United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC)

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United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC)


The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) is an international environmental treaty. Agreement for the treaty was reached at the Earth Summit, staged in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in June 1992. The treaty sets out to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases in order to combat global climate change.

Historical Background and Scientific Foundations

Held over June 3–14, 1992, the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED)— better known as the Earth Summit—was unprecedented for a U.N. conference, in terms of its size and breadth of

its concerns. It came exactly twenty years after the U.N.'s Conference on the Environment and followed the resurgence of environmentalism in the late-1980s.

The Earth Summit was less a formal intergovern-mental meeting, however, than a vast gathering in which tens of thousands of environmentalists, campaigners, and ordinary people sought to make their voices heard. Their overall message was that world leaders needed to make difficult decisions to protect Earth's environment.

There was a universal acknowledgement at the Earth Summit of the need to ensure that future national and international policy should take into account environmental impact. There was a commitment from national governments to scrutinize and regulate local industrial pollution; an affirmation to explore the development of alternative and renewable energy sources; and a recognition of the growing scarcity of essential water sources.

The key document to emerge from Rio was the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), signed by 154 nations on June 12. The treaty represented—for the first time—international recognition that atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases needed to be reduced in order to counteract climate change. Its stated objective was “to achieve stabilization of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a low enough level to prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system.” The UNFCCC set in motion the period of negotiation that would culminate in binding targets for emissions reductions set in Kyoto, Japan, five years later.

Impacts and Issues

The UNFCCC reflected the spirit of the Earth Summit, but while it was the clearest international commitment to counteract climate change produced at that time, it was legally non-binding on the parties. The UNFCCC set no mandatory limits on greenhouse-gas emissions for individual nations. Instead, the treaty included provisions for updates and amendments—known as protocols—that could set future mandatory emission limits and reduction targets.

No mention was made of the creation of an international body to monitor and enforce reductions of greenhouse-gas emissions. The implication was that any future targets would be voluntary and self-monitored. The actual formula for calculating a country's greenhouse emissions was also vague.

Although there was a degree of satisfaction in the principles of the UNFCCC, environmental advocates called for more urgent action. For example, Maurice Strong, the Earth Summit's secretary general, lobbied unsuccessfully to include a target of 60% in the reduction in greenhouse-gas emissions. Another concern for several environmental organizations and participating nations was the reluctance of some high-polluting nations, such as the United States, to discuss binding emissions limits or codify target reductions.

The UNFCCC entered into force on March 21, 1994. A year later, its signatories met in Berlin, Germany, for their first general meeting. There was an acknowledgement that the existing convention did not go far enough in its efforts to counteract global warming and a mandate was agreed, which initiated a period of negotiation to establish binding greenhouse-gas emissions reduction targets. From this, the Kyoto Protocol emerged in December 1997, and entered into force in February 2005.

Primary Source Connection

In April 2007, the United Nations Security Council tackled the issue of global climate change. Some countries questioned whether the Security Council, which is dedicated to international peace and security, was the appropriate forum for such a debate. Most participants, however, agreed that global climate change will have serious implications for peace as countries or ethnic groups fight over increasingly scarce natural resources, water supplies, or arable land. In fact, the current crisis in Darfur, which has left 450,000 dead and displaced over 2.5 million people, started in large part as a fight over dwindling water supplies and grazing lands.

William M. Reilly is the United Nations Correspondent for the United Press International.


UNITED NATIONS, April 17 (UPI)—The U.N. Security Council for the first time has taken on the question of climate change, energy and security, as requested by Britain, this month's president of the panel of 15.

Some in the council said the panel should not be involved in such a debate even though Tuesday's focus was on the security implications of climate change, such as conflicts over access to energy, water, food and other scarce resources, and mass population movements and border disputes.

Margaret Beckett, Britain's foreign secretary, sought the session and assumed the president's chair, admitting there was doubt whether the council was the right forum. But she noted the council's responsibility was the maintenance of international peace and security, and climate change exacerbated many threats.


ANTHROPOGENIC: Made by people or resulting from human activities. Usually used in the context of emissions that are produced as a result of human activities.

GREENHOUSE GASES: Gases that cause Earth to retain more thermal energy by absorbing infrared light emitted by Earth's surface. The most important greenhouse gases are water vapor, carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, and various artificial chemicals such as chlorofluorocarbons. All but the latter are naturally occurring, but human activity over the last several centuries has significantly increased the amounts of carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide in Earth's atmosphere, causing global warming and global climate change.

KYOTO PROTOCOL: Extension in 1997 of the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), an international treaty signed by almost all countries with the goal of mitigating climate change. The United States, as of early 2008, was the only industrialized country to have not ratified the Kyoto Protocol, which is due to be replaced by an improved and updated agreement starting in 2012.

