The United Nations framework convention on climate change (UNFCCC) is an international environmental treaty negotiated at the United Nations conference on environment and development (UNCED), informally known as the Earth Summit, held in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. The objective of the treaty is to “stabilise greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system.” UNFCCC is the only international climate policy venue with large acceptance, due in part to its universal membership.
In June 1992, 154 nations signed the UNFCCC that upon ratification committed the 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.
After its creation, one of the first tasks set by the UNFCCC was for signatory nations to establish national inventories of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and removals which were used to create the 1990 benchmark levels for agreement of nations to the Kyoto Protocol and for the commitment to GHG reductions.
The signatory countries have met annually since 1995 in the conferences of the parties (COP) to assess development in dealing with climate change. For example, in 1997, the Kyoto Protocol was signed and established legally binding obligations for developed countries to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The 2010 COP at Cancún stated that future global warming should be limited to below 2.0 °C relative to the pre-industrial level. The most recent COP took place in Peru in 2014.
The Kyoto Protocol, that has set emission targets for developed countries which are binding under international law, had two commitment periods, the first from 2005-2012, and the second from 2012-2020. Also, while the protocol has been ratified by 35 countries, the US has not approved it. Thus the protocol as a whole has not been successful at mitigating climate change.
Another significant step in the UNFCCC process has been the Bali Action Plan. This was adopted in 2007 where all developed country parties agreed to “quantified emission limitation and reduction objectives, while ensuring the comparability of efforts among them, taking into account differences in their national circumstances.” Furthermore, they agreed to “appropriate mitigation actions context of sustainable development, supported and enabled by technology, financing and capacity-building, in a measurable, reportable and verifiable manner.” As part of this plan, 42 developed and 57 developing countries have submitted mitigation targets to the UNFCCC.
Next, the COP signed the Copenhagen Accord in 2009. The accord states that global warming should be limited to below 2.0°C. This accord could now be strengthened with a target to limit warming to below 1.5 °C as part of the Paris 2015 COP. However, the accord does not specify what the baseline is for these temperature targets (for example, relative to pre-industrial or 1990 temperatures). According to UNFCCC, these targets are relative to pre-industrial temperatures. Although 114 countries agreed to the accord, it was not formally adopted by COP, which only took a “note of the Copenhagen Accord.”
Many aspects of the Copenhagen Accord were brought into the formal UNFCCC process at Cancún COP in 2010. As part of the Cancún agreements, developed and developing countries submitted mitigation plans to the UNFCCC. These plans were compiled with those made as part of the Bali Action Plan.
Next, in 2011, parties adopted the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action. In this, parties agreed to “develop a protocol, another legal instrument or an agreed outcome with legal force under the convention applicable to all parties.” This new treaty is due to be adopted at the Paris COP this year.
So, what’s the bottomline? Although COPs have met on an annual basis, the overall umbrella and processes of the UNFCCC and the adopted Kyoto Protocol have been criticised as not having achieved their stated goals of reducing the GHG emissions. Todd Stern, the US Climate Change envoy, has expressed the challenges of the UNFCCC process. Stern explains that the UNFCCC 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.
Furthermore, the failure to achieve meaningful progress over the past 18 years has driven some countries like the United States to never ratify the Kyoto Protocol because the treaty didn’t cover developing countries who now include the largest GHG emitters. The US is looking at voluntary emissions reduction schemes that they can implement internally to curb GHG emissions outside the Kyoto Protocol. These defections have placed additional pressures on the UNFCCC process. Let’s hope that some progress is made in the upcoming 2015 Paris COP.
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