Every year, a great number of delegates convenes at the Conference of the Parties (COP) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). The representatives of nation states strive for mutual agreements for climate action. As climate change is a global problem, which just one country cannot tackle all by itself, such a coordinated approach on the international level is indispensable.
In this article, you get an overview of the contents of the framework convention on climate change, the structure of the multilateral climate negotiations and the most important milestones of the climate diplomacy so far. As a last point, an assessment of the international efforts for climate protection and against the negative impacts of climate change ensues.
In 1992, the international community adopted the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). At the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, 154 nation states signed the document, which entered into force only in 1994.
Earlier, several important meetings of scientists have taken place. In 1979, the first scientific “World Climate Conference” passed off. In 1988, the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) and the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) established the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). With its assessment and special reports, the IPCC compiles the state-of-the-art knowledge, which provides the basis for political action. In the same year, political negotiations started, which finally resulted in the UNFCCC.
The objective of the UNFCCC is the “stabilization of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system”. To achieve this target, the document emphasises the “common but differentiated responsibility and respective capabilities” of countries. This is due to the diverse (inter alia financial) capacities depending on the economic power of the nation states and because of the differing historical responsibilities for climate change depending on past greenhouse gas emissions.
These – sometimes obscure – formulaic compromises mask the fact that a framework convention defines the underlying fundamentals and basic principles. The Parties to the Convention shall elaborate on the details only subsequently. This is the reason why every year the so-called COPs take place.
Procedure of negotiations
At the climate talks pertains the principle of consensus – all Parties to the Convention have to agree. This constitutes a major difficulty as there are by now 197 Parties with different interests and starting situations. However, to facilitate the proceedings, there are several negotiating groups – one of them is the European Union.
Most of the groups split into industrialised countries on the one hand and developing countries on the other hand. The Framework Convention of 1992 provides for such a binary division of countries and passes the primary responsibility to tackle climate change to industrialised countries. This is a major point of contention leading to criticism and difficult negotiations because the underlying economic and political realities have changed a lot ever since. Nevertheless, the nation states have already achieved various decisions and agreements, as the following photo series shows.
Milestones of the international climate negotiations
: COP26 in Glasgow
The next COP will take place in mid-2021 in Glasgow, United Kingdom (postponement due to Corona virus). Until then, nation states shall present their new or updated NDCs. In Madrid at COP25, already 120 countries joined the “Climate Ambition Coalition” and announced to achieve climate neutrality or net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. Moreover, 80 states pledged to upward revise their NDCs.
After more than three decades of international climate diplomacy, the issue of climate change as become even more pressing, more urgent and greater than before. Respectively, there is a lot of criticism: The proceedings under the UNFCCC only had a marginal impact on the development of greenhouse gas emissions so far. Several commentators conceived the negotiations to be inelastic and inflexible, partly due to the binary division of the world into industrialised and developing countries. The consent principle prevents far-reaching agreements, as nation states usually only agree upon the lowest common denominator. In addition, so far the negotiations mainly centred around the sharing of burdens, i.e. negatively connoted impacts on countries. Last but not least, some observers have accused the negotiations under the UNFCCC to be far away from the situation on the ground. There is no direct contact to the areas and people already affected by climate change.
However, delegate have achieved at least some progress, particularly when looking at emission data, reporting requirements and capacity building for developing countries. This progress constitutes an important foundation for future efforts. In addition, many commentators and negotiators value the international climate talks under the UNFCCC for their fair and inclusive character.
The public attention and media reporting at COPs also generates pressure to adopt effective strategies and measures. The Paris Agreement has also accommodated some of the long-standing points of criticism, as it has a hybrid character: Individual contributions by all nation states on the one hand follow consistent patterns and joint rules in order to provide transparency and comparability. In addition, peer pressure and high public expectations in times of aggravating climate changes play a decisive role in the new architecture of the Paris Agreement. Finally, it is hard to judge what the status quo would look like if there would be no UNFCCC as a coordinated international approach to tackle climate change.
The State of Baden-Württemberg advocates for an intensification of climate action, both within our State and internationally under the UNFCCC. With the subnational climate leadership alliance Under2 Coalition, Baden-Württemberg and other ambitious states and regions strive to contribute to positive results at the international negotiations on climate action and to lead by example.