International treaties to tackle climate change


UNESCO, Nairobi, Kenya

The international community created the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in 1992 to prevent dangerous climate change. Under the Convention, nearly 200 nations agreed to protect the climate system for present and future generations according to their “common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities”.

Parties to the convention agreed that the extent to which developing nations can meet their treaty obligations would depend on the extent to which developed countries provide finance and technology, and that developed countries “should take the lead in combating climate change and the adverse effects”. According to the agreement, “Economic and social development and poverty eradication are the first and overriding priorities of the developing country parties”.

The UNFCCC entered into force in March 1994. Each year since then a Conference of Parties (COP) to the UNFCCC has met to assess progress towards its goal and to negotiate new actions in light of improved knowledge about the threat climate change poses.

At each session of the international negotiations under the UNFCCC, the talks divide into several simultaneous streams, each of which focuses on specific aspects of the whole. This makes it hard for smaller and poorer nations to be present in each discussion as they tend to have smaller negotiating teams than the wealthier nations. Many argue that this system makes the talks inherently unfair. To help overcome this challenge, countries can join forces and negotiate together on common positions, as, for example, the Africa Group does. All African nations are also members of the G77/China block, which encompasses 132 nations. Most of the African countries are also members of the Least Developed Countries block, along with a few Asian nations and Haiti. Other negotiating blocks include the 43-member Alliance of Small Island States, the European Union, and the BASIC group (Brazil, South Africa, India and China).

A brief history of the UNFCCC’s main impacts

The first major change came in 1997 at the third conference (COP3), when parties to the UNFCCC adopted the Kyoto Protocol. This agreement created the first and only legally binding targets for developed nations to reduce their emissions, as well as important international monitoring, reporting and verification mechanisms to enforce compliance.

The Kyoto Protocol obliged developed nations to reduce their emissions to an average of 5.2 per cent less than their 1990 levels, between 2008 and 2012 (the protocol’s first commitment period). To help countries meet their targets, the protocol created ‘flexibility mechanisms’ – such as carbon trading and the Clean Development Mechanism, which allows industrialised nations to reach their targets by investing in emissions reductions in developing nations. 

The Kyoto Protocol entered into force in 2005. From that year onwards, each COP has also served as the ‘meeting of parties’ to the Kyoto Protocol, meaning that there are two main sets of parallel negotiations taking place at each event. Two permanent subsidiary bodies that serve both the UNFCCC and Kyoto Protocol talks meet at least twice a year, once during the COP/MOP. One of these bodies focuses on implementation of the agreements while the other provides scientific and technological advice.

Parties to the UNFCCC have agreed that African nations, the Least Developed Countries and small island states are the most vulnerable to climate change. In light of this, another important milestone came in 2007 at COP7 in Marrakesh, when parties to the UNFCCC agreed that the Least Developed Countries (most of which are in Africa) would receive funding to produce National Adaptation Programmes of Action (NAPAs) to identify their most urgent needs to adapt to climate change. 

Unlike other industrialised nations that are party to the UNFCCC, the United States did not ratify the Kyoto Protocol and so had no international commitments to reduce its emissions. The other developed countries that did ratify the protocol were legally bound to establish new targets for a second commitment period to begin when the first period ended in 2012. It soon became clear that the United States would never ratify the Kyoto Protocol, because it did not require major economies such as China and India to reduce their own emissions.

COP13 (Bali, 2007): The disconnect between the United States (the world’s biggest historical contributor to climate change) and the rest of the industrialised parties to the UNFCCC, led to the creation of the Bali Action Plan at COP13. This opened a new negotiation track under the UNFCCC in an effort to bring the United States into line with other developed nations. Under the Bali Action Plan, parties to the UNFCCC pledged to reach agreement by the end of COP15 in Copenhagen in December 2009 in five main areas:

1. A shared vision of what parties to the Convention aim to achieve, including a long-term goal for emissions reductions;

2. Mitigation of climate change by reducing the atmospheric concentration of greenhouse gas emissions, including quantified ‘commitments’ from developed nations and nationally appropriate mitigation ‘actions’ (NAMAs) from developing nations, including through reduced emissions from deforestation and forest degradation (REDD).

3. Adaptation to impacts such as changing rainfall patterns, extreme weather events, rising sea levels and shifting patterns of disease;

4. Technology transfer and development to support both adaptation and mitigation; and

5. Finance and investment to pay for all of the above.

COP15 (Copenhagen, 2009): The negotiations failed to make necessary progress and the conference ended with only a weak agreement called the Copenhagen Accord, which placed no firm obligations on any countries to act. Moreover, because not every party to the UNFCCC accepted the accord, it remained unofficial. The Copenhagen Accord did, however, include some important aspirations. It called on industrialised countries to provide US$30 billion to developing nations in ‘fast-start finance’ by 2012 to help them adapt to and mitigate climate change. Furthermore, it urged these countries to increase this figure to US$100 billion a year by 2020. The Copenhagen Accord also recognised the scientific view that to avoid dangerous climate change, the average global temperature increase should not exceed 2°C above pre-industrial levels, and it invited countries to pledge non-binding action to reduce their emissions.

COP16 (Cancún, 2010): Parties to the UNFCCC agreed the Cancún Agreements, which built upon the contents of the Copenhagen Accord and brought them within the UNFCCC so that they were now formally agreed to by all parties. The Cancún Agreements also included plans to set up a climate adaptation framework, a Green Climate Fund, and a technology transfer mechanism. Despite these gains, the Cancún Agreements fell short of the new legally binding deal that parties were meant to agree to the year before, and did not include any new targets for emissions reductions under the Kyoto Protocol.

COP17 (Durban, 2011): Parties agreed to negotiate by 2015 a comprehensive new legal agreement to take effect in 2020. In effect, this meant that parties were extending by six years their 2009 deadline for forming a deal. They agreed that negotiations towards that new agreement would take place in a new stream of talks called the Ad-hoc Working Group on the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action (or ADP).

COP18 (Doha, 2012): Parties developed an amendment to the Kyoto Protocol, albeit one that countries would need to ratify before it entered into effect. If featured a second commitment period that would run from 2012 until 2020 but included fewer countries and emissions reductions than the original agreement.

COP19 (Warsaw, 2013): Parties agreed an “international mechanism for loss and damage”, which recognises that if mitigation does not take place quickly enough, and if countries cannot adapt to the resulting climate change, detrimental impacts will be inevitable. Developing countries want this mechanism to be a channel through which they can seek compensation from countries with high greenhouse gas emissions for this damage.
The next milestone conference will be COP21 in Paris in 2015, when parties are meant to agree on a comprehensive, legally binding global agreement.

Tips for reporting on UNFCCC negotiations can be found here

What the UNFCCC requires African governments to do


Most African countries have such low levels of greenhouse gas emissions that mitigation is not a priority. And unlike industrialised nations that are party to the Kyoto Protocol, African countries do not have binding targets, to which to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. But all countries are now expected to identify Nationally Appropriate Mitigation Actions, which will attract international finance. These mitigation actions include efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions that arise from deforestation. Under the international REDD+ framework, countries can expect financial compensation for keeping or enriching their forest stocks. But to take part they must set up the systems to apply for, receive and manage funds as well as monitor and report on the state of their forests. Various governments in Africa are developing what are called REDD-Readiness frameworks and taking other actions in this sector. The Democratic Republic of Congo, for instance, has a well-established National Coordination for REDD, and is putting a National Forest Monitoring System in place. Another way that African nations are mitigating climate change is through renewable energy and improved energy efficiency. One source of international finance for such projects is the Clean Development Mechanism, which now has enabled activities in 18 African nations. 


As most African nations have low total and per-capita emissions, their priority will be to adapt to the impacts of climate change, rather than taking steps to reduce their emissions. Each African country that is also on the UN list of Least Developed Countries has already produced a National Adaptation Programme of Action (NAPA). This is a document that identifies the most urgent needs and puts a price tag on chosen adaptation projects. You can see the full list of NAPAs on the UNFCCC website. All countries are now also supposed to prepare National Adaptation Plans to identify medium and long-term needs, and how to address them. The UNFCCC site has details of the work underway to produce these plans. 

Communication, information and learning

All African nations that are party to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change are obligated to make periodic reports about what they are doing, or plan to do, to implement the convention. These National Communications include information about emissions, vulnerabilities, financial resources, and public awareness of climate change. Most African nations have so far submitted the First National Communication, and some have also submitted their Second National Communication. All of these documents are available on the UNFCCC website.

Under Article 6 of the UNFCCC, parties agreed to promote actions to develop and implement “educational and public awareness programmes on climate change and its effects”. They also agreed to promote “public access to information about climate change and its effects.” Action on Article 6 has been slow, however, and in 2012, the nearly 200 nations that are parties to the UNFCCC agreed to implement something called the “Doha Work Programme on Article 6”. Under this eight-year programme, nations are meant to step up to their obligations under Article 6. Training is among the activities that fall under Article 6, and three African countries – Benin, Malawi and Uganda – are among the first to benefit from a UN programme that provides assistance with these activities. Each has worked to develop a national strategy for strengthening the skills and knowledge of people who work on climate change.