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United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change
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Signed 9 May 1992
Location New York City, US
Effective 21 March 1994
Condition ratification by 50 states
Signatories 165
Ratifiers 195 (all United Nations member states (except South Sudan), as well as Niue, Cook Islands and the European Union)[1]
Depositary Secretary-General of the United Nations
Languages Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Russian and Spanish

The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC or FCCC) 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 from 3 to 14 June 1992. The objective of the treaty is to "stabilize greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system".[2]

The treaty itself set no binding limits on greenhouse gas emissions for individual countries and contains no enforcement mechanisms. In that sense, the treaty is considered legally non-binding. Instead, the treaty provides a framework for negotiating specific international treaties (called "protocols") that may set binding limits on greenhouse gases.

The UNFCCC was opened for signature on 9 May 1992, after an Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee produced the text of the Framework Convention as a report following its meeting in New York from 30 April to 9 May 1992. It entered into force on 21 March 1994. As of May 2011, UNFCCC has 195 parties.

The parties to the convention have met annually from 1995 in Conferences of the Parties (COP) to assess progress in dealing with climate change. In 1997, the Kyoto Protocol was concluded and established legally binding obligations for developed countries to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions.[3] The 2010 Cancún agreements state that future global warming should be limited to below 2.0 °C (3.6 °F) relative to the pre-industrial level.[4] The 20th COP will take place in Peru in 2014.[5]

One of the first tasks set by the UNFCCC was for signatory nations to establish national greenhouse gas inventories of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and removals, which were used to create the 1990 benchmark levels for accession of Annex I countries to the Kyoto Protocol and for the commitment of those countries to GHG reductions. Updated inventories must be regularly submitted by Annex I countries.

The UNFCCC is also the name of the United Nations Secretariat charged with supporting the operation of the Convention, with offices in Haus Carstanjen, Bonn, Germany. From 2006 to 2010 the head of the secretariat was Yvo de Boer. On 17 May 2010, Christiana Figueres from Costa Rica succeeded de Boer. The Secretariat, augmented through the parallel efforts of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), aims to gain consensus through meetings and the discussion of various strategies.


The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) was opened for signature at the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) in Rio de Janeiro (known by its popular title, the Earth Summit). On 12 June 1992, 154 nations signed the UNFCCC, that upon ratification committed signatories' governments to reduce atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases with the goal of "preventing dangerous anthropogenic interference with Earth's climate system".

Article 3(1) of the Convention[6] states that Parties should act to protect the climate system on the basis of "common but differentiated responsibilities", and that developed country Parties should "take the lead" in addressing climate change. Under Article 4, all Parties make general commitments to address climate change through, for example, climate change mitigation and adapting to the impacts of climate change.[7]

The Framework Convention specifies the aim of developed (Annex I) Parties stabilizing their greenhouse gas emissions (carbon dioxide and other anthropogenic greenhouse gases not regulated under the Montreal Protocol) at 1990 levels, by the year 2000.[8] After the signing of the UNFCCC treaty, Parties to the UNFCCC have met at conferences ("Conferences of the Parties" – COPs) to discuss how to achieve the treaty's aims. At the 1st Conference of the Parties (COP-1), Parties decided that the aim of Annex I Parties stabilizing their emissions at 1990 levels by the year 2000 was "not adequate",[9] and further discussions at later conferences lead to the Kyoto Protocol. The Kyoto Protocol sets emissions targets for developed countries which are binding under international law.

The 2010 Cancún agreements (COP 16) include voluntary pledges made by 76 developed and developing countries to control their emissions of greenhouse gases.[4][10] At the 2012 Doha climate change talks (COP 18), Parties to the UNFCCC agreed to a timetable for a global agreement which will include all countries. The timetable states that a global agreement should be adopted by 2015, and implemented by 2020.[11]

Interpreting Article 2

The ultimate objective of the Framework Convention is to prevent "dangerous" anthropogenic (i.e., human) interference of the climate system.[2] As is stated in Article 2 of the Convention, this requires that GHG concentrations are stabilized in the atmosphere at a level where ecosystems can adapt naturally to climate change, food production is not threatened, and economic development can proceed in a sustainable fashion.

Human activities have had a number of effects on the climate system.[12]:4 Global GHG emissions due to human activities have grown since pre-industrial times.[13] Warming of the climate system has been observed, as indicated by increases in average air and ocean temperatures, widespread melting of snow and ice cover, and rising global average sea level.[14] As assessed by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), "[most] of the observed increase in global average temperatures since the mid-20th century is very likely due to the observed increase in anthropogenic GHG concentrations".[13] "Very likely" here is defined by the IPCC as having a likelihood of greater than 90%, based on expert judgement.[15]

The future levels of GHG emissions are highly uncertain.[16] In 2010, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) published a report on the voluntary emissions reduction pledges made as part of the Copenhagen Accord. As part of their assessment, UNEP looked at possible emissions out until the end of the 21st century, and estimated associated changes in global mean temperature.[17]:18 A range of emissions projections suggested a temperature increase of between 2.5 to 5 °C before the end of the 21st century, relative to pre-industrial temperature levels. The lower end temperature estimate is associated with fairly stringent controls on emissions after 2020, while the higher end is associated with weaker controls on emissions.

