The United Nations Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC)


The United Nations Convention on Climate Change was adopted in 1992 as one of the three conventions at the “Rio Earth Summit”. The other Rio Conventions are the UN Convention on Biological Diversity and the Convention to Combat Desertification. The UNFCCC entered into force on 21 March 1994. The UNFCCC was ratified by 195 countries.

Article 2 of the Convention states that:

“The ultimate objective of this Convention and any related legal instruments that the Conference of the Parties may adopt is to achieve, in accordance with the relevant provisions of the Convention, stabilization of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic 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.”


Parties to the Convention (all countries that ratified the UNFCCC) meet once a year at the Conference of the Parties (COP) which is organised by one of the Parties holding the rotating COP Presidency as a representative of one of the UN regional groups. The COP in 2013 was organised by Poland, which is a member of the Eastern European Group (EEG), in Warsaw. In 2014, the COP was hosted by Peru, representing the Latin American and Carribbean Group (GRULAC), and the COP in 2015 was hosted by France, representing the Western European and Others Group (WEOG). The previous COP was organised by Qatar, on behalf of the Asia-Pacific Group, and the COP in 2011, which launched current negotiations on the global agreement applicable to all from 2020 under ADP, was hosted by South Africa in Durban, representing the African Group.

The COP.17 in 2011 opened the way to a new stage in the climate negotiations. In Durban, parties to the Convention agreed to work towards agreeing and adopting a comprehensive greenhouse gas reduction protocol, legal instrument or other outcome with legal force by 2015 applicable from 2020. The process of negotiating the new agreement includes negotiations on bridging the gap between the pledges made by parties in Copenhagen and Cancun and the level of reductions needed to limit the rise of global temperature to below 2°C above pre-industrial levels through raising ambition of the existing pledges, encouraging parties that have not came forward with pledges to do so, and promoting international action leading to further additional emission reductions. 

The Paris Agreement

On December 12th, 2015 in Paris, Conference of Parties to the UN Convention on Climate Change (COP.21) adopted the long awaited global climate agreement by decision 1/CP.21. The text of the Paris Agreement is contained in the annex to decision 1/CP.21, known also as a Decision Adopting the Paris Agreement. The report of the COP on its twenty-first session, including the Paris Agreement, is available in all six official UN languages on the website of the UNFCCC Secretariat.

The agreement „shall enter into force on the thirtieth day after the date on which at least 55 Parties to the Convention, accounting in total for at least an estimated 55 per cent of the total global greenhouse gas emissions have deposited their instruments of ratification, acceptance, approval or accession”. Similar provision applied to the Kyoto Protocol. So the Agreement will become valid with a relatively low threshold of participation. However, it is expected that this agreement will have a global outreach. Out of the 196 parties to UNFCCC, 187 submitted their INDCs before the Paris COP, signaling their readiness to join the Agreement. The Paris Agreement differs from the Kyoto Protocol in that with respect to the joining threshold, it does not discriminate between developed and developing countries. Based on intended nationally determined contributions (INDCs) submitted by 187 out of 196 countries – Parties to the UNFCCC. All parties to the Paris Agreement undertake to mitigate GHG emissions, with progressive ambition and a regular global stocktake every five years to check the collective progress on the pathway to achieve the global goal of holding the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, making efforts to keep the rise of global temperature below 1,5 degrees Celsius (PA, Art. 2.1). In order to achieve that, all Parties should strive to formulate and communicate long-term low greenhouse gas emission development strategies, mindful of Article 2 taking into account their common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities, in the light of different national circumstances.” (PA, Art. 4.19)

The Agreement envisages that a balance between anthropogenic emissions by sources and removals by sinks of GHG will be achieved in the second half of this century, with global peaking of GHG emissions and rapid reductions thereafter (PA, Art. 4.1). In their INDCs, developed countries „should continue taking the lead by undertaking economy-wide absolute emission reduction targets”, while developing countries are „encouraged to move over time towards economy-wide emission reduction or limitation targets in the light of different national circumstances.” Actions of developing countries will continue to be conditional on support, as it is under the Convention. The Agreement envisages ratcheting up of the ambition of the INDCs every five years, in line with recommendations of the global stocktake. This will be possible with transparency as one of the building blocks of the Agreement, and with all countries accounting for their emissions.

Paris Agreement recognizes adaptation as a global issue. Parties agreed on one global adaptation goal (PA, Art.7.1). On adaptation issues, countries agreed to strengthen cooperation, improve effectiveness and durability of action results, formally recognizing the adaptation efforts of developing countries. Countries will periodically communicate their adaptation plans.  Many details of the implementation will have to be decided by  countries, beginning in May 2016. The Decision Adopting the Paris Agreement includes a workplan for the period before entry into force of the Agreement.

