The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) was established in 1992 to take action to reduce climate change and was ratified by member countries (“parties”) in 1994. The UNFCCC is a treaty that provides the basis for international agreements on climate change. The UNFCCC aims to stabilize greenhouse gas (GHG) concentrations in the atmosphere,

“at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic (man-made) interference with the climate system. Such a level should be achieved within a time-frame sufficient to allow ecosystems to adapt naturally to climate change, to ensure that food production is not threatened and to enable economic development to proceed in a sustainable manner.” (Article 2)

Two treaties operationalize the UNFCCC: the 1997 Kyoto Protocol and 2015 Paris Agreement. The Kyoto Protocol adhered to the principle of “common but differentiated responsibilities,” which was first introduced in the UNFCCC. This principle recognized that, while all countries share a responsibility to address climate change, the heavier burden for climate change mitigation should fall upon the countries most responsible for emissions. The Kyoto Protocol set agreed-upon, binding targets for wealthier countries and economies in transition to reduce emissions. The targets were not sufficiently ambitious to achieve significant mitigation, and the agreement did not adequately address emissions growth in emerging economies. Thus, progress under the Kyoto Protocol has been limited.

The 2015 Paris Agreement was developed to enable country-led (bottom-up) voluntary contributions in contrast to the globally-negotiated (top-down), compliance-focused approach in the Kyoto Protocol. The Paris Agreement encourages developed country parties to lead in setting economy-wide absolute emission reduction targets and mobilizing climate finance, but the Agreement does not require different mitigation commitments from developed and developing countries, unlike the Kyoto Protocol. The Paris Agreement established the goal of:

“holding the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and pursuing efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels recognizing that this would significantly reduce the risks and impacts of climate change.” (Article 2)

The agreement also introduced:

  • nationally determined contributions (NDCs) (See Article 4 and NDCs section),
  • encouragement to support GHG sinks (Article 5),
  • a mechanism for voluntary market and non-market based carbon trading (Article 6),
  • a global goal for adaptation (Article 7),
  • provisions for climate-related loss and damage compensation (Article 8),
  • mechanisms for finance, technology and capacity building (Article 9, 10, 11, respectively),
  • an enhanced transparency framework for accounting (measurement, reporting and verification) for progress toward mitigation and adaptation goals (Article 13),
  • a global stocktake every five years, starting in 2023 (Article 14), and
  • governance of the agreement by a committee to support implementation and compliance (Article 15) and the annual conference of the parties (Article 16).