By Rehana Dada

Climate change negotiations are conducted under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) with the aim of preventing dangerous climate change.  Although the original intention of the UNFCCC was to limit human emissions of greenhouse gases, it increasingly recognised the need for countries, regions and communities to adapt to climate change and also acknowledges that there will be irreparable loss and damage as a result of climate change. The UNFCCC is therefore regarded as having three pillars: mitigation; adaptation; and loss & damage.

Article 2 of the UNFCCC states that its objective is: “…. 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”.

The convention entered into force in March 1994, but was adopted two years earlier at the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in 1992, which is popularly known as the Rio Earth Summit. Two other conventions were adopted at the Earth Summit, the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity (UNCBD) and the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD). The three conventions are commonly referred to as the Rio Conventions, and all are closely linked. The decisions of the UNFCCC are also discussed and influenced by other key meetings, including trade and economic meetings such as G8 and BRICS, and organisations such as European Union and the African Union.

UNFCCC membership includes 197 parties. Each party has one vote. If an economic organisation such as the European Union chooses to vote as a single entity, it is allowed one vote for each of its member states. In such a case, member states would not be able to use their votes independently.

The supreme body of the convention is the Conference of the Parties (COP). The COP meets annually and may also hold additional meetings if considered necessary or requested by parties. The COP’s role is to review implementation of the convention and any legal instruments it adopts, and make decisions with a view to promoting the implementation of the convention. Observer parties, such as non-profit organisations, research institutes, or business organisations, may also attend the COPs but are not able to participate in decision making.

The work of the COP is supported by its secretariat, which is responsible for a number of functions including: making arrangements for UNFCCC meetings; assisting parties to compile communications required by them, particularly developing countries; and entering into administrative and contractual arrangements that may be required.

The Subsidiary Body for Scientific and Technological Advice (SBSTA) provides information and advice to the COP on relevant science and technology. Its responsibilities include: providing assessments of scientific knowledge; assessing the effectiveness of work undertaken; responding to questions on science, technology or methodology posed by the COP or its subsidiary bodies; and identifying and advising on technology and promoting technology transfer.

The Subsidiary Body for Implementation (SBI) assists the COP in assessing and reviewing implementation of the convention.

The COP is also advised by the assessment reports and special reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and may request special reports or information from the IPCC.  Although widespread concern about human influence on the climatic system was expressed at government level as early as the 1970’s, scientific evidence was considered inconclusive until relatively recently.  The IPCC was established in 1989 in response to the need for an assessment of scientific evidence of climate change.  Its First Assessment Report was published in 1990, its Fifth Assessment Report (AR5) over the course of 2013 and 2014, and it is currently working the Sixth Assessment Report.  In addition, the IPCC is in the process of producing a special report, as requested by the COP, on the impacts of warming of 1,5 degrees Celsius.

Download the UNFCCC Text.