Policy commentary

The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change After 20 Years: Is There a Better Way Forward?

Feb 21, 2011 | Raymond J. Kopp

The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change has guided international climate negotiations for the past two decades, with limited achievement. What are its shortcomings, and how can future processes be structured for greater success?

This year marks the 20th anniversary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC)—and the record has been, on the whole, disappointing. The purpose of the treaty is to guide and shape efforts to develop an effective global response to the threats posed by a warming climate, and it has made some modest progress. But few people would argue that progress has been anywhere near adequate. In these two decades of countless meetings and negotiations, worldwide emissions of carbon dioxide have increased almost 50 percent.

A look backward at the UNFCCC process helps explain why much effort has produced meager achievements. And it illuminates the alternative way forward that now seems to be developing. The roots of the UNFCCC regime can be traced to the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm in 1972. That conference drew 113 nations, both developed and developing, to focus not only on the environment and the protection of natural resources, but on economic and human development as well. Although the conference’s final declaration never used the term explicitly, it is widely assumed to be the foundation of the concept of sustainable development.

There are three features of the Stockholm Conference that form part of the DNA of the current UNFCCC process as it has evolved. First, without giving it much thought, the world’s governments accepted a commitment to use the UN’s General Assembly, with all of its habits and traditions, as the institution through which they would hammer out the policies to address climate change. One of those habits was to settle differences, not by formal votes, but by general consensus. In an assembly of some 200 governments, with wildly heterogeneous interests and purposes, the result is usually a swift descent to the lowest common denominator.

Second, environmental protection and human development are generally regarded by the General Assembly as essentially the same subject, to be handled as a moral issue. The possibility that restraining climate change might exact a cost in economic growth, at least in the short-to-medium term, has never been prominent in the UN General Assembly’s proceedings.

Third, the General Assembly has an unhappy tradition of confusing aspirational goals with actual achievements. It tends to avoid issues of implementation, let alone enforcement. In the Framework Convention, the world’s governments agreed to stabilize greenhouse gas concentrations at a level that would prevent “dangerous” interference with the planet’s climate. But since the same governments have never produced a clear definition of what’s dangerous, the treaty has had little practical effect over the years.

The Rio Conference of 1992, amidst all the well-justified celebration of environmental values, introduced into the institutional structure of the climate negotiations another concept that turned out, over time, to be deeply unhelpful. It established the principle that primary responsibility for curbing greenhouse emissions lay with the three dozen developed countries. When the governments sat down in Kyoto in 1997 to write the document that would carry out the intent of the UNFCCC, they agreed that firm limits on emissions would apply only to the developed countries. Limits would be extended to the developing countries only at some undefined time in the future.

A lot has happened since the Kyoto Protocol was drafted. Intense scientific research and debate has established beyond any reasonable doubt that human activity—burning fossil fuels and venting the smoke, containing massive volumes of carbon dioxide, into the atmosphere—is changing the Earth’s climate, and the change is accelerating. At the same time the phenomenal growth of several Asian economies, led by China, has undercut the whole distinction between developed and developing countries. China is now the world’s third largest economy, and its leading source of greenhouse emissions. Any program like the Kyoto Protocol that applies no restrictions or responsibilities to China—or India, for that matter, or Brazil—is hardly worth discussion.

Both China and the second-largest emitter of greenhouse gases, the United States, have repeatedly made it quite clear that they will not accept any international authority that tries to impose emissions limits on them. They are not alone. Even the Japanese, staunch supporters of Kyoto, recently announced that they will not be bound by emissions mitigation commitments in any extension of the treaty. The persisting effects in most of the developed countries of the 2007–2008 financial collapse, and continuing high unemployment, have only hardened those positions. Although the professional negotiators are going through the motions of preparing Kyoto II, it’s pretty clear that the concept of a formal treaty, setting explicit and binding performance goals, is a dead end.

So if not that, then what? We can now see the emergence of an alternative. In the United States, President George W. Bush’s administration (having largely ignored the climate issue) began to take an interest at the end of its eight-year tenure. It concluded that the UNFCCC process was too unwieldy, and too burdened by bad precedents, to produce useful world policy. Instead, it invented a vehicle it called the Major Economies Forum, to which it invited a small number of big countries, the behavior of which would make a real difference to the climate. The Americans vigorously denied that they were setting up an end run around the General Assembly, but that’s exactly what they were doing.

There’s not much on which the Obama administration has agreed with its predecessor, but this is one case in which President Obama has picked up a Bush idea and expanded it. The world saw it in December 2009, when the UN’s climate conference in Copenhagen was teetering on the brink of total failure. Obama walked, uninvited, into a room where the heads of the Chinese, Indian, Brazilian, and South African governments were meeting and offered them the text of an agreement which, after some discussion, they accepted. It called for each country to set its own goals to reduce emissions, but to report and verify them publicly. The Copenhagen Accord clearly outlines the pledge-and-review mechanism through which worldwide climate policy is very likely to operate in the coming years.

Domestic circumstances will drive and determine each country’s commitments. The new process must have a reach sufficiently broad to deal with the implications of aggressive climate policies not only for a country’s environment but for its trade, its financial health, and its economic growth.

At present there is no obvious venue that could accommodate this pledge and review process. But its required characteristics can be identified. It must include all major sources of greenhouse gas emissions. It must have the ability to reach broadly into trade, technology, energy, and finance, which means that it must involve the heads of state. Importantly, it must be supported with deep technical expertise to evaluate and compare countries’ pledges with respect to global requirements. This venue doesn’t yet exist. But in recent events, its outline begins to be visible.

Ray Kopp is a senior fellow at Resources for the Future and director of RFF’s Center for Climate and Electricity Policy.