The basis of international policy for cutting down emissions of greenhouse gases is the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. It was signed in 1992 and came into effect in 1994.
It has as an "ultimate objective" the stabilising of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere "at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic (human-induced) interference with the climate system."
The convention accepts as a stated principle “common but differentiated responsibilities”, meaning that the industrialised nations, being responsible for by far the greatest share of emissions, both now and in the past, should take the lead in combating climate change and its damaging effects.
The Kyoto protocol
A first step towards quantified commitments as a means of attaining the aim of the climate convention was taken when the Kyoto Protocol was signed in 1997. It entered into force in February 2005.
The protocol embraces six greenhouse gases, carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide and industrial gases HFCs, PFCs and sulfur hexafluoride (SF6), that are combined in a "basket", so that individual gases are translated into CO2 equivalents, which are then added up to produce a single figure.
Emissions from aviation and marine bunker fuels used in international transport do not enter into any national undertakings.
First commitment period (2008-2012)
Under this protocol the industrialized nations have made legally binding undertakings with regard to their emissions of greenhouse gases for the period 1990 to 2008-2012 (average for the five years). Some countries will be allowed to increase their emissions, or freeze them at current levels, but most will have to make reductions (see table below). The overall reduction for the so-called Annex I countries (those listed in the table below) was expected to be 5.2 per cent when the protocol was signed.
|0%||New Zealand, Russia, Ukraine|
|-6%||Canada, Hungary, Japan, Poland|
|-8%||EU15 (collectively), Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Liechtenstein, Monaco, Romania, Switzerland, Slovakia and Slovenia.|
The United States – which accounted for a good third of the Annex I countries' emissions of carbon dioxide in 1990 and has the world's highest emissions per capita – abandoned the protocol in 2001, with the excuse that it excluded 80 per cent of the world's population and would, moreover, be detrimental to the US economy.
Canada signed and ratified the protocol, but withdrew from it in 2011.
Second commitment period (2013-2020)
In December 2012, the members of the protocol agreed upon a second commitment period under the Kyoto Protocol. The agreement consists of legally binding targets for 37 countries: Australia, all members of the European Union, Belarus, Croatia, Iceland, Kazakhstan, Norway, Switzerland, and Ukraine. The targets add up to emission reductions of 18 per cent below their 1990 levels for the eight-year commitment period.
New Zealand, Japan and Russia have refused national targets for a second commitment period.
The Copenhagen accord from 2009
The Copenhagen UNFCCC Climate Change Conference took at the final plenary in Copenhagen 2009 note of the Copenhagen Accord for 194 members of the convention. This included the long-term goal of limiting the maximum global average temperature increase to no more than 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, subject to a review in 2015. It also included a reference to consider limiting the temperature increase to below 1.5 degrees - a key demand made by vulnerable developing countries. Other central elements included:
-Developed countries' promises to fund actions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and to adapt to the inevitable effects of climate change in developing countries.
-Developed countries promised to provide US$30 billion for the period 2010-2012, and to mobilize long-term finance of a further US$100 billion a year by 2020 from a variety of sources.
-Agreement on the measurement, reporting and verification of developing country actions.
-Establishment of four new bodies: a mechanism on deforestation called REDD-plus for developing countries, a High-Level Panel to study implementation of financial provisions, the Copenhagen Green Climate Fund, and a Technology Mechanism.
Paris Agreement from 2015
To address climate change, 194 countries adopted and signed the Paris Agreement at the UN climate conference in Paris on 12 December 2015.The Paris Agreement entered into force on 4 November 2016. So far 141 countries have ratified the Paris Agreement (March 2017).
The Paris Agreement’s central aim is to strengthen the global response to the threat of climate change by keeping a global temperature rise this century well below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase even further to 1.5 degrees Celsius. Additionally, the agreement aims to strengthen the ability of countries to deal with the impacts of climate change. To reach these ambitious goals, appropriate financial flows, a new technology framework and an enhanced capacity building framework will be put in place, thus supporting action by developing countries and the most vulnerable countries, in line with their own national objectives. The Agreement also provides for enhanced transparency of action and support through a more robust transparency framework.
The Paris Agreement requires all Parties to put forward their best efforts through “nationally determined contributions” (NDCs) and to strengthen these efforts in the years ahead. This includes requirements that all Parties report regularly on their emissions and on their implementation efforts.
In 2018, Parties will take stock of the collective efforts in relation to progress towards the goal set in the Paris Agreement and to inform the preparation of NDCs.
There will also be a global stocktake every 5 years to assess the collective progress towards achieving the purpose of the Agreement and to inform further individual actions by Parties.
>> Further reading
UNFCCC Official website of the UN Climate Convention, featuring convention documents, national reports and other information
The Kyoto protocol Factsheet from the secretariat, February 2003.