U.N. Framework Convention On Climate Change (UNFCCC)

The "U-N-F triple C" is the United Nations' lead agency on climate change. We take a brief look at what the role of the UNFCCC is, what the Framework Convention's key points are, and examine its underlying principles of climate ethics.
Greta Thunberg speaking at UNFCCC COP25
Climate activist Greta Thunberg addressing COP25 in Madrid in 2019. Photo: © Kiara Worth/IISD

UNFCCC is UN Lead Agency on Global Warming

Founded at the Rio “Earth Summit” in 1992, the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) is an intergovernmental treaty (and organization) designed to address the problem of global warming.

As the lead agency for UN climate talks, its function is to act as the focus for a global response to the current climate crisis, so as to stabilize greenhouse gas levels at a level that will prevent dangerous human interference with the climate system. 1

The emission reductions proposed under the Convention were the first official limits placed on the discharge of greenhouse gases (GHGs) by individual countries, although the limits imposed were non-binding.

Headquartered in Bonn, Germany, the UNFCCC meets formally twice a year, one of its meetings being the annual “Conference of Parties” (COP). The organization is supported by a Permanent Secretariat 2 and is kept abreast of all technical developments by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), based in Geneva, which provides comprehensive Assessment Reports on the physical science of climate change, as well as Special Reports (like their Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C ) on specific topics. 3

The UNFCCC is also assisted by a number of expert groups. These include the Consultative Group of Experts (CGE) on national communications, the Least Developed Country Expert Group (LEG), the Expert Group on Technology Transfer, and the Executive Board of the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM), as well as other scientific bodies and UN agencies.

The UNFCCC enjoys near-universal membership (197 countries are signatories) and widespread support from climate scientists and other environmental specialists.

The UNFCCC was one of three treaties adopted in 1992 at the UN Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) – the Rio Earth Summit. The summit itself signalled a turning point in the international approach to conservation and sustainability, in the wake of the Montreal Protocol on Substances That Deplete the Ozone Layer. The UNFCC’s two sister treaties were the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) and the Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD).

What Is The Role Of The UNFCCC?

In addition to the specific terms of the treaty, the UNFCCC functions principally as a framework for ongoing climate action talks, and a forum for the negotiation of further agreements to deal with climate change and limit the rise in global temperatures. It achieves this largely through its annual “Conferences of Parties” – known as COP – where parties to the UNFCCC compare notes and review progress. These conferences also double up as annual United Nations Climate Change Conferences.

  • In 1997, COP 3 resulted in the Kyoto Protocol. This extended the operation of UNFCCC by establishing legally binding limits for developed countries for the period 2008–2012 – later extended to 2020 by the Doha Amendment. Sadly, the protocol now only applies to about 14 percent of the world’s emissions, because the United States never signed up to it, while Canada, Russia, Japan and New Zealand have pulled out.
  • In 2010, COP 16 – the United Nations Climate Change Conference held in Cancun, Mexico – agreed that any future rise in global temperature should be kept to below 2.0°C (3.6°F) above the pre-industrial baseline. (See also; When Did Global Warming Start?)
  • In 2015, COP 21 led to the Paris Climate Agreement, the basis of our current climate plan, which lowered the target to 1.5°C. This was partly in response to new scientific analysis furnished to the UNFCCC by the IPCC’s Fifth Assessment Report (2014), warning that there was a 95 percent chance that global warming was being caused by man-made activities, and that, unless checked, Planet Earth was likely to heat up by as much as 4°C by 2100. See also: Why Does a Half-Degree Rise in Temperature Matter?
  • In 2020, COP 26 was scheduled to take place in Glasgow, Scotland – but was postponed to 2021 because of the Covid-19 pandemic. Interesting, the effect of Covid-19 on climate change became a topic of discussion.
  • COP conferences are supported by several subsidiary bodies. Examples include: The Subsidiary Body on Scientific and Technical Advice (SBSTA) which coordinates scientific, technical and technological assessments with the policy priorities of the COP; the Subsidiary Body for Implementation (SBI) which provides recommendations to help the COP in reviewing and assessing implementation of the UNFCCC agreement and executing its decisions.

What Does The UNFCCC Treaty Say?

1. Industrialized Countries Must Lead The Way

The agreement treats developed countries quite differently from non-developed countries. Industrialized nations must lead the way. 4 Because they are responsible for the majority of past and present greenhouse gas emissions, developed countries are expected to lead the way, both in reducing their use of fossil fuels to lower their own emissions and in assisting poorer countries to do the same. See our article on the ethics of climate change, for more about the disparity between states.

