At the end of this year, the 25th Annual Meeting of the UNFCCC (the COP 25) will take place. The UNFCCC is a global cooperation agreement between countries drawn up under the responsibility of the United Nations (UN). Below the answers to a number of frequently asked questions.
What is the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC)?
The UNFCCC is a global cooperation agreement between 197 parties (a near universal membership), which was launched in 1992 at the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED). This conference is also known as the Earth Summit or the Rio Conference. Another well-known initiative that emerged from this conference are the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The objective of the UNFCCC is to prevent climate emissions and reduce the consequences of climate change. The UNFCCC officially came into force in 1994 under the responsibility of the United Nations. The United Nations is a cooperation between almost all countries in the world; 193 officially recognized and a number of observing countries (Palestine, Niue, Cook Islands) and the European Union.
Click here for the Charter of the United Nations.
How does it work?
The UNFCCC can be seen as a large cooperation agreement in which almost all countries in the world, plus the European Union, have indicated that they want to set up a common approach to a problem through agreements. In the case of the UNFCCC, these agreements are specifically aimed at addressing the causes and consequences of climate change. At the annual meetings it is discussed what should be done, how it should be done and what countries can contribute. These commitments are laid down in agreements such as the Kyoto Protocol and the Paris Agreement. The agreements are made on the basis of commitments; the Parties have the freedom to decide for themselves what they can and want to contribute. Each Party records this in a Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC). In addition, each country has committed itself to submitting an annual summary of their emissions via a uniform template, so that the development of the emissions can be monitored on a comparable basis.
For the UNFCCC Convention, click here.
What are the Conferences of the Parties (COPs)?
The UNFCCC meets annually to meet at the United Nations Climate Change Conferences (COPs). The countries that are members of the UNFCCC are referred to as 'Parties'; not every member has the status of a country (such as the European Union). During the meetings, the outlines of the policies needed to achieve the climate objectives are set out. The past meetings have resulted in three agreements with a significant impact on the shaping of climate policy: the Kyoto Protocol, the Doha Amendment to the Kyoto Protocol and the Paris Agreement. The agreements together form the roadmap for climate policy on the basis of three commitment periods: 2008-2012, 2013-2020 and 2021-2030. In addition, a long-term objective has been formulated for 2050.
For an overview of the COPs, click here.
What is the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)?
The IPPC is the supporting scientific center on climate change of the United Nations. This centre was established in 1988 by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). Currently 195 countries are members of the IPCC. The objective of the Centre is to provide authorities at all levels with scientific information to support the development of climate policies. The IPCC regularly publishes evaluation reports containing an overview of knowledge on climate change. The fifth and most recent report dates from 2014. The next report is scheduled for 2022. Participation as an expert or scientist can be as an author, reviewer or by providing an article and is always on a voluntary basis.
For more information on participation opportunities, click here.
What is the role of companies?
Companies are not directly involved in the agreements as signatories or members of the UNFCCC; this is a matter of governments. During the annual meetings (COPs) there is the possibility for stakeholder organisations to share their views. In addition to federations, these are also organisations as NGOs and knowledge networks. Regional preparatory meetings are regularly organised on the initiative of the government or stakeholders (e.g. pre-COP consultations or business & industry consultations). In addition to participating in meetings, stakeholders have the opportunity to participate in the Climate Neutral Now Pledge; by signing, a company agrees to monitor and reduce its greenhouse gas emissions.
For more information about the Climate Neutral Now Pledge, click here.
What exactly is meant by Annex I countries?
Within the parties the UNFCCC makes a distinction between 3 different groups: Annex I, Annex II and Non-Annex I. Depending on the group, the objectives and commitments may differ:
- Annex I Parties: the countries that were members of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) in 1992 and the countries with economies in transition (EIT). Belgium is part of the first group. The latter group includes Russia, the Baltic States and a number of Central and Eastern European countries.
- Annex II Parties: only the group of countries that were members of the OECD in 1992. They have a number of additional obligations, such as providing funding for developing countries and promoting environmentally friendly technology to EIT Parties and developing countries.
- Non-Annex I Parties: mainly developing countries. A distinction is made between countries vulnerable to the physical and/or economic consequences of climate change.
For more information, click here.
What are the main UNFCCC agreements?
The agreements reached at the annual meetings are recorded in minutes and agreements. These commitments and the corresponding periods from these agreements provide the basis for, among other things, the European and Belgian climate policy. Below an overview of the most important agreements:
Kyoto Protocol (1995)
The Kyoto Protocol was the first agreement in which 37 countries and the European Union (then still consisting of 15 Member States) made a commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions (or an emission ceiling) for the period 2008 to 2012. The reduction commitments are known as the Quantified Emission Limitation and Reduction Commitment (QERLC). In addition, Parties have committed to sharing their annual greenhouse gas inventories in order to monitor progress towards the targets. The Kyoto Agreement was drawn up in 1997 and entered into force in 2005.
The Agreement includes:
- Mandatory reduction targets (Annex B) formulated as Quantified Emission Limitation and Reduction Commitments (QELRCs) for the period 2008-2012 via Assigned Amount Units (AAUs).
- Obligation to submit an annual summary of greenhouse gas emissions (Article 7).
- The basis for the 'Emission Trading Scheme (ETS)', which allows countries to sell emission units that they do not use to countries that have exceeded their reduction targets (Article 17). These emission units are also known as Kyoto units.
- The basis for the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM), which allows countries with an emission reduction target or emission ceiling to realise an emission reduction project in a developing country (Article 12)
- The basis for the Adaptation Fund to support climate projects in developing countries. This fund is financed partly by Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) project activities and voluntary contributions from governments.
