The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC)
The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) was formed in 1992 in response to growing political concerns that human activities were substantially increasing the concentrations of the greenhouse gases (GHG) in the atmosphere and that immediate reductions in GHG emissions were needed to avert global warming.
||Keywords: Climate change, Kyoto Protocol, green house gas emissions, United Nations Convention on Climate Change
The UNFCCC established a long-term objective of stabilizing greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere "at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system". The treaty originally set a voluntary goal of reducing emissions of developed countries. These voluntary reductions were replaced with binding emissions limits in the Kyoto Protocol, discussed below. The UNFCCC also requires a wealthier subset of the developed countries to provide financial and technological resources to developing countries to assist them in their climate-related responsibilities.
To understand the extent of GHG emissions throughout the world, all signatories to the UNFCCC must regularly submit inventories of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and removals to the UNFCCC. These inventories provide a mechanism to compare relative contributions of different emissions sources and greenhouse gases to climate change. They also provide country-by-country comparisons.
Currently 192 parties, including the United States, have ratified the UNFCCC.
Recent Development: The Kyoto Protocol
Parties to the UNFCCC are currently engaged in complex negotiations on updating the Kyoto Protocol, a key agreement that updates the UNFCC. Negotiators have made some progress in identifying what tools will be available for countries to reduce their GHG emissions, however, significant work remains if the Parties are to complete a draft agreement by the December 2009 deadline established by the Bali Accords.
The UNFCCC contains a provision for the addition of protocols or updates that would set mandatory emission limits. The principal update to the UNFCC is the Kyoto Protocol, which was negotiated in 1997 and entered into force on February 16, 2005, following ratification by Russia, the 128th country to ratify the agreement.
Kyoto sets emission limits for carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4), nitrous oxide (N20), hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), perfluorocarbons (PFCs) and sulfur hexafluoride (SF6). Kyoto also establishes what is known as the Clean Development Mechanism and allows for international emissions trading regimes, both of which may be used as vehicles for developed countries to meet their emission reduction and limitation requirements.
Kyoto is based on the concept of differentiation of commitments, whereby developed countries accept binding greenhouse gas emission reductions or limits and financial commitments that are not required of developing countries. The principle rationale for this difference is that the developed world is largely responsible for the current problem. Carbon dioxide, for example, the principle GHG, has an atmospheric lifetime of 50 to 200 years. Global warming is a cumulative problem that began when the developed world first started industrializing several centuries ago.
Kyoto sets targets for 37 developed countries to reduce emissions an average of 5 percent below 1990 levels by 2012: the year the Protocol's first commitment period ends. Under the Protocol, the United States, which did not ratify Kyoto, would have to reduce its green house gas emissions 7 percent below 1990 levels; the European Community would reduce emissions 8 percent; and Canada, 6 percent. Kyoto does not require all industrialized countries to reduce emissions. Russia's emissions, for example, are kept at1990 levels, while Australia's are allowed to increase 8 percent.
Clean Development Mechanism
The Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) allows developed countries to invest in projects that reduce emissions in developing countries and have those reductions count toward their Kyoto targets This allows developed countries to purchase less expensive reductions in another country instead of making more expensive reduction in their own country. The CDM uses a system of certified emission reduction (CER) credits to account for these reductions. For emission reduction credits to count under the CDM, the planned reductions could not have occurred without the additional incentive provided by emission reductions credits, a concept known as "additionality".
International Emissions Trading (from UNFCCC)
The Kyoto Protocol also allows countries that surpass their targets to sell any of their excess reductions, know as units, to countries that have not met their targets. This is referred to as the "carbon market," since carbon dioxide is the principle GHG.
Other units Kyoto allows to be transferred are:
- A removal unit (RMU) on the basis of land use, land-use change and forestry (LULUCF) activities such as reforestation;
- An emission reduction unit (ERU) generated by a joint implementation project; and,
- A certified emission reduction (CER) generated from a Clean Development Mechanism project activity.
Kyoto creates a Compliance Committee to review questions of implementation of the treaty. For cases of non-compliance with the treaty's binding reduction requirements, the Committee "must declare that that Party is in non-compliance and require the Party to make up the difference between its emissions and its assigned amount during the second commitment period, plus an additional deduction of 30%." In addition, the Committee "shall" require the Party to submit a compliance action plan and suspend the eligibility of the Party to make transfers under emissions trading until the Party is reinstated.
The United States Refuses to Ratify Kyoto
The United States' failure to ratify Kyoto has been a major source of irritation with many of its European allies. The Clinton Administration never submitted the Kyoto Protocol to the Senate for ratification after the Senate unanimously passed a resolution opposing any agreement that: (1) would impose binding limits on the industrialized nations but not on developing nations within the same compliance period; (2) would result in serious economic harm to the economy of the United States.
President Bush restated his Administration's opposition to Kyoto, citing as reasons those cited in the Senate resolution: the failure of the Protocol to set binding limits on the developing world, including major population centers such as China and India, and the "serious harm" it would cause the U.S. economy.
Progress on Post-Kyoto Negotiations
With the first phase of Kyoto set to expire in 2012, the Parties agreed to the Bali Action Plan in 2007, which sets out a framework for negotiating a second phase of Kyoto. The Plan set forth four main themes for discussion -- mitigation, adaption, technology development and transfer, and financial resources and investment, and it calls for negotiations to be completed by the fifteenth Conference of the Parties (COP-15) in Copenhagen, Denmark on 30 November to 11 December 2009.
