What is the UNFCCC?

Joe Ronan

Joe Ronan

HERO unfccc

The UNFCCC is absolutely central if you want to understand how important conventions like the Paris Agreement came into being. It is the framework that Paris sits within, and it forms the absolute bedrock of the international fight against climate change.

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pic1 Mary Robinson FoundationThe UNFCCC

What is the UNFCCC?

On 21st March 1994, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) came into being, with the aim of preventing “dangerous” human interference with the climate system.

Initially signed in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, it now has 197 signatories and forms the framework within which subsequent climate agreements are agreed. The Paris Agreement, or COP21, was a meeting of the parties of UNFCCC, so too will be the COP26 hosted in Glasgow this year. COP means Conference of Parties, a coming together of those who signed the UNFCCC. 

In 1994 we knew less about climate change than we do now, and climate change was not an issue of the same salience it is today. As such, the UNFCCC borrowed from the Montreal Protocol of 1987, binding its signatories to action in the interests of humanity and the planet even in the face of scientific uncertainty.

The convention was, and remains, important. It stated plainly and clearly that there was a problem, which was rather more remarkable at the time than it would be now (although, that said, today there remain some that cannot seem to manage even that). It committed parties to stabilising greenhouse gas emissions and acknowledged the need for developed countries to lead the way, directing the funds necessary to support the climate fight elsewhere on the globe.

Today, the success of the twenty-first-century response to climate change is likely to depend on the strength of institutions and agreements like the UNFCCC. If the ‘global community cannot mobilise in order to enact and enforce serious policy change, then the future looks bleak. The UNFCCC shows us that enormous leaps forward in the realm of climate action can be made; it also shows us that we still have further to travel.

pic 2 unfcc global community responding to climate change

The UNFCCC: What does it stand for? 

The ultimate objective of the Convention is to stabilize greenhouse gas concentrations “at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic (human-induced) interference with the climate system.”

It states that “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.”

Since then, these objectives have been honed: in Paris, the UNFCCC committed to carbon neutrality by 2050 and limiting global warming to 1.5C above pre-industrial levels.

The agreement itself, states that “change in the Earth’s climate and its adverse effects are a common concern of humankind,” and that the signatories are “determined to protect the climate system for present and future generations.”

Significantly, it also charts the beginning of attempts to strike a balance between development and reducing the effects of climate change. The framework, as we shall see below, acknowledges that historic emissions from developed countries are exactly what enabled them to develop: it was the industrial capitalist countries of Western Europe and North America who were the major emitters throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries.

This is the historic reality: past progress hurt the planet

So, how do we reduce emissions without enforcing economic repression on less-developed nations? 

One solution is the Clean Development Mechanism. It formed part of the Kyoto Protocol, the climate agreement of 1997 which extended upon the provisions of the UNFCCC.

It was the first global, environmental investment and credit scheme of its kind, funding projects such as rural electrification via solar power across the globe. Sustainability – it makes clear – is not about economic repression or regression. Rather, informed by knowledge that we lacked in centuries past, sustainability is developing in ways that do not destroy

pic 3 SourceUN Photo_ Tom Prendergast The Heads of State and Government at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro

The UNFCC and the Rio Convention 

The UNFCCC agreement of 1994 was just one of three agreements signed as part of the Rio Convention. The three conventions, on climate change, bio-diversity and desertification all derive from the 1992 Earth Summit.

The Earth Summit was the result of concerted efforts by the United Nations to help government’s rethink economic development and find ways to halt pollution. It produced 27 principles known collectively as the Rio Declaration, that assert the need for the world’s nations to conserve the natural environment and the integrity of the planet’s ecosystems.

It also produced a document called ‘Agenda 21,’ the preamble to which reads: “No nation can achieve this on its own. Together we can—in a global partnership for sustainable development.”

How the Rio Convention Evolved

These documents would go on to form the theoretical and moral basis of the UNFCCC and the subsequent COP events that have followed, emphasising principles of multilateral responsibility. Collaboration and action.

The two-week Earth Summit itself formed part of a long and arduous process that was begun in 1972, with the Declaration of the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment, signed in Stockholm. The Stockholm declaration was the first world conference on environmental action.

It produced the Report of the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment, which, “having considered the need for a common outlook and for common principles to inspire and guide the peoples of the world in the preservation and enhancement of the human environment,” states that:

“The Conference calls upon Governments and peoples to exert common efforts for the preservation and improvement of the human environment, for the benefit of all the people and for their posterity.”

pic4 Source UN Stockholm scene of the first world conference on environmental action

UNFCCC: The Developed and the Developing

The UNFCCC, then, sits in this tradition of seeking to improve the environment for ‘all the people.’ As such, it notes that: “that the largest share of historical and current global emissions of greenhouse gases has originated in developed countries, that per capita emissions in developing countries are still relatively low and that the share of global emissions originating in developing countries will grow to meet their social and development needs.”

“That responses to climate change should be coordinated with social and economic development in an integrated manner with a view to avoiding adverse impacts on the latter, taking into full account the legitimate priority needs of developing countries for the achievement of sustained economic growth and the eradication of poverty.”

And, “that all countries, especially developing countries, need access to resources required to achieve sustainable social and economic development, etc. In order for developing countries to progress towards that goal, their energy consumption will need to grow taking into account the possibilities for achieving greater energy efficiency and for controlling greenhouse gas emissions in general. That includes the application of new technologies in terms of which make such an application economically and socially beneficial.”

These are crucial states of mutual aid and commitment. UNFCCC does not deny past realities, nor seek to impose burdens of guilt, but rather obliges the international community to work together for the “common concern of humankind.”

 It asserts that development and the fight against climate change must go hand in hand.

pic5 Source The Guardian Bolsonaro has overseen renewed levels of deforestation

The UNFCCC and the future

The United Nations has made it clear repeatedly that the fight to protect the environment is a task inseparable from that of global development and cooperation. Which is why it seems so bafflingly (if not brazenly hypocritical) that the British government, host of the COP26 in Glasgow later this year, is in the process of slashing its foreign aid budget.

Aid to Syria, Libya, Somalia and the Democratic Republic of Congo will all be cut by roughly two-thirds. In South Sudan, currently suffering brutally from famine, the UK’s aid spend is set to drop from £110m to just £45m. Whilst, in the Sahel region of Africa, one of the locations on the global most immediately impacted by climate change, British spending could fall even more drastically – from £340m to £23m.

In the words of the IPCC, “international cooperation is necessary to significantly mitigate climate change impacts.” We know that climate change disproportionately impacts the less developed nations, and that climate change is disproportionately the product of patterns of behaviour and consumption in more developed nations.

We must unite to fight climate change

Echoing the words of the IPCC, there can be no nationally specific solution to climate change; global warming is a global phenomenon with global causes and global effects. Retreating from the principles of international cooperation and mutual aid is not a positive step.
Every one of the agreements discussed here – whether it be the UNFCCC of 1994, subsequent declarations like the Paris Agreement, or those that preceded it, such as Stockholm 1972 – make that abundantly clear.

Moving forwards in the battle against climate change is about moving forwards together, sustainably. The COP26 in Glasgow this year is set to be an historic moment. Governments, reeling from the COVID disaster, will pivot back towards the climate crisis, after a period in which leaders like Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro looked set to derail the principles of the Paris Agreement.

If the UNFCCC makes anything clear, it is that nations must be united to fight climate change.

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