Click here to go to the Kyoto Protocol.
Doha Amendment (2012)
The Kyoto Agreement was revised in 2012 by the Doha Amendment including reduction targets for a second period running from 2013 to 2020 (a second QERLC). This amendment is not yet in force; it requires ratification by 144 Parties and the agreement has now been ratified by 130 Parties.
The amendment includes:
- Mandatory reduction targets formulated as Quantified Emission Limitation and Reduction Commitments (QELRCs) for the period 2013-2020 (Article 1)
Click here to go to the Doha Agreement.
Paris Agreement (2015)
In 2015, a new agreement was drawn up to set climate targets for the period 2021-2030 and 2050; the Paris Agreement. The Paris Agreement was signed by 197 countries and entered into force in 2016. The agreed objective is to ensure that the overall temperature rises by a maximum of 1.5° and certainly not by more than 2°C. In the agreement, countries are asked to draw up a Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) including the highest possible greenhouse gas reduction target according to that country and the corresponding policies to achieve it. This Paris Agreement was ratified by 185 Parties through the submission of the NDC to the (interim) NDC register (Article 4(12)).
The Agreement includes:
- A replacement of the QELRC by Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs), in which countries describe the climate targets that are realistic according to them and the associated policies (Article 4).
- The basis for the introduction of a public (interim) NDC Registry (Article 4), in which the NDCs will be published. The register is still interim at the moment, as the exact set-up has yet to be agreed at the next COP.
- A continuation of the obligation to submit an annual summary of greenhouse gas emissions (Article 7).
Click here to go to the Paris Agreement.
What do the countries have to submit?
All Annex I Parties are required to submit a National Inventory Submission by April 15th of each year from the base year up to 2 years prior to the year of submission (i.e. in 2019 from 1990 to 2017). This inventory consists of two parts; a Common Reporting Format (CRF) table and a National Inventory Report (NIR). In addition, it was agreed in the Paris Agreement that all parties would draw up a National Determined Contribution (NDC) containing the highest possible ambition in the reduction of greenhouse gases and the associated, planned policy measures.
National Inventory Submission
Both the Kyoto Protocol, art. 7 and the Paris Agreement, art. 7. require Parties to provide an inventory of their greenhouse gas emissions. In the Kyoto Protocol this was a requirement for only Annex I Parties, but in the Paris Agreement it has been extended to all Parties. The National Inventory Report (NIR) contains more descriptive information, while the Common Reporting Format (CRF) contains the greenhouse gas data.
National Determined Contributions
Under the Paris Agreement, Parties are asked to draw up a Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) describing the reduction target for greenhouse gas emissions and the associated measures. The objective, measures and format of the Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) are currently determined per individual Party. Only the European member states have a common format.
What UN climate commitments have countries currently made?
The UN climate commitments distinguish three so-called commitment periods:
- Commitment period 1: Establishment of the QERLC as the climate commitment in the Kyoto Protocol. The period ran from 2008 to 2012.
- Commitment period 2: Extension of the QERLC for the 2013-2020 period through the Doha Amendment.
- Commitment period 3: Establishment of the NDC as the climate commitment for the period 2021-2030 through Paris Agreement
In the first period, developing countries were exempted from setting a reduction target. Under the Paris Agreement, all parties have entered into a climate commitment. The European Union has since made a distribution in their GHG reduction commitments among member states. The NDCs therefore state that each European member state will achieve a 40% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, while the table shows the actual allocation per European member state (see table 1).
Table 1: Overview of climate commitments of a selection of UNFCCC Parties
A complete overview of their commitments can be found in the (interim) NDC registry. This register is interim, because agreements still have to be made about the design during the next annual meeting.
Russia has not yet submitted an NDC and the United States has indicated that it might wish to withdraw from the agreement. Withdrawal from the Paris Agreement is possible according to article 28 as from 3 years after the agreement has taken effect; this is on 4 November 2019. It will then take another year before the withdrawal from the agreement is actually in effect. Leaving the UNFCCC automatically means withdrawal from the Paris Agreement.
What have the countries already achieved?
The UN has developed greenhouse gas profiles for each Party on the basis of the annually supplied data. Based on the most recently submitted data, the profiles look at how much greenhouse gas reduction has been achieved compared to the base year of 1990. In addition, the difference between the most recently submitted data and the situation in 2000 is taken into account. Unfortunately, these percentages are not directly applicable for determining whether the Belgian reduction target for 2020 has been achieved, because this target is based on a base year of 2005. In April 2023, the European Commission will have to produce a report on the extent to which the objective has been achieved according to European legislation. An overview of the reductions so far can be found in table 2 for a selection of Parties.
Table 2: Overview of the greenhouse gas emission reductions achieved for a selection of UNFCCC Parties
For a UN greenhouse gas profile per Party, click here.
What are the next steps in the UN climate policy?
The next annual meeting will be held from 2 to 13 December 2019 in Santiago, Chile (COP 25). The focus of this meeting will be on the elaboration of the further implementation of the Paris Agreement. In addition, the further design of the (interim) NDC registry is expected to be discussed. A start was already made at the COP 24 in Katowice at the end of last year.
For more information about the COP 25, click here.
- UNFCCC: https://unfccc.int/
- Kyoto Protocol: https://unfccc.int/resource/docs/convkp/kpeng.pdf
- Doha Amendment: https://unfccc.int/files/kyoto_protocol/application/pdf/kp_doha_amendment_english.pdf
- Paris Agreement: https://unfccc.int/sites/default/files/english_paris_agreement_en.pdf
- NDC Registry: https://www4.unfccc.int/sites/ndcstaging/Pages/Home.aspx
- United Nations: https://www.un.org/en/