  • Annex I of the agreement lists 43 signatories to the UNFCCC. These countries are classified as either developed countries, or economies in transition (EITs), namely the ex-members of the USSR and the Eastern Bloc. (Developing countries may apply to be included in Annex I when they become sufficiently developed.)
  • By the year 2000, Annex I countries are required to reduce their emissions of greenhouse gases (including carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4), nitrous oxide (N2O) and other GHGs not regulated under the Montreal Protocol) to 1990 levels. 5
  • Annex II lists 24 countries, including the European Union. These Parties are made up of members of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and include Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, European Union (EU), Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Luxembourg, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, UK and the United States.
  • Annex II countries are expected to furnish technical and financial aid to both the EITs and the developing countries, to help them in lowering their greenhouse gas emissions and manage the impacts of climate change.
  • Least-developed countries (LDCs). These 47 of the poorest signatories are given special status under the treaty because of their reduced capacity to cope with the problem. These include Cambodia, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Ethiopia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Interestingly, as the Congo rainforest could disappear by 2100, this country is in a unique position to help the world with climate change mitigation. It is home to the second largest rainforest after the Amazon rainforest, in fact the Congo contains 90 percent of all of Africa’s rainforests.

2. Economic Development is Essential in The Developing World

The UNFCCC agreement acknowledges that maintaining economic progress and development is essential for the world’s poorer countries. So, it accepts that the share of GHGs discharged by developing nations will grow in the near term. In addition, where appropriate, it will help such countries lower emissions in ways that will not undermine their economic progress. This approach was reconfirmed by the Kyoto Protocol, which is based on the principle of “common but differentiated responsibilities”.

The UNFCCC includes provision for a support mechanism to help finance climate action in developing countries and those with economies in transition. 6 A system of grants and loans set up through the Convention is managed by the Global Environment Facility (GEF). Other financial aid for implementing the Convention is also available via the Special Climate Change Fund, the Least Developed Countries Fund, and the Adaptation Fund. Under the agreement, industrialized countries also pledge to share technology – in areas like carbon capture and storage – with less-developed nations.

3. Regular Emission Reports Are Vital

The UNFCCC also established the first formal reporting procedures to be undertaken by signatory nations. All Annex I countries were required to submit regular reports on how much carbon dioxide (CO2) and other GHGs they discharged into the atmosphere, as well as any loss of carbon sinks – areas of land that remove CO2 from the air in a process known as carbon sequestration – due to activities like deforestation, forestry harvesting, cropland management or inappropriate land use. These national greenhouse gas inventories of GHG emissions and removals, were used to formulate the 1990 benchmark levels for the Kyoto Protocol.

Developing countries (Non-Annex I countries) are required to report less regularly and in less detail than Annex I countries. Furthermore, their reporting is dependent on their receipt of adequate funds needed for the preparation of the reports. 7

Additional climate action support for non-developed nations include the Climate and Development Knowledge Network, funded originally by the UK Department for International Development but now supported by Canada’s International Development Research Centre (IDRC) and the Royal Netherlands Ministry of Foreign Affairs. For example, CDKN has developed considerable expertise in assisting non-developed states with their “Nationally Determined Contributions” – a flexible scheme of climate change mitigation and adaptation introduced by the UNFCCC at Warsaw (COP 19) and the Paris (COP 21).

UNFCCC – Success Or Failure?

The importance that the UNFCCC attaches to consensus in formulating its policies, plus the fact that neither it nor the Kyoto Protocol covers developing countries, who now include the largest CO2 emitters, has caused a good deal of criticism about the viability of the UNFCCC. 8

As a result, both the United States and Canada have withdrawn from it, and are studying possible “Voluntary Emissions Reduction schemes” designed to reduce carbon dioxide emissions outside the Kyoto Protocol. 9

Other countries are looking to focus on alternative high-value projects such as the creation of the Climate and Clean Air Coalition to Reduce Short-Lived Climate Pollutants, which aims to reduce the discharge of short-lived pollutants like black carbon, methane and hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), which altogether are estimated to be responsible for up to 33 percent of current global warming, but whose regulation is not as provocative as far as economic impacts and Third World opposition are concerned.

In addition, the cumbersome UNFCCC process is seen by some as both expensive and self-contradictory, while other critics are calling for reforms to the UNFCCC expert review process. 10

Just before the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris, one eminent mass-market environmental magazine commented: “Since 1992, when the world’s nations agreed at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro to avoid ‘dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system,’ they have met 20 times without moving the needle on carbon emissions. In that interval we’ve added almost as much carbon to the atmosphere as we did in the previous century.” 11


  1. Article 2 of the Convention. []
  2. Article 8 of the Convention []
  3. For more about UNFCCC, see: UN Framework Convention on Climate Change []
  4. Article 3(1) of the Convention []
  5. Article 4 (2)(a) of the Convention. []
  6. Article 10 of the Convention. []
  7. Article 4(7) of the Convention. []
  8. After 25 years of failure, we should abandon the UNFCCC.” Chandra Bhushan. []
  9. “U.N. Global Warming Summit: Heading Over the Climate Cliff”. Time Magazine. November 27, 2012. []
  10. Challenges and Proposed Reforms to the UNFCCC Expert Review Process for the Enhanced Transparency Framework.” Seattle, WA, Greenhouse Gas Management Institute. Hanle, L., Gillenwater, M., Pulles, T., Radunsky, K. (2019). []
  11. “Fresh Hope for Combating Climate Change”, National Geographic Magazine, November 2015. []
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