by the year 2000 was "not adequate",[11] and further discussions at later conferences led to the Kyoto Protocol. The Kyoto Protocol sets emissions targets for developed countries which are binding under international law.

The Kyoto Protocol has had two commitment periods, the first of which lasted from 2005-2012. The second one runs from 2012-2020 and is based on the Doha Amendment to the Protocol, which has not entered into force.

The US has not ratified the Kyoto Protocol, while Canada denounced it in 2012. The Kyoto Protocol has been ratified by all the other Annex I Parties.

All Annex I Parties, excluding the US, have participated in the 1st Kyoto commitment period. 37 Annex I countries and the EU have agreed to second-round Kyoto targets. These countries are Australia, all members of the European Union, Belarus, Croatia, Iceland, Kazakhstan, Norway, Switzerland, and Ukraine.[12] Belarus, Kazakhstan and Ukraine have stated that they may withdraw from the Protocol or not put into legal force the Amendment with second round targets.[13] Japan, New Zealand, and Russia have participated in Kyoto's first-round but have not taken on new targets in the second commitment period. Other developed countries without second-round targets are Canada (which withdrew from the Kyoto Protocol in 2012)[14] and the United States.

Paris Agreement

Main article: Paris Agreement

In 2011, parties adopted the "Durban Platform for Enhanced Action".[15] As part of the Durban Platform, parties have agreed to "develop a protocol, another legal instrument or an agreed outcome with legal force under the Convention applicable to all Parties".[15] At Durban[16] and Doha,[17] parties noted "with grave concern" that current efforts to hold global warming to below 2 or 1.5 °C relative to the pre-industrial level appear inadequate.

In 2015, all (then) 196 then parties to the convention came together for the UN Climate Change Conference in Paris 30 November - 12 December and adopted by consensus the Paris Agreement, aimed at limiting global warming to less than two degrees Celsius, and pursue efforts to limit the rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius.[18] The Paris Agreement is to be signed in 2016 and will enter into force upon ratification by 55 countries representing over 55% of greenhouse gas emissions.

Other decisions

As well as the Kyoto Protocol, parties to the Convention have agreed to further commitments during UNFCCC Conferences of the Parties. These include the Bali Action Plan (2007),[19] the Copenhagen Accord (2009),[20] the Cancún agreements (2010),[21] and the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action (2012).[22]

Bali Action Plan

As part of the Bali Action Plan, adopted in 2007, all developed country Parties have agreed to "quantified emission limitation and reduction objectives, while ensuring the comparability of efforts among them, taking into account differences in their national circumstances."[23] Developing country Parties agreed to "[nationally] appropriate mitigation actions [NAMAs] context of sustainable development, supported and enabled by technology, financing and capacity-building, in a measurable, reportable and verifiable manner."[23] 42 developed countries have submitted mitigation targets to the UNFCCC secretariat,[24] as have 57 developing countries and the African Group (a group of countries within the UN).[25]

Copenhagen Accord and Cancún agreements

As part of the 2009 Copenhagen negotiations, a number of countries produced the Copenhagen Accord.[20] The Accord states that global warming should be limited to below 2.0 °C (3.6 °F).[20] This may be strengthened in 2015 with a target to limit warming to below 1.5 °C.[26] The Accord does not specify what the baseline is for these temperature targets (e.g., relative to pre-industrial or 1990 temperatures). According to the UNFCCC, these targets are relative to pre-industrial temperatures.[27]

114 countries agreed to the Accord.[20] The UNFCCC secretariat notes that "Some Parties [...] stated in their communications to the secretariat specific understandings on the nature of the Accord and related matters, based on which they have agreed to [the Accord]." The Accord was not formally adopted by the Conference of the Parties. Instead, the COP "took note of the Copenhagen Accord."[20]

As part of the Accord, 17 developed country Parties and the EU-27 have submitted mitigation targets,[28] as have 45 developing country Parties.[29] Some developing country Parties have noted the need for international support in their plans.

As part of the Cancún agreements, developed and developing countries have submitted mitigation plans to the UNFCCC.[30][31] These plans are compiled with those made as part of the Bali Action Plan.

Developing countries

At Berlin,[32] Cancún,[33] and Durban,[34] the development needs of developing country parties were reiterated. For example, the Durban Platform reaffirms that:[34]

[...] social and economic development and poverty eradication are the first and overriding priorities of developing country Parties, and that a low-emission development strategy is central to sustainable development, and that the share of global emissions originating in developing countries will grow to meet their social and development needs

Interpreting Article 2

The ultimate objective of the Framework Convention is to prevent "dangerous" anthropogenic (i.e., human-caused) interference of the climate system.[2] As is stated in Article 2 of the Convention, this requires that GHG concentrations are stabilized in the atmosphere at a level where ecosystems can adapt naturally to climate change, food production is not threatened, and economic development can proceed in a sustainable fashion.

