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United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC)

The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) is the United Nation's international, multilateral agreement on climate change. Its aim is to prevent a dangerous anthropogenic, i.e. man-made, interference with the climate system. The UNFCCC was created in 1992 as part of the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) in Rio de Janeiro and entered into force two years later. 195 countries, and thus almost every country on earth, have ratified the UNFCCC.

The details of the objective

blue sky with clouds and the sun shining thru

In the context of the Framework Convention the parties agreed not only to prevent a dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system but also to achieve a stabilisation of greenhouse gas concentrations. This should occur at a level that allows "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" (Article 2 of the Convention).

Precisely what constitutes "dangerous" interference with the climate system is left open to interpretation by the Convention. At COP16 in Cancún in 2010, the parties decided to restrict the global temperature rise to a maximum 2 degrees Celsius compared with pre-industrial times. It was phrased to explicitly allow for the possibility of limiting the rise to 1.5 degree Celsius, a key demand of small island states. The existence of several small island states is threatened by rising sea levels due to climate change. According to calculations by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), developed countries must reduce their greenhouse gas emissions by 80 to 95 percent by 2050 compared to 1990.


View of Bonn with UN tower at the shore of the river Rhein

The Conference of the Parties (COP) is the supreme decision-making body of the Convention, also referred to as climate change conference, climate summit or UN climate conference. Once a year the parties to the convention get together to promote the effective implementation of the convention and advance international climate action. For this purpose, the parties may adopt amendments or even independent agreements such as the Kyoto Protocol. The COP also makes important decisions in order to fulfil its tasks. The decisions refer to measures regarding climate action, adaptation to climate change, funding climate action or technological development and transfer. The UNFCCC secretariat in Bonn provides administrative support for the COP such as drawing up reports and coordinating with other relevant international organisations.

In addition to the annual COP, there are also two subsidiary bodies, one of which focuses on scientific and technical issues (Subsidiary Body for Scientific and Technical Advice / SBSTA) while the other addresses implementation issues (Subsidiary Body for Implementation / SBI). The subsidiary bodies meet twice a year - once in Bonn in the summer and during the COP at the end of the year.

The principle of common but differentiated responsibilities

zwei gebräunte faltige Hände halten ein Modell einer Weltkugel, vor braunem Sand

By signing the Framework Convention on Climate Change, all parties to the convention have committed themselves to reporting regularly on their GHG emissions and to initiate mitigation measures. Article 3 stipulates the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities (CBDR-RC). This means that global climate action is a joint task for all countries, but that the individual countries should contribute in line with their respective emissions and capabilities. With a view to the CBDR principle, the convention itself distinguishes between only two groups of countries: developed countries and developing countries. Developed countries are listed in Annex I, the first annex to the Climate Convention. The parties to the convention agreed on far-reaching yet non-binding commitments for Annex I countries. These commitments concern reporting, implementation mitigation measures and, for the wealthier developed countries, financial and other support for measures in developing countries. The Annex I countries comprise mainly the OECD countries in 1990, also including the member states of the European Union, as the major emitters of climate damaging greenhouse gases. Developing countries (non-Annex-I countries), in line with a decision taken then also including emerging economies like Brazil, China and India, were exempted from reducing their emissions. For this reason, developed countries are assigned a leading role in reducing greenhouse gas emissions in line with the polluter-pays principle, which formed the basis, for example, for the legally binding reduction obligation for developed countries in the Kyoto Protocol.

Reality, however, has made these rules obsolete. For quite some time China has been the largest CO2 emitter in absolute figures, followed by the US, the EU-28, India, Russia and Indonesia. Emissions in Indonesia are mainly caused by deforestation and changes in land use. The deforestation of large areas of rainforest for plantations for palm oil or paper production eliminates the function of forests as carbon sinks. The carbon stored in the forests is released into the atmosphere. This also affects the balance of greenhouse gas emissions.

Per-capita emissions in China are now comparable to those of many developed countries. Germany and the EU therefore consider it important that the new climate agreement in 2015 takes into account the increased economic capabilities of emerging economies and their increased share in global emissions, and that all countries make commitments to climate

Last update: 25.10.2015