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The Framework Convention on Climate Change

Introduction

In response to scientific projections of climate change, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (FCCC) was adopted by the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee, and signed by 162 countries in 1992 at the Rio Earth Summit. This fact sheet reviews what the Framework Convention on Climate Change (FCCC) is and what it hopes to achieve.

The Objective

With 26 Articles, consisting of objectives, principles, commitments and recommendations, the FCCC is a blueprint for precautionary action against the threat of global climate change. The ultimate objective of the FCCC is to:

achieve stabilisation of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous 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 Principles

To achieve this objective, Parties (countries) to the Convention that commit themselves to the FCCC, have been guided by a number of principles.

  • Parties should protect the global climate for the benefit of present and future generations.

  • Developed country Parties should take a leading role in combating climate change, in view of the fact that most of the greenhouse gas emissions are from developed nations.

  • The needs and special circumstances of developing countries, particularly those vulnerable to climate change, should be given full consideration.

  • Parties should adopt a precautionary approach to mitigating or preventing the effects of climate change, even when full scientific certainty is unavailable.

  • The precautionary approach should be adopted in a manner that ensures the greatest possible global benefits at the lowest possible costs. In this, the concept of sustainable development should be promoted.

  • All Parties should seek to cooperate over all issues within the FCCC. The concept of joint implementation (whereby two nations assist each other in reducing greenhouse gas emissions) should be investigated.

The Commitments

By adopting the FCCC, its objectives and principles, each Party is committed to a number of obligations. Some of the more important ones are summarised below.

  • Each Party must set up a national emissions inventory that fully reports all man-made sources of greenhouse gases.

  • In response to national emissions estimations, each Party should establish a regional programme of greenhouse gas emissions reductions, and other measures to facilitate adequate adaptation to climate change.

  • Sustainable management of greenhouse gas sinks (natural systems that remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere) should be promoted.

  • Further research into the causes and effects of man-made global warming should take place.

  • Education, training and public awareness related to climate change should be encouraged.

The Conference of Parties

At the Earth Summit in 1992 it was agreed that those nations committed to the FCCC would meet regularly to review the progress made towards achieving greenhouse gas emission reductions. Since 1992 the Conference of Parties (COP) has met many times, the most important being the 3rd COP at Kyoto, Japan, in 1997. At the Rio Earth Summit is was agreed that emissions of greenhouse gases, particularly carbon dioxide, should be returned to 1990 levels by the year 2000. Since then, the certainty of man-made climate change has become clearer. At Kyoto, participating nations agreed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 5.2% by 2008-2012. If ratified by enough countries, this target will become legally binding (the Kyoto Protocol).

The Precautionary Principle

Most climate models suggest that to stabilise greenhouse concentrations at levels which would avoid dangerous man-made interference with the global climate would require significant cuts in emissions. The essence of the precautionary principle in the context of the FCCC is that society should take action against the threat of man-made climate change, even if the nature of the consequences are uncertain. Consequently, the FCCC's current targets fall far short of being precautionary in this context.

Costing Global Warming

Assigning a monetary value to the impacts of global warming poses many problems. Some argue that the climate system is resilient, and excessive expenditure to reduce impacts is unwarranted. Others believe that the climate system is vulnerable, and assign a high monetary value to the harmful consequences of environmental abuse. Quite how vulnerable the global climate is is far from clear; many uncertainties surround the prediction of future changes. Consequently, costing climate change remains a complex business.

Responsibility

Although the FCCC recognises the different social, technical and economic starting points of Party nations, it remains unclear how the burden of responsibility for reducing greenhouse gas emissions should be shared. Should developed nations, such as the UK, be required to shoulder more of the burden of greenhouse gas emission reduction, in light of their substantially greater energy expenditure, past, present and future? Equally, can developing nations reasonably be expected to stabilise or reduce their greenhouse gas emissions to the detriment of their fledgling economies? Many developing nations regard the developed world as the cause of the global warming problem. Before developing nations attempt to reduce emissions, developed countries, they argue, should implement their own effective reduction strategies. Understandably, many developing nations feel unwilling to commit themselves to reduction targets. Perhaps what is really at issue here, and is often conveniently overlooked, is that developing nations, whilst being only minor contributors to the global warming problem at present, are most likely to suffer the severest impacts resulting from any future climate change.

Conclusion

By the end of the next century, global average temperatures could be 6°C higher that they are today. In an effort to reduce or remove this global environmental threat, nations around the world have adopted the Framework Convention on Climate Change. Current policy is to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions by 5.2% by 2008-2012, relative to 1990 (the Kyoto Protocol), through the establishment of national programmes, international information exchange, joint implementation and the promotion of sustainable development. If we are to meet the objectives of the Framework Convention on Climate Change, that is to prevent "dangerous interference with the climate system", the issues of the precautionary principle, cost-effectiveness and responsibility will have to be carefully and effectively debated and acted upon.