United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC)

The object and purpose of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC)

Australia is a party to the UNFCCC which came into force on 21 March 1994 and now enjoys near universal membership, with 192 Parties. The object and purpose of the UNFCCC is to stabilise 'greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous [human-induced] interference with the climate system'. Under the UNFCCC, it is envisaged that 'such a level should be achieved within a time frame sufficient to allow ecosystems to adapt naturally to climate change, to ensure that production is not threatened and to enable economic development to proceed in a sustainable manner'.

Principles guiding Parties to the UNFCCC

Responding to the challenges posed by climate change has given rise to the issue of how to distribute the burden of reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions among generations and countries with varying development contexts and capabilities. The Convention addresses these concerns by laying down principles agreed upon by the Parties, which are to be used by Parties in guiding their efforts to achieve the object and purpose of the Convention. This has also been accompanied by the creation and placement of countries into three categories.

  • Annex I includes the industrialised countries that were members of the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) in 1992, plus countries with economies in transition (EIT) including the Russian Federation, the Baltic States, and several central and eastern European states.

  • Annex II takes in OECD members of Annex I, but not the EIT Parties.

  • Non-Annex I countries are mostly developing countries.

The PRECAUTIONARY PRINCIPLE states that 'where there are threats of serious or irreversible environmental damage, lack of full scientific certainty should not be used as a reason for postponing measures to prevent environmental degradation'. However, it is envisaged that such measures 'should be cost-effective so as to ensure global benefits at the lowest possible cost'.

The principle of INTERGENERATIONAL EQUITY provides that 'the Parties should protect the climate system for the benefit of present and future generations of humankind on the basis of equity and common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities'.

The principles of equity and COMMON BUT DIFFERENTIATED RESPONSIBILITIES and RESPECTIVE CAPABILITIES reflected the general acceptance by developed countries of their greater historical contribution to the accumulation of GHG emissions, in addition to their relatively greater resource capacity to develop and take remedial action. This leadership principle is reflected in the additional obligations imposed on Annex I countries.

Furthermore, the UNFCCC gives recognition to other principles such as the special needs of developing countries, and also that Parties have a 'right to, and should promote sustainable development'.

Giving effect to the object and purpose of the UNFCCC

As a framework Convention the UNFCCC itself did not specify and impose time-linked legally binding obligations on states parties for the purpose of achieving the object and purpose of the UNFCCC. Rather, the framework obligation focused intergovernmental efforts on harnessing information and promoting collaboration, designed to facilitate the acceptance of specific commitments and corresponding measures that would be subsequently developed. All Parties to the UNFCCC are subject to a key set of general commitments whose fulfillment is qualified by reference to their specific national development priorities and circumstances, though 'checked' by the customary international legal obligation to give effect to the terms of a treaty in good faith. Parties are required to develop, publish and make available to the Conference of Parties (COP), national inventories of emissions by sources and removals by sinks. Parties also commit to developing national plans that contain measures to mitigate climate change, promote and cooperate in the development and transfer of technologies and scientific researched aimed at controlling, reducing or preventing human-induced emissions of GHGs. Each Party must also submit periodic national reports detailing its progress in meeting these commitments.

The application of the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities is more evident in the commitments contained in Article 4.2 of the UNFCCC, which only apply to Annex I countries. Annex I countries are required to adopt national policies and measures which demonstrate that developing countries are taking the lead in combating climate change, with the aim of returning emissions to their 1990 levels. With no prescribed modalities or targets, this became a 'soft commitment'. However, the 1990 base year became the benchmark for the development of binding emissions targets under the Kyoto Protocol.

Similarly, Article 4.3 imposes a clear obligation on Annex II countries to provide financial resources to enable developing countries to undertake emissions reduction activities under the Convention and to help those particularly vulnerable countries adapt to adverse effects of climate change. Annex II countries must also 'take all practicable steps' to promote the development and transfer of environmentally friendly technologies to EIT Parties and developing countries.

Operationalising and realising the aims of the UNFCCC—COPs and the development of protocols

The specifics of binding commitments, targets, their operationalisation and achievement, are provided for through subsequent negotiations resulting in the development of relevant protocols with generally legally binding measures. A negotiating body, known as the Conference of the Parties (COP), was established as the highest decision-making authority of the UNFCCC, and meets annually to progress the substantive and operational development of the aims and principles embodied in the UNFCCC. The COP is made up of all states that have ratified or acceded to the UNFCCC. The Kyoto Protocol has its origins in the so-called 'Berlin Mandate' which came out of the first session of the Conference of the Parties (COP-1) in 1995—the Parties at COP-1 resolved to commit to developing a protocol with binding emissions limits within a specified time frame. Subsequent work by the Ad Hoc Group on the Berlin Mandate and negotiations among the Parties resulted in the development of the Kyoto Protocol, which was adopted by the Parties at the UNFCCC COP-3 at Kyoto, Japan in 1997.

Further reading:

Text of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.

UNFCCC webpage.

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