What is the UNFCCC & the COP?

    The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC or FCCC) is an international environmental treaty that was produced at the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) (informally known as the Earth Summit) in Rio de Janeiro, June, 1992.

    The treaty is aimed at stabilizing greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system – commonly believed to be around 2°C above the pre-industrial global average temperature.

    The treaty as originally framed set no mandatory limits on greenhouse gas emissions for individual nations and contained no enforcement provisions; it is therefore considered legally non-binding. Rather, the treaty included provisions for updates (called “protocols”) that would set mandatory emission limits. The principal update is the Kyoto Protocol, which has become much better known than the UNFCCC itself.

    One of its first achievements was to establish a national greenhouse gas inventory, as a count of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and removals. Accounts must be regularly submitted by signatories of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.

    The UNFCCC was opened for signature on May 9, 1992 after an Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee produced the text of the Framework Convention as a report following its meeting in New York. It entered into force in March, 1994. Countries who sign up to the UNFCCC are known and as ‘Parties’, there are currently 192 signed up Parties.

    Since the UNFCCC entered into force, the parties have been meeting annually in Conferences of the Parties (COP) to assess progress in dealing with climate change, and beginning in the mid-1990s, to negotiate the Kyoto Protocol to establish legally binding obligations for developed countries to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions.

    The UNFCCC is also the name of the United Nations Secretariat charged with supporting the operation of the Convention. Since 2006 the head of the secretariat has been Yvo de Boer.

    A key element of the UNFCCC is that parties should act to protect the climate system “on the basis of equality and in accordance with their common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities.” The principle of ‘common but differentiated responsibility’ includes two fundamental elements. The first is the common responsibility of Parties to protect the environment, or parts of it, at the national, regional and global levels. The second is the need to take into account the different circumstances, particularly each Party’s contribution to the problem and its ability to prevent, reduce and control the threat.

    Another element underpinning the UNFCCC is the polluter pays principle. This means that the party responsible for producing pollution is responsible for paying for the damage done to the natural environment.