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The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC)
The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) marked the beginning of international cooperation in reducing greenhouse gas emissions (mitigation of GHGs). It was opened for signature on 4 June, 1992 at the UN Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED), the “Earth Summit”, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and came into force on 21 March 1994. A decade after its adoption, 186 governments (including the European Community) are now Parties to the Convention and it is approaching universal membership.
The Convention adopted a list of industrialized nations (Annex I) for which domestic/international greenhouse gas reduction measures were recommended and developing nations (non-Annex I) which are exempt from immediate emission reduction measures, but may participate on a voluntary basis.
Since the Convention’s entry into force, Parties have met annually in the Conference of the Parties (COP) to monitor its implementation and continue talks on how best to tackle climate change. The many decisions taken by the COP at its annual sessions.
Now make up a detailed rule-book for the effective implementation of the Convention.
The Convention’s ultimate objective is to stabilize atmospheric levels of greenhouse gases to prevent dangerous human-made interference with the climate. The Convention does not define what levels might be “dangerous”. However, it does state that ecosystems should be allowed to adapt naturally, food supply should not be threatened, and economic development should be able to proceed in a sustainable manner. Defining what we mean by “dangerous” is a tough political question, involving social and economic considerations as well as scientific judgment.
This reduction or mitigation of GHGs is accomplished through a list of commitments for signatory nations, including:
- annual reporting of national greenhouse gas inventories;
- regular disclosure and review of progress on regional greenhouse gas abatement programs;
- technological assistance to developing countries that are especially vulnerable to climate change;
- participation in the meetings of the Conference of Parties (COP) to the Convention.
The Convention’s principles represent the common agreement of governments on how to deal with the difficult issues around greenhouse gas mitigation.
1. The principles of “equity” and “common but differentiated responsibilities”: Climate change is a global issue and must be tackled as such. However, the industrialized countries (Annex I) have historically contributed the most to the problem and have more resources to address it. The developing countries (non-Annex I), in general, are more vulnerable to the adverse effects of climate change. Their technological, economic and institutional capacity to respond is generally lower.
The Convention therefore defines a global framework for addressing climate change, but requires Annex I countries to take the lead by modifying their long-term emission trends. It also asks the richest among them to provide financial and technological resources to help developing countries tackle the problem and adapt to its adverse effects.
2. The “precautionary principle”:
If you are driving in a car on a foggy night, you slow down in case there’s something you can’t see in the fog ahead. You don’t keep on driving at high speed just because you’re not certain there’s something ahead. You slow as a precaution. Similarly, although there are still many uncertainties around climate change, waiting for full scientific certainty before taking action will almost certainly be too late to prevent its worst impacts.
The Convention therefore calls for “precautionary measures” to combat climate change, stating that, “where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty should not be used as a reason for postponing such measures”.
3. “Sustainable Development” and “Economic costs”:
Climate change is linked to development. Patterns of energy consumption, land use and population growth are all key drivers of both development and climate change.
Strategies for reducing climate change must be compatible with the desire of the world’s poor to achieve sustainable development.
At the same time, industrialized countries are concerned about the economic costs of mitigating (reducing) climate change.
The Convention addresses these concerns. It recognizes that the prevailing priorities of developing countries are development and lessening poverty.
The Convention also emphasizes the importance of promoting sustainable development. It points out that sustainable economic growth and development will enable countries to better address climate change by providing much needed resources for the task.
In addition, the Convention calls for policies and measures to deal with climate change to be cost-effective, so as to ensure global benefits at the lowest possible cost.
United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change website
Caring for Climate
Understanding Climate Change: Beginner’s Guide to the UN Framework Convention and its Kyoto Protocol
See “The UN Framework and Kyoto Protocol Activity”