RENEWABLE ENERGY: Energy obtained from sources that are renewed at once, or fairly rapidly, by natural or managed processes that can be expected to continue indefinitely. Wind, sun, wood, crops, and waves can all be sources of renewable energy.


As a contribution to the then developing Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in May 2007 at Bangkok, Thailand, the 9th Session of Working Group III of the IPCC formally approved a Summary for Policymakers that asserted: “Notable achievements of the UNFCCC and its Kyoto Protocol are the establishment of a global response to the climate problem, stimulation of an array of national policies, the creation of an international carbon market and the establishment of new institutional mechanisms that may provide the foundation for future mitigation efforts (high agreement, much evidence).”

SOURCE: Metz, B., et al, eds. Climate Change 2007: Mitigation of Climate Change: Contribution of Working Group III to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

She also said there was potential economic disruption, which would inevitably have an impact on the world. The international community needed to recognize there was a security impact from climate change and begin to build a shared understanding of the relationship between energy, security and climate.

Jan Kubis, Slovakia's foreign minister, said it is fairly easy to appreciate the security, stability and health problems that would arise in a world in which there was increasing pressure on water availability, a major loss of arable land, food shortages and large-scale displacements of population due to flooding and other climate-change effects.

The poorest countries would suffer most, Kubis said.

Italy's Vittorio Craxi, undersecretary of state for foreign affairs, said climate change had the potential of affecting not only the environment, but also stability and security, especially when they coincided with problems of an ethnic, cultural, political or economic character.

For example, he said territorial changes caused by a rise in sea levels might impinge on disputes over borders or the division of maritime zones.

Ambassador Johan Verbeke of Belgium said the international community must address the issue in an integrated manner, promoting growth while protecting the environment and reducing fossil-fuel consumption.

It is clear climate change and global warming raised the risks of non-military threats, including, among others, sea-level rise, degradation of biodiversity, displacement of populations and crop depletion, Verbeke said. They also increased the risk that fragile states would relapse into conflict or civil war.

He added it was apparent climate change most adversely affected those countries and peoples already struggling to achieve sustainable development.

France's Ambassador Jean-Marc de La Sabliere said climate change was a basic threat whose consequences were already affecting the world. But he said the council was not the main forum to address the issue. The Framework Convention on Climate Change clearly played a central role, he said, but added the council could not ignore the threats to peace and security caused by climate change.

Ambassador Liu Zhenmin of China disagreed with the appropriateness of the debate in the council.

He said the international community was fully aware that climate change would affect national economic and social development and was related to the sustainable development of human society. China was ready and willing to discuss with other countries how to reinforce international cooperation and jointly respond to climate change.

While Beijing's envoy said the issue could have certain security implications, it was, in essence, an issue of sustainable development.

Discussing the issue in the council would not help countries in their efforts, and it would be hard for the council to assist developing countries affected by climate change to find more effective adaptations, he said. Discussions on climate change should be conducted within the framework that allowed participation by all parties.

The developing countries believed the Security Council did not have expertise and did not allow extensive participation in decision-making. It would not help produce widely acceptable proposals.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said throughout human history, people and countries had fought over natural resources.

“War had too often been the means to secure possession of scarce resources,” he said. The uninterrupted supply of fuel and minerals still is a key element of geopolitical considerations.

Things were easier at times of plenty, when all could share in the abundance, even if to different degrees, Ban said.

“But, when resources are scarce—whether energy, water or arable land—our fragile ecosystems become strained, as do the coping mechanisms of groups and individuals,” he said, adding “this can lead to a breakdown of established codes of conduct, and even outright conflict.”

William M. Reilly

reilly, william m. “analysis: u.n.'s climate-change debate.” united press international (upi). april 17, 2007.<http://www.upi.com/international_intelligence/analysis/2007/04/17/analysis_uns_climatechange_ debate/7109/> (accessed november 30, 2007).

See Also Bonn Conference (2001); Delhi Declaration; Kyoto Protocol.


Web Sites

Clery, Daniel. “A Climate of Confidence—Will Nations Be Able to Cheat the New Climate Convention Treaty? It All Depends on Verification.” NewScientist, May 30, 1992. <http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg13418232.800-focus-a-climate-of-confidence-will-nations-be-able-tocheatthe-new-climate-convention-treaty-it-all-depends-on-verification.html> (accessed November 27, 2007).

United Nations Framework Convention on Climate change, 1992. <http://unfccc.int/2860.php> (accessed November 27, 2007).

James Corbett

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United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC)