UN Framework Convention on Climate Change

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  • by Anup Shah
  • This page last updated

On this page:

  1. The Creation of the Convention
  2. Recognizing Rich Countries Have More Obligation to Emission Reduction
  3. The Framework is a starting point
  4. Major Steps
  5. Obstacles and Slow Progress

The Creation of the Convention

In the early 1980s, scientists were beginning to raise concerns about climate change.

In 1988, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was created by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the World Meterological Organization (WMO) to assess the scientific knowledge on global warming. Its first major report in 1990 showed that there was broad international consensus that climate change was human-induced.

That report led way to an international convention for climate change. This became the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), signed by over 150 countries at the Rio Earth Summit in 1992. (By the middle of 2000, over 180 countries had signed and ratified it).

The Convention took effect in 1994. By 1995 negotiations had started on a protocol — an international agreement linked to the existing treaty, but standing on its own. This led to the Kyoto Protocol, adopted unanimously in 1997. The main purposes of this protocol was to

  • Provide mandatory targets on greenhouse-gas emissions for the world's leading economies all of whom accepted it at the time;
  • Provide flexibility in how countries meet their targets;
  • Further recognize that commitments under the Protocol would vary from country to country.

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Recognizing Rich Countries Have More Obligation to Emission Reduction

As a general principle, it was also recognized that most of the greenhouse gas emissions contributing to climate change come from the industrialized Northern countries, that have been developing since the Industrial Revolution, as such emissions remain in the atmosphere a long time. In addition, they have been developing for longer than the Third World, so action to address this must proportionally be with those industrialized nations. The following summarizes this well:

Industrialised countries set out on the path of development much earlier than developing countries, and have been emitting GHGs [Greenhouse gases] in the atmosphere for years without any restrictions. Since GHG emissions accumulate in the atmosphere for decades and centuries, the industrialised countries’ emissions are still present in the earth's atmosphere. Therefore, the North is responsible for the problem of global warming given their huge historical emissions. It owes its current prosperity to decades of overuse of the common atmospheric space and its limited capacity to absorb GHGs.

Developing countries, on the other hand, have taken the road to growth and development very recently. In countries like India, emissions have started growing but their per capita emissions are still significantly lower than that of industrialised countries. The difference in emissions between industrialised and developing countries is even starker when per capita emissions are taken into account. In 1996, for instance, the emission of 1 US citizen equalled that of 19 Indians.

Background for COP 8, Center for Science and Environment, October 25, 2002

This difference was recognized as a principle of common but differentiated responsibilities. When the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change was formulated and then signed and ratified in 1992 by most of the world's countries (including the United States and other nations who would later back out of the subsequent Kyoto protocol), this principle was acknowledged. Adding a bit more detail here, the principle recognized that

  • The largest share of historical and current global emissions of greenhouse gases has originated in developed countries;
  • Per capita emissions in developing countries are still relatively low;
  • The share of global emissions originating in developing countries will grow to meet their social and development needs.
The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, (Text is original, but minor edit made to reformat as a list)

That is,

  • Today’s rich nations are the ones responsible for global warming as greenhouse gases tend to remain in the atmosphere for many decades, and rich countries have been industrializing and emitting climate changing pollution for many more centuries than the poor countries;
  • It is therefore unfair to expect the third world to make emissions reductions (and also unfair considering their development and consumption is for basics and for developing, while for the rich, it has moved on to luxury consumption and life styles);

Furthermore, developing countries too were to reduce emissions ultimately, but in a different way: The rich were to help provide means for the developing world to transition to cleaner technologies while developing:

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 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change

This principle is explored in further detail on this site’s Climate Justice and Equity section.

