United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC)

The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) was adopted on 9 May 1992 by the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee established for its negotiation. In June 1992, the UNFCCC was opened for signature. It entered into force on 21 March 1994. By August 2005, the UNFCCC had 197 State Parties, making it one of the most universally-supported multilateral environmental agreements.

Objective and approach

The ultimate objective of the Convention is to achieve stabilization of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system. 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.

All Parties to the UNFCCC are subject to general commitments to respond to climate change. They are required to compile an inventory of their greenhouse gas emission and submit reports, known as national communications, on actions they are taking to implement the Convention. These reports provide the means to monitor progress made by Parties in meeting their commitments and in achieving the Convention’s ultimate objective.

To focus their actions, Parties to the UNFCCC must prepare national programmes containing climate change mitigation measures, provisions for developing and transferring environmentally friendly technologies, provisions for sustainably managing carbon sinks, preparations to adapt to climate change, plans for climate research, observation of the global climate system and data exchange, and plans to promote education, training and public awareness relating to climate change.

Apart from these general commitments, the UNFCCC divides countries into three main groups that are subject to different types of commitments.

Annex I Parties, i.e., industrialized countries that were members of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) in 1992 and countries with economies in transition (EIT Parties) are required to adopt climate change policies and measures with the aim of reducing greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2000. They are expected to take the lead in dealing with climate change and must report more often and in greater detail than non-Annex I Parties. The EIT Parties within the Annex I group are given “flexibility” in implementing their commitments, e.g. to select a baseline year other than 1990 for their specific commitments.

Annex II Parties the OECD members within the Annex I group, have special responsibilities in relation to providing financial resources to enable developing countries to undertake emission reduction activities under the UNFCCC and to help them adapt to the adverse effects of climate change. They are also urged to promote the development and transfer of environmentally friendly technologies to EIT Parties and developing countries.

Non-Annex I Parties are mainly developing countries. Within this group are subsets of countries recognized by the UNFCCC as being especially vulnerable to climate change or to the potential economic impacts of climate change response measures. The 48 Parties classified by the United Nations as least developed countries (LDCs) are given special consideration under the UNFCCC due to their limited capacity to respond to climate change and adapt to its adverse effects. Non-Annex I Parties have no quantitative obligations under the UNFCCC. Submission of their national communications is tied to funding received to cover their reporting costs. LDCs can submit their national communications at their discretion.

To respond to the needs of the most vulnerable countries, the UNFCCC has provisions on investment, insurance and technology transfer.

To supplement other available funding mechanisms, special funds have been created under the UNFCCC, namely:

  • A Special Climate Change Fund (SCCF) that exists to finance projects relating to capacity-building, adaptation, technology transfer, climate change mitigation and economic diversification for countries highly dependent on income from fossil fuels; and
  • A Least Developed Countries Fund (LDC Fund) intended to support a special work programme to assist LDCs.
Institutional structure

Conference of the Parties (COP): This is the supreme body of the UNFCCC, tasked to review the implementation of the UNFCCC, adopt decisions to further develop the UNFCCC’s rules, and negotiate new commitments. The COP currently meets annually.

Subsidiary Body for Scientific and Technological Advice (SBSTA): SBSTA provides advice to the COP on matters of science, technology, and methodology, including guidelines for improving standards of national communications and emission inventories. SBSTA meets at least twice a year, with its last sessions of the year being held in conjunction with the sessions of the COP.

Subsidiary Body for Implementation (SBI SBI helps the COP to assess and review the UNFCCC’s implementation and deals with financial and administrative matters. SBI sessions are held at the same time as SBSTA sessions.

Secretariat: The secretariat is responsible for supporting all the institutions involved in the climate change process, particularly the COP, the subsidiary bodies and their Bureaux. It makes arrangements for sessions of the UNFCCC bodies, helps Parties to fulfill their commitments, compiles and disseminates data and information, and confers with other relevant international agencies and treaties. It is based in Bonn, Germany.

Financial mechanism The Global Environment Facility (GEF) operates the UNFCCC’s financial mechanism, which channels funds to developing countries on a grant or loan basis, including funds received from Annex II Parties. The GEF reports on its climate change work to the COP every year. As part of the Marrakesh Accords agreed to at COP 7 (Marrakesh, Morocco, 2001), the GEF expanded the scope of activities eligible for funding, including work on adaptation and capacity-building. The GEF manages the SCCF and the LDC Fund.

Expert Groups: The LDC Expert Group, established in 2001, supports LDCs in the preparation of their national adaptation programmes of action. The A Consultative Group of Experts on National Communications from Parties not included in Annex I to the Convention (CGE) was established in 1999 to look into ways to improve national communications prepared by non-Annex I Parties. At least one member of the CGE from LDC Parties and at least one member of the CGE from Annex II Parties must be members of the LDC Expert Group. The LDC Expert Group and CGE report to SBI, which then makes recommendations to the COP. An Expert Group on Technology Transfer (EGTT) was established in 2001 to oversee implementation of the framework for meaningful and effective actions on technology transfer and to identify ways of advancing activities in this area. The EGTT makes recommendations to SBSTA which can then forwarded them to the COP.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC): The IPCC, an independent institution created by the World Meteorological Organization and the United Nations Environment Programme, works with the UNFCCC and is a crucial source of information on climate change. It publishes a comprehensive progress report on the state of climate change science every five years, as well as Special Reports or Technical Papers on specific issues at the request of the COP or SBSTA.

Work areas of the Convention

The Buenos Aires Programme of Work on Adaptation and Response Measures, adopted at COP 10 (Buenos Aires, Argentina, 2004) emphasizes implementation of activities identified in the context of national communications and foresees further action on vulnerability and adaptation as well as information gathering and methodologies.

Capacity building activities are guided by two decisions adopted at COP 7, namely the Framework for Capacity Building in Developing Countries and the Framework for Capacity Building in Countries with Economies in Transition. These frameworks emphasize that capacity building should be country-driven, involve learning-by-doing, and build on existing national and bilateral activities.

To increase and improve the transfer and access to environmentally sound technologies and know-how, the Framework for Meaningful and Effective Actions to Enhance the Implementation of Article 4, Paragraph 5, of the Convention (on technology transfer) was adopted at COP 7.

At COP 8 (New Delhi, India, 2002), a five-year New Delhi Work Programme on Article 6 of the Convention (education, training and public awareness) was adopted. The Work Programme defines the scope of possible activities at national and international levels, encourages the spread and exchange of information and promotes partnership and networking efforts. International partnerships and synergies figure prominently in the work programme.

The centerpiece of work with the LDCs is the preparation of national programmes of action (NAPAs) that are intended to communicate priority activities addressing the urgent and immediate needs and concerns of LDCs relating to adaptation to the adverse effects of climate change. NAPAs are to be prepared in accordance with the Guidelines for the Preparation of National Adaptation Programmes of Actionsadopted at COP 7.

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[1] The text is taken mainly from “Caring for Climate: A guide to the Climate Change Convention and the Kyoto Protocol (revised 2005 edition)” available at this website