Climate Institutions

What is the United Nations Climate Convention? (UNFCCC)

What you need to know about the UNFCCC

The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) is an international climate change agreement. It was adopted in 1992 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. All countries of the world have signed the Climate Convention. The objective is to stabilize greenhouse gas emissions to prevent the dangerous effects of climate change 🎯. Unfortunately, the Convention does not include any enforcement mechanism. The Climate Convention is basically a shell, a “framework”, for countries to further negotiate binding emission reductions. It’s basically toothless but it does provide an institutional set up for world leaders to haggle.

A Great Photo of Rio by Cerqueira on Unsplash
Rio de Janeiro, birthplace of the UN Climate Convention

Adopted three decades ago

1992. Rio de Janeiro. Earth Summit. The stuff of legend for your average environmentalist. Definite potential for a Hollywood “based on real facts” classic film. The Climate Convention was adopted then and there. Almost three decades ago. I don’t know how many people back then expected humankind to have been wise enough to deal with climate change by now. I think a majority of participants, except for the usual cynics.

I remember when I first learnt about the UNFCCC, I couldn’t remember whether there were two, three or even four Cs in the acronym. You won’t hear people use the acronym much. Instead they’ll refer to the “United Nations Climate Convention”, the “UN Climate Convention”, the “Climate Convention” or the “Convention”. There’s nothing much conventional about this convention, except for the lengthy mouthful acronym that doesn’t really make you want to buy the product. Yea, marketing wise they could have done better.

I carried fondly the full text in my student backpack for months until my exams. It was printed on recycled paper in black and blue and the whole Convention fitted neatly in a booklet. You can download the full text from the UNFCCC website. The text is actually totally readable. It even has some epic moments. Not a tearjerker, but there are definitely some inspirational passages.

The Ultimate Objective of the Climate Convention

The “ultimate objective of this Convention” is to stabilize greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent “dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system.” What it means, is that countries that sign up to the Convention will together try to keep global emissions low so that we don’t all suffer from serious and dangerous climate effects like wild forest fires, melting glaciers, drying up rivers, massive typhoons and so on. You can see clearly that from that perspective (not messing up with the earth’s climate), the UN Climate Convention has not been very successful so far. 😭

Common but Differentiated Responsibilities

This is a key sticking point, and the source of endless rounds of fruitless bickering. The countries that sign up to the Climate Convention have in theory a common goal to prevent climate change. This has never been truly the case. Many countries have signed up but don’t really care about climate change.

In addition, the Convention recognizes that poorer countries are less likely to be able to do much about climate change compared to developed nations (that’s the “differentiated responsibilities” part). The Convention states that developed countries should take the lead in combating climate change.

If you are a developing country, the Convention recognizes that you have the right to develop your economy and that you won’t have the money or the capacity to reduce greenhouse gases. The problem is that there is a world of differences between the emissions of Laos and Samoa, and those of China and India. Putting small islands in the same group as large industrialized countries under the label “developing country Parties” has not been very helpful.

Remember when the Convention was adopted? Early 1990s? The World was a very different place with the large newly industrialized economies barely waking up from a long slumber. Smartphones didn’t exist and China’s factories were not churning out much.

Without China, Russia, India, Brazil committing to greenhouse gas reductions, there’s a good excuse for the US not to do anything. Without the US committing to emissions reductions, there’s a good excuse for others not do to anything. It’s a shouting match.

A Great Photo by Attentie Attentie on Unsplash
Next round of climate negotiations

Sign up to the Climate Convention, do what you want

Every existing country in the World has signed the Climate Convention. South Sudan was one of the latest signatories. Basically, the minute you establish a new country, you sign up to the UNFCCC. I suppose it doesn’t really commit you to doing much, less than a timeshare in the Tropics.

Sure, you have a grandiloquent national declaration (curt statements are also accepted), but without any enforcement mechanism, it amounts to little more than a personal pledge that you will do what you can, when you can to combat climate change. The Climate Convention is pretty much toothless 🦷.

There’s always an excuse. He polluted more than me. I am poorer than her. There was the subprime crisis. Always an excuse to postpone doing something meaningful about climate change.

Thirty years after the UN Climate Convention was signed, we’re not closer to healing our planet’s climate.

You took the bus today, that’s helpful right? 🚌 Public transport, less pollution. I’m doing what I can too, I took the bus today… There’s always something you can do for our planet right now, just be the change yourself.