To stabilize atmospheric GHG concentrations, global anthropogenic GHG emissions would need to peak then decline (see climate change mitigation).[35] Lower stabilization levels would require emissions to peak and decline earlier compared to higher stabilization levels.[35] The graph above shows projected changes in annual global GHG emissions (measured in CO2-equivalents) for various stabilization scenarios. The other two graphs show the associated changes in atmospheric GHG concentrations (in CO2-equivalents) and global mean temperature for these scenarios. Lower stabilization levels are associated with lower magnitudes of global warming compared to higher stabilization levels.[35]

Refer to caption and image description
Projected global warming in 2100 for a range of emission scenarios

There is uncertainty over how GHG concentrations and global temperatures will change in response to anthropogenic emissions (see climate change feedback and climate sensitivity).[36] The graph opposite shows global temperature changes in the year 2100 for a range of emission scenarios, including uncertainty estimates.

Dangerous anthropogenic interference

There are a range of views over what level of climate change is dangerous.[37] Scientific analysis can provide information on the risks of climate change, but deciding which risks are dangerous requires value judgements.[38]

The global warming that has already occurred poses a risk to some human and natural systems (e.g., coral reefs).[39] Higher magnitudes of global warming will generally increase the risk of negative impacts.[40] According to Field et al. (2014),[40] climate change risks are "considerable" with 1 to 2 °C of global warming, relative to pre-industrial levels. 4 °C warming would lead to significantly increased risks, with potential impacts including widespread loss of biodiversity and reduced global and regional food security.[40]

Climate change policies may lead to costs that are relevant to Article 2.[38] For example, more stringent policies to control GHG emissions may reduce the risk of more severe climate change, but may also be more expensive to implement.[40][41][42]


There is considerable uncertainty over future changes in anthropogenic GHG emissions, atmospheric GHG concentrations, and associated climate change.[36][43][44] Without mitigation policies, increased energy demand and extensive use of fossil fuels[45] could lead to global warming (in 2100) of 3.7 to 4.8 °C relative to pre-industrial levels (2.5 to 7.8 °C including climate uncertainty).[46]

To have a likely chance of limiting global warming (in 2100) to below 2 °C, GHG concentrations would need to be limited to around 450 ppm CO2-eq.[47] The current trajectory of global emissions does not appear to be consistent with limiting global warming to below 1.5 or 2 °C.[48]

Precautionary principle

In decision making, the precautionary principle is considered when possibly dangerous, irreversible, or catastrophic events are identified, but scientific evaluation of the potential damage is not sufficiently certain (Toth et al., 2001, pp. 655–656).[49] The precautionary principle implies an emphasis on the need to prevent such adverse effects.

Uncertainty is associated with each link of the causal chain of climate change. For example, future GHG emissions are uncertain, as are climate change damages. However, following the precautionary principle, uncertainty is not a reason for inaction, and this is acknowledged in Article 3.3 of the UNFCCC (Toth et al., 2001, p. 656).[49]


Parties to the UNFCCC
  Annex I and II parties
  Annex I parties
  Non-annex parties
  Observer states

As of 2015, the UNFCC has 197 parties including all United Nations member states, United Nations General Assembly observer State of Palestine, UN non-member states Niue and the Cook Islands and the supranational union European Union.[1][50] The Holy See is not a member state, but is an observer.[50]

Classification of Parties and their commitments

Parties to the UNFCCC are classified as:

List of parties

Annex I countries

There are 43 Annex I Parties including the European Union.[51] These countries are classified as industrialized countries and economies in transition.[52] Of these, 24 are Annex II Parties, including the European Union,[54] and 14 are Economies in Transition.[53]


Conferences of the Parties

The United Nations Climate Change Conference are yearly conferences held in the framework of the UNFCC. They serve as the formal meeting of the UNFCC Parties (Conferences of the Parties) (COP) to assess progress in dealing with climate change, and beginning in the mid-1990s, to negotiate the Kyoto Protocol to establish legally binding obligations for developed countries to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions.[5] From 2005 the Conferences have also served as the Meetings of Parties of the Kyoto Protocol (CMP). Also parties to the Convention that are not parties to the Protocol can participate in Protocol-related meetings as observers. The first conference (COP1) was held in 1995 in Berlin. The 3rd conference (COP3) was held in Kyoto and resulted in the Kyoto protocol, which was amended during the 2012 Doha Conference (COP18, CMP 8). The latest Conference (COP21, CMP11) was held in Paris and resulted in adoption of the Paris Agreement. The next conference is planned November 2016 in Marrakech, Morocco.

