International Climate Legislation


The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) is an international multilateral agreement setting the framework for global efforts to address climate change. The ultimate aim is to stabilise greenhouse gas (GHG) concentrations at a level that ‘would prevent dangerous human interference’ with the global climate system. This was intended to be achieved in a timeframe that would avert threats to food production and allow ecosystems to adapt
naturally to climate change.

It recognises that the ‘largest share of historical and current global emissions of greenhouse gases has originated in developed countries’ so these Parties should take the lead in tackling climate change and the associated adverse effects. Signatories pledged to reduce emissions to 1990 levels, submit inventories of their emissions and financially support developing countries’ climate action through grants and loans.

The UNFCCC was negotiated at the 1992 Rio Earth Summit and now has 197 Signatories, including all UN member states. The ‘Parties’ meet once a year at the Conference of the Parties (COP) to discuss progress and further commitments. The UNFCCC is the parent treaty of the Kyoto Protocol and the Paris Agreement.

The UNFCCC Secretariat

The UNFCCC established the Secretariat to oversee the implementation of the Convention. The Secretariat (also known as UN Climate Change) is located in Bonn, Germany and currently headed by Executive Secretary Patricia Espinosa. They are responsible for organising the COP, along with the host country.

The Kyoto Protocol

The 1997 Kyoto Protocol was the first agreement created to implement the UNFCCC. The Protocol established legally binding obligations for 37 developed countries and ‘economies in transition’ to reduce GHG emissions over the first commitment period (2008–2012) by an average of 5% compared with 1990 levels. The Protocol established flexible market mechanisms, allowing countries to trade in emissions and earn emission-reduction credits through projects carried
out in developing countries, with an aim of aiding capacity building and technology transfer. Parties succeeded in reducing their CO2 emissions for the first
commitment period.

However, some have attributed this to the global recession and a drop in emissions by former Soviet states before the deal was signed. The Protocol was criticised, especially by the United States, for not setting reduction targets for high GHG-emitting developing countries. The ‘Doha Amendment’ governs the second commitment period (2012–2020). This identifies commitments to reduce GHG emissions by at least 18% compared with 1990 levels by 2020. A total of 30 Parties, including the UK, notified the Secretariat that they would fulfil their commitments for this second commitment period.

The Paris Agreement

The 2016 Paris Agreement is an international climate treaty which was negotiated at COP21. Parties agreed to keep global average temperature rise to as close as possible to 1.5°C and ‘well below’ 2°C above pre-industrial levels. Each Party is responsible for deciding its own emission reduction targets, known as ‘Nationally Determined Contributions’, which are not legally binding but must be reported on and made more ambitious every five years. 197 states have ratified the Paris Agreement, which, unlike the Kyoto Protocol, requires both developed and developing countries to submit targets. Many, including the UK, have targets to reach net zero emissions by 2050.

Countries also pledged to increase efforts to adapt to the impacts of climate change and foster resilience to future climate scenarios. The Agreement acknowledges the need to promote and ensure environmental integrity, calling on Parties to conserve and enhance GHG sinks and reservoirs, including biomass, forests and oceans.