The UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) was created in 1992 to prevent dangerous climate change resulting from emissions of greenhouse gases.
Under the Convention, nations agreed to protect the climate system for present and future generations according to their “common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities”, meaning that developed countries “should take the lead in combating climate change and the adverse effects thereof”.
Parties also 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 they agreed that “economic and social development and poverty eradication are the first and overriding priorities of the developing country parties”.
Each year a Conference of Parties to the UNFCCC meets to assess progress towards its goal and to negotiate new actions in light of improved knowledge about the threat climate change poses.
In 1997, Parties to the UNFCCC added the Kyoto Protocol. This created the first and only legally binding targets for developed nations, and 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 below 1990 levels between 2008 and 2012.
To help achieve this, the protocol created ‘flexibility mechanisms’ – such as carbon trading and the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM), which allows developed nations to reach their targets by investing in emissions reductions in developing nations.
The Kyoto Protocol has been ratified by 189 governments and entered into force in 2005. The United States, however, has not ratified the Protocol and thus has no international commitments to reduce its emissions.
This disconnect between the world’s biggest historical contributor to climate change and the rest of the parties to the UNFCCC, led to the creation in 2007 of the Bali Action Plan.
This opened a new negotiation track under the UNFCCC in an effort to bring the United States into line with other developed nations.
Other developed countries that are party to the protocol are legally bound to agree new targets for a second commitment period that begins in 2013.
Under the plan, parties to the UNFCCC pledged reach agreement by the end of the 13th Conference of Parties, in Copenhagen in December 2009, in five main areas:
- a shared vision of what parties to theConventionaim to achieve, including a long-term goal for emissions
• 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 deforestation;
• adaptation to impacts such as changing rainfall patterns, extreme weather events, rising sea levels and shifting patterns of disease;
• technology transfer and development to support both adaptation and mitigation;
• and finance and investment to pay for all of the above.
However, the negotiations failed to make enough progress and the conference ended with only a weak agreement called the Copenhagen Accord, which placed no firm obligations on any countries to act.
In 2010, parties to the UNFCCC agreed the Cancún Agreements, which built upon the contents of the Copenhagen Accord and brought them within the UNFCCC. The details agreed include a climate adaptation framework; a Green Climate Fund, and a technology transfer mechanism.
Despite these gains, the Cancún Agreements fell short of a new legally-binding agreement and did not include any new targets for emissions reductions under the Kyoto Protocol.
Then in the December of 2015, the Paris Agreement was formed, marking a milestone in climate change politics. The agreement set the goal of aiming for a less than 1.5°C increase in global temperature increase and set the framework for Nationally Determined Contributions. It is in the process of being ratified as of August of 2016.
Negotiations under the UNFCCC are ongoing and could one day lead to a new global treaty that includes binding emissions reduction targets for the United States as well as all other developed nations, and measurable emissions reduction actions for the major developing nations. The UNFCCC is one of many Multilateral Environmental Agreements (MEAs). It entered into force on 21 March 1994 and as of 2016 it had 196 parties.
Good sources of information include the UNFCCC secretariat, which is the official home of the convention. Its website includes press releases and factsheets of each country that is party to the convention.
The secretariat has published a special website about the Cancun Agreements and detailed information on developed country emission targets and developing country mitigation actions.
The Triple Crisis Blog has a useful collection of post-Cancun articles and analysis.
The Earth Negotiations Bulletin provides daily reports during each Conference of Parties to the UNFCCC and each Meeting of Parties to the Kyoto Protocol. It is a good source of neutral information on each negotiating session.
The World Resources Institute is currently tracking the ratification of the Paris Agreement and the submissions of the NDCs.
The bulletin is produced by the International Institute for Sustainable Development, which also runs Climate-L, an email-based mailing list for news and announcements about climate policy, which is another good source for journalists.
For nongovernmental perspective, sources include the Climate Action Network, a global alliance of more than 450 organizations, which publishes a daily newsletter called Eco during each UNFCCC meeting.
Major storylines in the coming years will be about how countries can agree to share the burden of reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and how the money needed to pay for this and for adaptation to climate change impacts in developing countries will be generated, distributed and spent.