The key COPs milestones leading to the 2015 Paris Agreement 

2009. Copenhagen

Copenhagen COP (COP.15-CMP.5) was planned to close the negotiations started in Bali in 2007 (the Bali roadmap), and deliver a global agreement. The high hopes associated with Copenhagen COP were not met but the negotiations on infrastructure needed to deliver such an agreement were advanced through narrowing options and clarifying issues which at subsequent COPs were taken forward by the parties to the UNFCCC.

The outcome of the Copenhagen COP is known as the Copenhagen Accord in which countries put forward political declaration to continue working towards addressing climate change and reducing emissions. One of the key elements was the recognition of the long-term goal of limiting the global average temperature increase to no more than 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. Parties agreed that this goal would be reviewed in 2015, also with a view to consider the strengthening of the long-term goal to 1.5 degrees Celsius.

Several parties, including all the major economies, put forward pledges to reduce emissions by 2020. Developed countries promised to provide USD 30 billion for the period 2010-2012, and to mobilize long-term finance of a further USD 100 billion a year by 2020 from various sources, to fund mitigation and adaptation activities in developing countries.

The Copenhagen accord called for establishment of the Green Climate Fund, a Technology Mechanism and a REDD+ mechanism, and reiterated the need for improved MRV of actions by developed and developing countries in line with the existing and future COP guidelines.

2010. Cancun

The COP.16-CMP.6 in Cancun concluded with adoption of a package of decisions known as the Cancun Agreements. The continuation of the Kyoto Protocol beyond its first commitment period due to end in December 2012 was one of the key issues in Cancun negotiations. The Kyoto Protocol is regarded by developing countries as a cornerstone of climate policy based on a divide between developed and developing countries, embodying the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities (CBDR).

In line with this outlook, developed countries which are historically responsible for the rise in emissions in the past should take on the principal burden of combating climate change. The Kyoto Protocol, during its first commitment period (2008 to 2012) obliged 37 developed countries to undertake emission reductions under binding commitments. In Cancun, developing countries stressed the urgency of agreeing new targets under Kyoto Protocol for the period beyond 2013. No agreement was reached on this issue but Annex B parties (countries with commitments in CP1) were asked to ensure that the work on CP2 is completed in time to avoid the gap between CP1 and CP2. Parties were also asked to raise the level of their reduction ambitions. Pledges submitted by parties in Copenhagen were recognised as inadequate and in need of upward revision.

The outcome of negotiations stressed a shared vision of climate change as one of the greatest challenges of our times, and recognised the need of keeping the rise of global average temperature below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and therefore the need to ensure corresponding emission reductions. Parties agreed that emissions need to peak, agreeing to determine the peaking point in 2011, and to substantially reduce emissions by 2050. Parties also shared the view that developed countries should take the lead in combating climate change, due to their historical responsibility for carbon emissions, but developing countries were encouraged to aim at achieving lower emissions by 2020 than would be the case under a ‘business as usual’ scenario, through ‘nationally appropriate mitigation actions’(NAMAs).

The COP confirmed Copenhagen commitment of developed countries to provide USD30 billion in ‘fast-start’ financing between 2010 and 2012, to help developing countries to finance adaptation and undertake mitigation. Parties agreed that adaptation will be prioritised for least-developed countries, small-island developing states and Africa. To provide long term support to adaptation, Parties set up the Adaptation Fund.

Developed countries reiterated their commitment to a long term goal of mobilising USD100 billion a year by 2020 to support developing countries in their adaptation and mitigation efforts. It was decided that the money would be channelled through a new institution, Green Climate Fund. In order to support enchanced action and development of technologies enabling developing countries to undertake mitigation efforts, the COP established a Technology Mechanism consisting of a Technology Executive Committee and a Climate Technology Centre and Network..

2011. Durban

The COP.17in Durban ended with an agreement to work towards preparing and adopting a comprehensive greenhouse gas reduction “protocol, legal instrument or other outcome with legal force by 2015 applicable from 2020” (the 2015 Agreement). The process of negotiating the new agreement includes negotiations on bridging the gap between the pledges made by parties so far, and the level of reductions needed to limit the rise of global temperature to below 2°C above pre-industrial levels. The agreement must be based on broad and ambitious global participation, and informed by science, to be climate effective and deliver the ultimate objective of the Convention.

This decision would not have been possible without progress on further continuation of the Kyoto Protocol. In Durban it was agreed that Kyoto Protocol will continue, and that the second commitment period will start on 1 January, 2013.

Parties agreed to carry out a fresh review of the long term global goal (LTGG), based on the most recent scientific evidence and data, and to ascertain the pertinence of a 1.5 degree threshold and what needs to be done collectively to prevent the rise of temperature above the agreed level.
Parties also recognised the need for a greater ambition of reduction pledges compared to those put forward in Cancun Agreements.

