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 on the treaty was reached at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in June 1992. The treaty sets out to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases from human activities 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—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 intergovernmental 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 up to 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. This deliberate omission was remedied by the 1977 Kyoto Protocol to the UNFCCC.

Environmental advocates saw the UNFCCC as a good beginning, but too weak, and 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 to codify target reductions.

The UNFCCC entered into force on March 21, 1994. A year later, its signatories met in Berlin, Germany, for a general meeting, the first in an annual series called for by the terms of the UNFCCC. At that 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. The Kyoto Protocol sets binding limits on emissions for developed countries, requires other countries (including, controversially, India and China) only to monitor their greenhouse emissions, and sets up mechanisms for trading in carbon credits and for transferring money from wealthy nations to poorer nations for greenhouse-mitigation projects such as the setup of more efficient manufacturing plants.

A successor agreement to the Kyoto Protocol, which might remedy some of that agreement’s admitted shortcomings, was due to enter into force in 2012. Negotiations on the terms of that successor agreement began in late 2007. However, diplomats did not expect much progress to be made until after the U.S. presidential election of 2008, since the administration of George W. Bush had since 2001 been resolutely opposed to U.S. cooperation with the Kyoto Protocol (which was never ratified by the United States, alone of industrialized nations). The Bush administration opposed any climate treaty that would entail U.S. promises to abide by specific greenhouse-emissions caps.

Although it did not ratify the Kyoto Protocol, the United States remains a member of the UNFCCC. The United States also cooperates in the operations of the IPCC, a separate UN group dedicated to monitoring the state of global scientific knowledge about climate change.

Primary Source Connection

The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change was an international treaty created based on UN recognition that climate change is a global issue and relevant to all countries. It was also created based on recognizing that human activities would increase the concentration of greenhouse gases, especially carbon dioxide, which would then, in turn, cause a further increase in global temperature.

The United Nations also recognized that the management of carbon dioxide emissions needs to be based on a global agreement. It is not suitable for every country to develop their own standards because the decisions


ANTHROPOGENIC: Made by humans or resulting from human activities.

GREENHOUSE GAS: A gas whose accumulation in the atmosphere increases heat retention.

KYOTO PROTOCOL: Extension in 1997 of the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), an international treaty signed by almost all member countries with the goal of mitigating climate change.

RENEWABLE ENERGY: Energy that can be naturally replenished. In contrast, fossil fuel energy is nonrenewable.

made by one country can impact other countries. This especially applies to those countries more vulnerable to changes in temperature, including developing countries in Africa, small island countries, and countries with low-lying areas vulnerable to flooding.

Based on these recognitions, the treaty requires that all countries provide information on their carbon dioxide emissions, implement plans to manage emissions and mitigate climate change, promote and cooperate in activities related to managing climate change, and take climate change into account when developing social, economic, and environmental plans.

In 1997, the Framework Convention on Climate Change was amended with the addition of the Kyoto Protocol. This addition required countries to reduce their emissions of greenhouse gases and also set greenhouse-gas emission limits.




The ultimate objective of this Convention and any related legal instruments that the Conference of the Parties may adopt is to achieve, in accordance with the relevant provisions of the Convention, stabilization of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system. Such a level should be achieved within a time-frame sufficient to allow ecosystems to adapt naturally to climate change, to ensure that food production is not threatened and to enable economic development to proceed in a sustainable manner.



In their actions to achieve the objective of the Convention and to implement its provisions, the Parties shall be guided, inter alia, by the following:

