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In 1988, the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) established the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a body for scientific assessments related to climate change.

Based on the IPCC’s initial findings, in 1990 the UN General Assembly adopted resolution 45/212 calling for a negotiation of an “effective framework convention on climate change,” this set the foundation for the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).


Article 2

“...stabilization of GHG concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system.”

This UNFCCC was adopted and opened for signature in 1992 at the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, better known as the Rio Earth Summit.  The convention entered into force in 1994. It has nearly universal membership with 197 parties. The key to its broad adoption was due to the fact that it includes non-legally binding targets and ambiguous wording.  Once the UNFCCC was adopted, annual meetings of the parties to the agreement - referred to as the Conference of the Parties (COP) - began occurring.  The first COP was held in Berlin, Germany in March 1995.


The UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) sets out the basic legal framework and principles for international climate change cooperation.  In the agreement, countries are categorized into Annexes, corresponding to different levels of responsibility based on their level of development.

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  • According to the agreement, Annex I countries, which includes both industrialized countries and economies in transition, are required to reduce their GHG emissions to 1990 levels by the year 2000.

  • Certain countries, namely those in the OECD (minus Turkey and plus the EU), are also considered Annex II countries, which means that they have additional responsibility to provide financial and technical assistance for climate mitigation and adaptation to developing countries and economies in transition.

​The convention is characterized by the principle of “common but differentiated responsibility” (CBDR).  The principle of CBDR recognizes that, while all countries must act and share in the responsibility for climate change, certain countries have a greater responsibility due to their historic and current emission levels.





The Convention is the founding text for all climate negotiations that followed. The UNFCCC is the parent convention to the Kyoto Protocol and the Paris Agreement. 

To boost the effectiveness of the UNFCCC, the Kyoto Protocol was signed in 1997 and came into force in 2005. It committed industrialized countries and economies in transition to achieve quantified emissions reduction targets and introduced “flexibility mechanisms” for reducing emissions.  These mechanisms include international emissions trading, the clean development mechanism (essentially carbon offsetting through climate mitigation projects in developing countries), and joint implementation (essentially offsetting through projects in other developed countries).  There were 192 parties to the Kyoto protocol but only 52 countries committed themselves to legally binding targets. 

The Kyoto Protocol’s first commitment period took place from 2008 to 2012. The 2012 Doha Amendment established the second commitment period from 2013 to 2020. In December 2015, parties adopted the Paris Agreement, which supersedes the Kyoto protocol and requires all parties to determine, plan, and regularly report on the nationally determined contributions (NDC) to mitigate climate change. While the Paris agreement has no overarching legally-binding reduction target, it includes a legally-binding obligation to regularly set national targets.

Today civil society, youth, businesses, cities, trade unions, human rights and gender activists play a significant role in the negotiations and put consistent pressure on countries to act and be accountable to their commitments. These efforts are formally recognized in the Marrakech Partnership for Global Climate Action.


The secretariat to the convention was founded in 1992 after the adoption of the UNFCCC text. It was first placed in Geneva (Switzerland); later it moved to Bonn (Germany) where it still is located. The current head is Patricia Espinosa, she succeeded the former Executive Secretary Christiana Figueres in 2016.

The main task of the secretariat is to provide

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technical expertise and to assist and review climate change information that is provided by the Parties to the Convention. The secretariat also provides many communication tools. It is responsible for supporting the implementation of the Convention, the Kyoto Protocol, and the Paris Agreement. Another task is maintaining the registry for Nationally Determined Contributions (NDC).


Moreover, the secretariat organizes the climate change negotiations, such as the meetings of the different bodies in the context of the Conferences of the Parties (COPs) in November/December each year and the meeting of the Subsidiary Bodies (SBI and SBSTA) in May or June in Bonn, Germany. 

The UN also has a coordinating body called UN Climate Change that engages its various entities that work on the issue and includes the Global Environment Facility and the Green Climate Fund amongst others.


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