Future climate change will have a range of beneficial and adverse effects on human society and the environment. The larger the changes in climate, the more adverse effects will predominate (see effects of global warming for more details).[19] The IPCC has informed the UNFCCC process in determining what constitutes "dangerous" human interference of the climate system. Their conclusion is that such a determination involves value judgements, and will vary among different regions of the world.[20] The IPCC has broken down current and future impacts of climate change into a range of "key vulnerabilities", e.g., impacts affecting food supply, as well as five "reasons for concern", shown opposite.[21]

Stabilization of greenhouse gas concentrations

In order to stabilize the concentration of GHGs in the atmosphere, emissions would need to peak and decline thereafter.[22] The lower the stabilization level, the more quickly this peak and decline would need to occur. The emissions associated with atmospheric stabilization varies among different GHGs. This is because of differences in the processes that remove each gas from the atmosphere.[23] Concentrations of some GHGs decrease almost immediately in response to emission reduction, e.g., methane, while others continue to increase for centuries even with reduced emissions, e.g., carbon dioxide.

All relevant GHGs need to be considered if atmospheric GHG concentrations are to be stabilized.[12]:9 Human activities result in the emission of four principal GHGs: carbon dioxide (chemical formula: CO2), methane (CH4), nitrous oxide (N2O) and the halocarbons (a group of gases containing fluorine, chlorine and bromine).[24] Carbon dioxide is the most important of the GHGs that human activities release into the atmosphere.[13] At present, human activities are adding emissions of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere far faster than they are being removed.[23] This is analogous to a flow of water into a bathtub.[25] So long as the tap runs water (analogous to the emission of carbon dioxide) into the tub faster than water escapes through the plughole (the natural removal of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere), then the level of water in the tub (analogous to the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere) will continue to rise. To stabilize the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide at a constant level, emissions would essentially need to be completely eliminated.[23] It is estimated that reducing carbon dioxide emissions 100% below their present level (i.e., complete elimination) would lead to a slow decrease in the atmospheric concentration of CO2 by 40 parts-per-million (ppm) over the 21st century.

The emissions reductions required to stabilize the atmospheric concentration of CO2 can be contrasted with the reductions required for methane. Unlike CO2, methane has a well-defined lifetime in the atmosphere of about 12 years. Lifetime is defined as the time required to reduce a given perturbation of methane in the atmosphere to 37% of its initial amount.[23] Stabilizing emissions of methane would lead, within decades, to a stabilization in its atmospheric concentration.[26]

The climate system would take time to respond to a stabilization in the atmospheric concentration of CO2.[27] Temperature stabilization would be expected within a few centuries. Sea level rise due thermal expansion would be expected to continue for centuries to millennia. Additional sea level rise due to ice melting would be expected to continue for several millennia.

Precautionary principle

In decision making, the precautionary principle is considered when possibly dangerous, irreversible, or catastrophic events are identified, but scientific evaluation of the potential damage is not sufficiently certain (Toth et al., 2001, pp. 655–656).[28] The precautionary principle implies an emphasis on the need to prevent such adverse effects.

Uncertainty is associated with each link of the causal chain of climate change. For example, future GHG emissions are uncertain, as are climate change damages. However, following the precautionary principle, uncertainty is not a reason for inaction, and this is acknowledged in Article 3.3 of the UNFCCC (Toth et al., 2001, p. 656).[28]


Main article: List of parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change

As of 2013, the UNFCC has 195 parties including all United Nations member states (except South Sudan), as well as Niue, Cook Islands and the European Union.[29][1] In addition, the Holy See, Palestine and South Sudan are observer states.[29]

Classification of Parties and their commitments

Parties to the UNFCCC are classified as:

  • Annex B: Parties listed in Annex B of the Kyoto Protocol are Annex I Parties with first- or second-round Kyoto greenhouse gas emissions targets (see Kyoto Protocol for details). The first-round targets apply over the years 2008–2012. As part of the 2012 Doha climate change talks, an amendment to Annex B was agreed upon containing with a list of Annex I Parties who have second-round Kyoto targets, which apply from 2013–2020.[33] The amendments have not entered into force.
  • Non-Annex I: Parties to the UNFCCC not listed in Annex I of the Convention are mostly low-income[34] developing countries.[30] Developing countries may volunteer to become Annex I countries when they are sufficiently developed.
  • Least-developed countries (LDCs): 49 Parties are LDCs, and are given special status under the treaty in view of their limited capacity to adapt to the effects of climate change.[30]

List of parties

Annex I countries

There are 41 Annex I Parties including the European Union. These countries are classified as industrialized countries and economies in transition:[31] Of these, 24 are Annex II Parties (including the European Union)[32] and 14 are Economies in Transition.[31]



Conferences of the Parties

Main article: United Nations Climate Change conference

The United Nations Climate Change Conference are yearly conferences held in the framework of the UNFCC. They serve as the formal meeting of the UNFCC Parties (Conferences of the Parties) (COP) to assess progress in dealing with climate change, and beginning in the mid-1990s, to negotiate the Kyoto Protocol to establish legally binding obligations for developed countries to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions.[3] From 2005 the Conferences have also served as the Meetings of Parties of the Kyoto Protocol (MOP). Also parties to the Convention that are not parties to the Protocol can participate in Protocol-related meetings as observers. The first conference was held in 1995 in Berlin, while the 2012 conference was held in Doha.