Subsidiary bodies

A subsidiary body is a committee that assists the Conference of the parties. Subsidiary bodies includes:[57]


The work under the UNFCCC is facilitated by a secretariat in Bonn, Germany, which from July 2010 is headed by Executive Secretary Christiana Figueres.

Commentaries and analysis

Criticisms of the UNFCCC Process

Christiana Figueres (left) - Executive Secretary UNFCCC, and Noeleen Heyzer - ES of Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP) at the Bangkok Climate Change Talks., August 2012[58]

The overall umbrella and processes of the UNFCCC and the adopted Kyoto Protocol have been criticized by some as not having achieved its stated goals of reducing the emission of carbon dioxide (the primary culprit blamed for rising global temperatures of the 21st century).[59] At a speech given at his alma mater, Todd Stern — the US Climate Change envoy — has expressed the challenges with the UNFCCC process as follows, “Climate change is not a conventional environmental issue...It implicates virtually every aspect of a state's economy, so it makes countries nervous about growth and development. This is an economic issue every bit as it is an environmental one.” He went on to explain that, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change is a multilateral body concerned with climate change and can be an inefficient system for enacting international policy. Because the framework system includes over 190 countries and because negotiations are governed by consensus, small groups of countries can often block progress.[60]

The failure to achieve meaningful progress and reach effective-CO2 reducing-policy treaties among the parties over the past eighteen years have driven some countries like the United States to never ratify the UNFCCC's largest body of work — the Kyoto Protocol, in large part because the treaty didn't cover developing countries who now include the largest CO2 emitters. However, this fails to consider the historical responsibility for climate change since industrialisation, which is a contentious issue in the talks, and the responsibility of emissions from consumption and importation of goods.[61] It has also led Canada to withdraw from the Kyoto Protocol out of a desire to not force its citizens to pay penalties that would result in wealth transfers out of Canada. Canada formally withdrew from the Kyoto Protocol in 2011.[62] Both the US and Canada are looking at Voluntary Emissions Reduction schemes that they can implement internally to curb carbon dioxide emissions outside the Kyoto Protocol.[63]

The perceived lack of progress has also led some countries to seek and focus on alternative high-value activities like the creation of the Climate and Clean Air Coalition to Reduce Short-Lived Climate Pollutants which seeks to regulate short-lived pollutants such as methane, black carbon and hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) which together are believed to account for up to 1/3 of current global warming but whose regulation is not as fraught with wide economic impacts and opposition.[64]

In 2010, Japan stated that it will not sign up to a second Kyoto term, because it would impose restrictions on it not faced by its main economic competitors, China, India and Indonesia.[65] A similar indication was given by the Prime Minister of New Zealand in November 2012.[66] At the 2012 conference, last minute objections at the conference by Russia, Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan were ignored by the governing officials, and they have indicated that they will likely withdraw or not ratify the treaty.[67] These defections place additional pressures on the UNFCCC process that is seen by some as cumbersome and expensive: in the UK alone the climate change department has taken over 3,000 flights in two years at a cost of over ₤1,300,000 (British Pounds).[68]

Before the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference, National Geographic Magazine added criticism, writing: "Since 1992, when the world’s nations agreed at Rio de Janeiro to avoid 'dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system,' they’ve met 20 times without moving the needle on carbon emissions. In that interval we’ve added almost as much carbon to the atmosphere as we did in the previous century."[69]


Benchmarking is the setting of a policy target based on some frame of reference.[70] An example of benchmarking is the UNFCCC's original target of Annex I Parties limiting their greenhouse gas emissions at 1990 levels by the year 2000. Goldemberg et al. (1996)[71] commented on the economic implications of this target. Although the target applies equally to all Annex I Parties, the economic costs of meeting the target would likely vary between Parties. For example, countries with initially high levels of energy efficiency might find it more costly to meet the target than countries with lower levels of energy efficiency. From this perspective, the UNFCCC target could be viewed as inequitable, i.e., unfair.

Benchmarking has also been discussed in relation to the first-round emissions targets specified in the Kyoto Protocol (see views on the Kyoto Protocol and Kyoto Protocol and government action).

See also


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