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The Framework is a starting point

While the Convention was weakened due to US threats to not attend Rio if there were binding commitments to stabilize greenhouse gas emissions, it is still a useful framework. The Convention provides a framework to tackle a number of issues and had some objectives set, including the following:

  • Recognize that a problem exists (earlier in the 1980s and beginning of 1990s there was a huge amount of skepticism that human-induced climate change exists, because there are also natural cycles in the change of the climate that occurs over hundreds of years. However, now, the body of research indicates that humans are a factor in the current climate changes.)
  • As a result, the ultimate objective, as described in Article 2, is to achieve stabilization of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system.
  • Continued scientific research is encouraged because the climate is a very complex issue and patterns are likely to continue changing.
  • The Convention recognizes that the current developed and industrialized nations have the largest current and historic emissions and that they should therefore take the lead and burden of helping reduce harmful effects and cut down emissions.
    • See Article 4 of the Convention for more detail.
    • This is significant, as it recognizes the right for developing countries to develop economically.
    • During the Kyoto summit, this was hotly contested by the United States, which is the largest emitter of greenhouse gases in the world — for just about four percent of the world's population, they emit over a quarter of the world’s emission. Per capita, this is far, far higher than any other nation as well. For more about the Kyoto protocol, and the US positions etc, visit this section’s page on Kyoto.
    • Note though that most debate has been on reduction of emissions. While that is good, what is often left out is the fact that those developing countries already facing problems, or are about to, are left without much help in adapting, as a part of this report points out.
  • The Convention also recognized that it is likely that the poorer nations will suffer the most, as there are less resources and capabilities to adapt to sudden changes of this magnitude.
  • It is also recognized that a more sustainable economy is needed as current consumptive patterns could be destructive. (For more about over-consumption etc., visit this site’s sections on Behind Consumerism and Consumption and on Population.)

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Major Steps

The following table is from a report from PANOS called Just a lot of hot air?, looking at the issues leading up to the climate conference in Hague 2000. It summarizes the major steps toward action on the issue of Climate Change. (Some minor updates added since recent events after Hague.)

Steps Towards Action on Climate Change
EventDate and placePrincipal achievements
Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) - First report1990Broad international scientific consensus that human actions are influencing the climate
UN Framework Convention on Climate Change1992, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. (Entered into force 1994)
  • Committed the global community to stabilizing the level of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere
  • Recognized the primary responsibility of industrialized countries, and the differentiated responsibilities of developing countries
IPCC - Second report1995
  • Confirmed human influence on climate
  • Stated that risk from climate change is severe enough to justify preventive actions (Governments which have signed the Convention have to accept the findings of the IPCC).
Conference of Parties (COP) 11995, Berlin, Germany
  • Established budget, secretariat and institutional mechanisms
  • Established pilot phase of "Activities Implemented Jointly" to reduce greenhouse gas emissions
  • Agreed timetable for setting specific reduction targets for industrialized countries
Conference of Parties (COP) 21996, Geneva, Switzerland
  • Endorsed IPCC2 and COP1 agreements
  • US announced its commitment to binding targets medium-term, with flexibility, in implementation measures
  • OPEC dropped its opposition to action
Conference of Parties (COP) 31997, Kyoto, JapanAgreed the Kyoto Protocol, with targets for industrialized country greenhouse gas reductions
Conference of Parties (COP) 41998, Buenos Aires, ArgentinaAgreed a "Plan of Action" for following up on the Kyoto Protocol, including processes for stimulating technology transfer
Conference of Parties (COP) 51999, Bonn, GermanyFurther progress on implementing the Kyoto Protocol
Conference of Parties (COP) 62000, The Hague, The NetherlandsSee main body of [PANOS report]
IPCC - Third report2000/2001
Rio plus Ten Earth Summit2002Many people hope the Kyoto Protocol will be ratified and will enter into force by this the time. [This didn’t happen. It will now come into force February 2005]
Negotiations begin for a second round of emissions reductions2005This is the target date to start negotiations for the second period of the Kyoto Protocol
Agreed cuts in greenhouse gases2008-2012This is the period in which emissions cuts agreed in the Kyoto Protocol have to be achieved and measured

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Obstacles and Slow Progress

Many of the objectives highlighted above have still not been recognized. For example, the industrialized countries have not provided much help in many areas such as effective emission reductions and stalling on developing country commitments, or opposing the Kyoto protocol itself.

These issues are now explored, in the next page on this site.

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Author and Page Information

  • by Anup Shah
  • Created:
  • Last updated:

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Document revision history

New document created. But, mostly by taking it out from the Action page. However, more on the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities added which is marked accordingly.