Subsidiary bodies

A subsidiary body is a committee that assists the Conference of the parties. Subsidiary bodies includes:[35]

  • Permanents:
    • The Subsidiary Board of Implementation (SBI) makes recommendations on policy and implementation issues to the COP and, if requested, to other bodies.
    • The Subsidiary Board of Scientific and Technological Advice (SBSTA) serves as a link between information and assessments provided by expert sources (such as the IPCC) and the COP, which focuses on setting policy.
  • Temporary:
    • Ad Hoc Working Group on Further Commitments for Annex I Parties under the Kyoto Protocol (AWG-KP)
    • Ad Hoc Working Group on Long-term Cooperative Action (AWG-LCA)


The work under the UNFCCC is facilitated by a secretariat in Bonn, Germany, which from July 2010 is headed by Executive Secretary Christiana Figueres.

Commentaries and analysis

Criticisms of the UNFCCC Process

The overall umbrella and processes of the UNFCCC and the adopted Kyoto Protocol have been criticized by some as not having achieved its stated goals of reducing the emission of carbon dioxide (the primary culprit blamed for rising global temperatures of the 21st century).[36] At a speech given at his alma mater, Todd Stern — the US Climate Change envoy — has expressed the challenges with the UNFCCC process as follows, “Climate change is not a conventional environmental issue...It implicates virtually every aspect of a state's economy, so it makes countries nervous about growth and development. This is an economic issue every bit as it is an environmental one.” He went on to explain that, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change 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.[37]

The failure to achieve meaningful progress and reach effective-CO2 reducing-policy treaties among the parties over the past eighteen years have driven some countries like the United States to never ratify the UNFCCC's largest body of work — the Kyoto Protocol, in large part because the treaty didn't cover developing countries who now include the largest CO2 emitters. However, this fails to consider the historical responsibility for climate change since industrialisation, which is a contentious issue in the talks, and the responsibility of emissions from consumption and importation of goods.[38] It has also led Canada to withdraw from the Kyoto Protocol out of a desire to not force its citizens to pay penalties that would result in wealth transfers out of Canada. Canada formally withdrew from the Kyoto Protocol in 2011.[39] Both the US and Canada are looking at Voluntary Emissions Reduction schemes that they can implement internally to curb carbon dioxide emissions outside of the Kyoto Protocol.[40]

The perceived lack of progress has also led some countries to seek and focus on alternative high-value activities like the creation of the Climate and Clean Air Coalition to Reduce Short-Lived Climate Pollutants which seeks to regulate short-lived pollutants such as methane, black carbon and hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) which together are believed to account for up to 1/3 of current global warming but whose regulation is not as fraught with wide economic impacts and opposition.[41]

In 2010, Japan stated that it will not sign up to a second Kyoto term, because it would impose restrictions on it not faced by its main economic competitors, China, India and Indonesia.[42] A similar indication was given by the Prime Minister of New Zealand in November 2012.[43] At the 2012 conference, last minute objections at the conference by Russia, Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan were ignored by the governing officials, and they have indicated that they will likely withdraw or not ratify the treaty. [44] These defections place additional pressures on the UNFCCC process that is seen by some as cumbersome and expensive: in the UK alone the climate change department has taken over 3,000 flights in two years at a cost of over ₤1,300,000 (British Pounds).[45]


Benchmarking is the setting of a policy target based on some frame of reference.[46] An example of benchmarking is the UNFCCC's original target of Annex I Parties limiting their greenhouse gas emissions at 1990 levels by the year 2000. Goldemberg et al. (1996)[47] commented on the economic implications of this target. Although the target applies equally to all Annex I Parties, the economic costs of meeting the target would likely vary between Parties. For example, countries with initially high levels of energy efficiency might find it more costly to meet the target than countries with lower levels of energy efficiency. From this perspective, the UNFCCC target could be viewed as inequitable, i.e., unfair.

Benchmarking has also been discussed in relation to the first-round emissions targets specified in the Kyoto Protocol (see views on the Kyoto Protocol and Kyoto Protocol and government action).

See also



External links

  • United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change
  • Text of the UNFCCC
  • Ratifications
  • Earth Negotiations Bulletin: detailed summaries of all COPs and SBs
  • Carboun
  • UNFCCC on India Environment Portal
  • Conference of Parties (COP)
  • Historic Archives of the United Nations Audiovisual Library of International Law
  • IPCC
  • keeling curve

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