Since Bali, the focus of negotiations has been on ways to count GHG reductions under the new agreement. Some progress has been made on agreeing to a global cap-and-trade system, setting non-binding emissions targets for different sectors of the economy, and establishing rewards for curbing deforestation. However, the really hard work of setting binding emissions limits and agreeing on whether those limits will apply to any developing countries, remains to be done.
Many of the major economies have long supported a global cap-and-trade system. In February 2007, the Presidents or Prime Ministers from Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia, United Kingdom, the United States, Brazil, China, India, Mexico and South Africa agreed in principle to a global cap-and-trade system that would apply to both industrialized nations and developing countries.
Progress was made on agreeing to voluntary sector-specific targets at the recent Conference of the Parties in Accra, Ghana. Under this scheme, different emissions reduction targets would be set for individual industry sectors such as steel, power and cement generation. These targets would apply to both developed and developing countries. Developing countries are generally concerned that such an approach could eventually be used as a trade measure to block imports from their industries which generally are more polluting. However, at Accra, parties agreed in principle to work toward voluntary sectoral targets that would apply to all Parties to the UNFCCC.
Delegates also agreed to include forest protection in carbon-markets. Currently, only reforestation is included in those markets. By some estimates, curbing deforestation could reduce green house gas emissions by 20 percent. This proposal was supported by many developing countries, but opposed by some environmentalists who feel that it will allow developed countries to avoid real carbon reductions and create a land rush whereby wealthy countries will buy up forests in poorer countries to help meet their post-Kyoto requirements.
The Science Gets More Definitive
While nations continued to struggle with how to reduce the continued growth in GHG emissions, reports from leading scientists throughout the world grew increasingly urgent in calling for immediate action on climate change. In 2007, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issued a stark warning on the potentially devastating and irreversible consequences of climate change on the environmental, human health, economic activity, physical infrastructure and agriculture. Other reports followed with equally dire warnings about the need to rapidly reduce GHG emissions.
While the Accra negotiations focused on the means that developed countries could meet their commitments in the second phase of Kyoto, discussions in Poznan, Poland in December 2009, are expected to address emissions reduction targets. These negotiations are expected to be very difficult. Developed countries would like developing countries, especially those with rapidly growing GHG emissions such as India and China, to take on more commitments including accepting binding emissions cuts. Also, the line between developing and developed countries has blurred, as some economies once considered developing, such as Singapore and Argentina, have grown wealthier than some developed countries. As a result, some developing countries are promising specific targets. For example, South Korea, considered a developing country, announced that next year it will adopt a target for reducing its carbon emissions by 2020, and South Africa said it would embrace self-imposed targets that will peak its emissions by 2025.
Despite this progress, reaching agreement among the Article I countries will be extremely difficult. The amount of reductions called for in the IPPC report is massive, and many countries are waiting to see what will be the position of the new United States Administration.
1 December 2008
The First Ten Years, United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, 2004, ,http://unfccc.int/essential_background/background_publications_htmlpdf/items/2625.php
United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change art. 2, opened for signature May 9, 1992, 1771 U.N.T.S. 107, S. Treaty Doc. No. 102-38 [Hereinafter UNFCCC].
Id. at art. 4(2)(a)
Id. at art. 4(3)(4)(5).
UNFCCC, supra art. 17.
Kyoto Protocol to the United Nations Framework on Climate Change UN Doc FCCC/CP/1997/7/Add. 1, Dec. 10, 1997; 37 ILM 22 (1998) [Hereinafter Kyoto Protocol].
Press Release, Kyoto Protocol to enter into force 16 February 2005, http://unfccc.int/files/press/news_room/press_releases
Kyoto Protocol, supra annex A.
Kyoto Protocol, supra arts. 12, 17.
Kyoto Protocol, supra annex B
Kyoto Protocol, supra art. 18.
S.Res. 98, 105th Congress, (1997) (unenacted).
See Press Release, Text of a Letter from the President to Senators Hagel, Helms, Craig, and Roberts, http://www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2001/03/20010314.html
Report of the Conference of the Parties on its thirteenth session, held in Bali from 3 to 15 December 2007: Addendum Part Two: Action taken by the Conference of the Parties at its thirteen Session, FCCC/CP/2007/ Add.1 (14 March 2008), www.unfccc.int/meetings/cop_13/items/4049.php
See Politicians sign new climate pact, BBC News, Feb.16, 2007, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/science/nature/6364663.stm
Earth Negotiations Bulletin, Summary of the Third Session of The Ad Hoc Working Group Under the Convention and Sixth Session (Part One) of the Ad Hoc Working Group Under the Kyoto Protocol, IISD Reporting Service, Aug. 30,2008, http://www.iisd.ca/vol12/enb12383e.html.
See Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Climate Change 2007: Synthesis Report (Nov. 12-17, 2007) http://www.ipcc.ch/ipccreports/ar4-syr.htm
For example, see Rosenweig et al, Nature, 453, Attributing physical and biological impacts to anthropogenic climate change, (15 May 2008)
Alister Doyle, Rich or Poor? New Faultline in U.N. Climate Talks, Reuters Africa, Aug. 28, 2008, http://africa.reuters.com/wire/news/usnLS644425.html.
Alister Doyle, S. Korea seeks wider climate role with 2020 goals, Reuters Africa, Aug. 23, 2008, http://africa.reuters.com/wire/news/usnLN391237.html.
S/Africa criticized for unilateral commitment to set climate targets, Afrique en ligne, Aug. 27, 2008, http://www.afriquenligne.fr/s%10africa-criticised-for-
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