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Wednesday, November 20, 2013

A U.S.-Centric Chronology of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change

Jane A. Leggett
Specialist in Energy and Environmental Policy

The November 2013 negotiations in Warsaw are the most recent in a series aimed at arranging multilateral cooperation to address climate change. The United Nations launched formal international negotiations in 1990 to respond to growing scientific and public concern about human-induced emissions of greenhouse gases (GHG), principally carbon dioxide. This report chronicles the main milestones and issues in the United Nations process to address climate change. 

The 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC): 
Governments agreed in 1992 to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), which continues to provide the principle—but not sole—framework for global cooperation on the issue. The treaty’s objective is to stabilize GHG concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous human-induced interference with the Earth’s climate system. A 2010 political statement interpreted this as a vision of GHG cuts to prevent global average temperature from increasing more than 2°C (2.6°F) above pre-industrial levels.

The United States, as a Party to the UNFCCC, has qualitative obligations to report national GHG emissions; cooperate on science and technology development; enact programs to abate emissions; and provide agreed new and additional financial resources to assist low-income countries to mitigate and adapt to climate change. When the UNFCCC was drafted, the then-industrialized countries emitted two-thirds of annual GHG emissions (excluding emissions from deforestation). These Annex I countries correspondingly accepted a lead role in abating GHG emissions, though all countries agreed to “common but differentiated responsibilities.” 

The 1997 Kyoto Protocol and its 2012 Doha Amendment:
When UNFCCC entered into force in 1995, Parties agreed that enforceable obligations were necessary to prevent “dangerous climate change.” The 1995 Berlin Mandate called for a new protocol by 1997 with “no new commitments for developing countries” Under the resulting 1997 Kyoto Protocol, 37 of the then-highest income countries and the European Union (EU) committed to reduce their GHG emissions on average to 5% below 1990 levels during the “first commitment period” of 2008 to 2012. The United States signed but did not become a Party to the Kyoto Protocol. The 2012 Doha Amendment to the Kyoto Protocol established a second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol for the period 2013-2020, with GHG abatement pledges from 37 countries plus the EU. Japan, New Zealand, and the Russian Federation declined to participate in the Doha Amendment to the Kyoto Protocol. Canada withdrew from the Kyoto Protocol in 2012. 

The 2010 Cancun Agreement:
In 2010 for the first time under the UNFCCC, a negotiated agreement contained language for GHG pledges by all major emitting Parties. Many Parties, including China, pledged quantitatively to limit their GHG emissions. However, these pledges are not considered “legally binding.” 

Currently, the Durban Platform Negotiations:
The current round of negotiations is the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action. The Durban Platform’s mandate is for a new agreement “with legal force” that would be “applicable to all Parties” and begin implementation after 2020. In concept, this mandate could eliminate the bifurcation in the UNFCCC between Annex I and non- Annex I Parties, or between countries with and without binding GHG obligations.

Issues for Congress:
Many in Congress are concerned with the merits of a treaty, and with the goals and obligations it might embody. One concern is the compatibility of any international agreement with any U.S. domestic policies and laws, should consensus emerge on whether and how to address climate change. Additional issues include the costs and other impacts of obligations; the parity of actions among countries and effects on trade competitiveness; the adequacy of appropriations, fiscal measures, and programs to achieve any commitments under the agreement; and the desirable form of the agreement and related requirements. A new treaty would require Senate consent to ratify it as well as possible federal legislation to meet any U.S. commitments.

Date of Report: November 8, 2013
Number of Pages: 26
Order Number: R40001
Price: $29.95

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