  1. The Parties should protect the climate system for the benefit of present and future generations of humankind, on the basis of equity and in accordance with Their common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities. Accordingly, the developed country Parties should take the lead in combating climate change and the adverse effects thereof.
  2. The specific needs and special circumstances of developing country Parties, especially those that are particularly vulnerable to the adverse effects of climate change, and of those Parties, especially developing country Parties, that would have to bear a disproportionate or abnormal burden under the Convention, should be given full consideration.
  3. The Parties should take precautionary measures to anticipate, prevent or minimize the causes of climate change and mitigate its adverse effects. 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, taking into account that policies and measures to deal with climate change should be cost-effective so as to ensure global benefits at the lowest possible cost. To achieve this, such policies and measures should take into account different socio-economic contexts, be comprehensive, cover all relevant sources, sinks and reservoirs of greenhouse gases and adaptation, and comprise all economic sectors. Efforts to address climate change may be carried out cooperatively by interested Parties.
  4. The Parties have a right to, and should, promote sustainable development. Policies and measures to protect the climate system against human-induced change should be appropriate for the specific conditions of each Party and should be integrated with national development programmes, taking into account that economic development is essential for adopting measures to address climate change.
  5. The Parties should cooperate to promote a supportive and open international economic system that would lead to sustainable economic growth and development in all Parties, particularly developing country Parties, thus enabling them better to address the problems of climate change. Measures taken to combat climate change, including unilateral ones, should not constitute a means of arbitrary or unjustifiable discrimination or a disguised restriction on international trade.



  1. All Parties, taking into account their common but differentiated responsibilities and their specific national and regional development priorities, objectives and circumstances, shall:
    1. Develop, periodically update, publish and make available to the Conference of the Parties, in accordance with Article 12, national inventories of anthropogenic emissions by sources and removals by sinks of all greenhouse gases not controlled by the Montreal Protocol, using comparable methodologies to be agreed upon by the Conference of the Parties;
    2. Formulate, implement, publish and regularly update national and, where appropriate, regional programmes containing measures to mitigate climate change by addressing anthropogenic emissions by sources and removals by sinks of all greenhouse gases not controlled by the Montreal Protocol, and measures to facilitate adequate adaptation to climate change;
    3. Promote and cooperate in the development, application and diffusion, including transfer, of technologies, practices and processes that control, reduce or prevent anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases not controlled by the Montreal Protocol in all relevant sectors, including the energy, transport, industry, agriculture, forestry and waste management sectors;
    4. Promote sustainable management, and promote and cooperate in the conservation and enhancement, as appropriate, of sinks and reservoirs of all Greenhouse gases not controlled by the Montreal Protocol, including biomass, forests and oceans as well as other terrestrial, coastal and marine Ecosystems;
    5. Cooperate in preparing for adaptation to the impacts of climate change; develop and elaborate appropriate and integrated plans for coastal zone management, water resources and agriculture, and for the protection and rehabilitation of areas, particularly in Africa, affected by drought and desertification, as well as floods;
    6. Take climate change considerations into account, to the extent feasible, in their relevant social, economic and environmental policies and actions, and employ appropriate methods, for example impact assessments, formulated and determined nationally, with a view to minimizing adverse effects on the economy, on public health and on the quality of the environment, of projects or measures undertaken by them to mitigate or adapt to climate change;
    7. Promote and cooperate in scientific, technological, technical, socio-economic and other research, systematic observation and development of data archives related to the climate system and intended to further the understanding and to reduce or eliminate the remaining uncertainties regarding the causes, effects, magnitude and timing of climate change and the economic and social consequences of various response strategies;
    8. Promote and cooperate in the full, open and prompt exchange of relevant scientific, technological, technical, socio-economic and legal information related to the climate system and climate change, and to the economic and social consequences of various response strategies;
    9. Promote and cooperate in education, training and public awareness related to climate change and encourage the widest participation in this process, including that of non-governmental organizations; and
    10. Communicate to the Conference of the Parties information related to implementation, in accordance with Article 12.

United Nations


See Also Climate Change; Global Warming; Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change; IPCC 2007 Report; Kyoto Protocol



Forneri, Claudio, et al. “Keeping the Forest for the Climate’s Sake: Avoiding Deforestation in Developing Countries Under the UNFCCC.” Climate Policy 6 (2006): 275–294.

Web Sites

NewScientist. “Leading Nations Find Agreement on Climate Change.” http://environment.newscientist.com/channel/earth/dn11199-leading-nations-find-agreement-on-climate-change.html (accessed April 4, 2008).

United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.http://unfccc.int/2860.php (accessed April 4, 2008).

United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. “IPCC Reports.” http://www.ipcc.ch/ipccreports/assessments-reports.htm (accessed March 29, 2008).

James Corbett

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United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change(UNFCCC)

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United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change(UNFCCC)