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The UN climate convention: Paris and beyond

Delegates from virtually every nation met in Paris at the end of 2015 where they adopted a new United Nations climate change agreement (the Paris Agreement).

This was the culmination of a 24-year international process aimed at combatting climate change. How did the process begin? And where does it go after the historic agreement in Paris? 

Combatting climate change - a 24-year history

International negotiations on climate change take place within the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

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People marched on the streets of Lima, Peru on December 10th 2014. Image: TckTckTck, Creative Commons licence

This was one of the agreements signed at the Rio Earth Summit in 1992, after world leaders including then UK Prime Minister Sir John Major became concerned about the potential of rising greenhouse gas emissions to destabilise the Earth’s climate. It has since been ratified by 195 countries.

The convention is a broad-brush, over-arching agreement. At its heart is a commitment to ‘stabilisation of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic (human) interference with the climate system’.

Under the convention, rich countries agree to lead efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. They also agree to assist poorer nations in measures to reduce their emissions and to prepare for climate change impacts.

The intention of the convention is that governments make other, more specific, agreements within it. The best known before Paris was the Kyoto Protocol, signed in 1997. Developed nations agreed to cut emissions by an average of 5.2% compared with 1990 levels by the period 2008-12.

The convention does not specify what is meant by ‘dangerous’ climate change. In 2010, governments adopted as a political definition the target of limiting global warming since pre-industrial times to 2ºC.


Countries such as Peru faces water issues as glaciers are forecast to melt in coming decades. Image: Danielle Pereira, Creative Commons licence

From Copenhagen to Paris

The UNFCCC holds a summit every year, in November or December.

The most notable one prior to 2015 was the 2009 summit in Copenhagen, which saw a major political push by leaders including Gordon Brown to tie up an ambitious, legally-binding global deal to cut emissions.

However, the summit was beset by splits between countries, mistrust and procedural problems. The outcome was a set of unilateral pledges by governments – the Copenhagen Accord.

Countries' pledges took different forms according to their stage of economic development. The richest nations promised to cut emissions up to 2020 by various percentages. Those in mid-stages of development agreed to restrain the growth in emissions; while for the poorest, the main intention was to prepare for climate impacts.

Alongside the Accord, developed nations agreed that by 2020, they would ensure that $100bn per year is raised to help poorer countries adapt to climate impacts and reduce their emissions.

At the 2011 meeting, in Durban, South Africa, delegates set a new timetable under an agreement called the Durban Platform. This committed them to finalising a new global deal, with some legal character, at the 2015 summit in Paris, which ended with the Paris Agreement. It sets a stronger global target than previously of keeping global warming ‘significantly below’ 2ºC, and to aim for the more ambitious target of 1.5°C. 

Paris and beyond

The Paris Agreement will be open for signature from 22 April 2016, which sees a high-level signature ceremony in New York. It will enter into force after at least 55 countries covering at least 55% of global greenhouse gas emissions ratify, approve or otherwise accept it.

COP21 Le Bourget

COP21, the 2015 UN climate summit, was held at Le Bourget, Paris. Image: George Smeeton

The emission-cutting pledges made for the Paris conference are not enough to meet the Agreement’s targets. Instead, they are likely to produce 2.7-3ºC of global warming by the end of the century, according to analyses.

In coming years, governments will revisit their pledges with a view to making them more ambitious. There will also be agreements of a more technical nature, for example working out precisely how the mechanism for monitoring and verifying countries’ progress will work.

Before 2020, rich countries will need to increase the amount of financial support given to their poorer counterparts. Currently, by the most generous analysis it stands at about $60bn per year, and needs to touch the $100bn figure by 2020. There is no agreed procedure yet for raising the money. Between 2020 and 2025,

At national level, many governments will be considering anew how to implement the targets they have agreed. For example, French President François Hollande said at the conclusion of the Paris summit that he would strengthen France’s own target. Together with other European leaders, he may also try to strengthen the collective EU targets, given that the bloc is well in line to meet its existing ones.

Meanwhile, China is expected to unveil its 13th Five-Year Plan in March, and this is also likely to strengthen plans to cut emissions and expand clean energy. It is also preparing to introduce a national carbon trading system by 2017.

In 2018, governments begin their first collective discussions reviewing progress towards their Paris targets. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the UN body that collates and analyses evidence on climate change, will probably begin publishing its next mammoth assessment shortly afterwards, which could also reveal scientific, economic, social or technological reasons to accelerate progress.