Parties agreed to close negotiations under two then existing tracks: long-term cooperative action and on further commitments under the Kyoto Protocol, and to continue working together under the Ad Hoc Working Group on the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action (ADP) to achieve the ultimate objective defined in Article 2 of the Convention. The COP.17 agreed also on the second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol and its commencement on 1 January 2013..

2012. Doha

In Doha, parties agreed to deliver the elements of a draft text of the 2015 Agreement by the end of 2014. Doha COP initiated useful discussions on the scope, design and structure of the 2015 Agreement, continued in 2013. Warsaw COP.19 is expected to deliver further progress on the elements of scope, design and structure of the 2015 Agreement. Moderate progress was achieved on the architecture of the regime – MRV, technology, adaptation, etc. Importantly for some parties most affected by climate change, the issue of loss and damage gained prominence.

On finance, Doha brought some progress, reiterating previous decisions on fast start finance and a package leading towards collective goal of developed countries’ delivering $100 billion per year until 2020. The work plan for long-term finance was extended for one year until end of 2013. Parties adopted also a decision on the implementation of the second commitment period (CP2) of the Kyoto Protocol. The adoption of the framework for CP2 was the key outcome in Doha with political significance. The level of ambition for CP2 participants was maintained at the lower end of initial pledges, and an 8-year CP2 agreed, in preference to a 5 year CP (one of key objectives for countries taking up commitments known as QELROs). To counterbalance that, a mechanism to increase the level of ambition was introduced, together with a process to achieve that during 2014, and the issue of the surplus AAUs was resolved by agreeing a full carry over of the surplus from CP1 to CP2. The banked AAUs are to be kept in a specially set up previous period surplus reserve (PPSR) and used for own compliance. Banked AAUs can also be traded up to a limit, between the PPSRs.

Key outcome of Doha negotiations under Kyoto Protocol

  • Adoption of a CP2 starting in 2013 and ending in 2020, duration of CP2 8 years.
  • Immediate application from 1 January 2013, provisional application optional.
  • However – a limited participation in CP2 compared with CP1: EU, Norway, Switzerland, Lichtenstein, Monaco, Australia, Belarus, Ukraine and Kazakhstan.
  • AAU surplus compromise: transfer of all the CP1 surplus to CP2 to a special reserve (Commitment Period Surplus Reserve), trade only between the CPSRs.
  • Countries taking up commitments in CP2 announced self-imposed limitations on the use and/or acquisition of surplus CP1 AAUs;
  • A mechanism limiting possibility of a new AAU surplus emerging in CP2 was adopted.
  • KP Mechanisms continuity was ensured:
    • All the parties have access to CDM from the beginning of CP2 (non CP2 parties can participate in CDM but cannot transfer or acquire CERs in secondary markets) o
    • However, the issue of continuity of JI was not resolved – SBI was asked to consider expediting continued issuance ERUs, however, if no surplus of AAUs for CP2 is ensured, there will be no JI, as ERUs have to be backed by AAUs.
  • Ambition adjustment mechanisms were introduced:
    • CP2 Parties are to “revisit” targets at the latest by 2014 (to coincide with the Heads of State Summit announced by the UN Secretary General).
    • A mechanism enabling adjustment of targets any time in the course of CP2 was adopted.
  • Share of Proceeds from carbon market (CDM) was augmented with additional Share of Proceeds on first international transfer AAUs & new CP2 ERUs –money will go to adaptation in developing countries.
  • Further work on KP implementing issues was agreed to continue under SBSTA in 2013, with a view of a decision being adopted at COP.19 in Warsaw.

AWG-KP was closed and the COP decided that further discussion on Annex I commitments will continue under ADP.

2013. Warsaw

Countries further discussed the steps towards a new global climate deal in 2015, and reached agreement on a number of procedural points to faciiate further negotiations.

Decisions agreed that they would communicate their proposals  for the new cllimate agreement “well in advance” of COP21, noting that this would be “…by the first quarter of 2015 by those Parties ready to do so”.

The submissions have also been defined as ‘contributions’ (Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs)) rather than the more stringent ‘commitments’. Each of these decision have created concern amongs some that ambition to maximise emission reductions will be weaker than hoped.

Other key outcomes of Warsaw COP

– The role of sub-national governments has been recognized in helping to raise climate action ambitions in the period to 2020, with agreement to facilitate learning from and sharing of sub-national government experiences.

– A ‘Loss and Damage’ mechanism was agreed upon to help developing countries to cope with severe climate impacts, but without a clear means of adequate funding.

– Discussions were held on climate finance, however key qustions of, for example the capitalization of the Green Climate Fund and funding of the Loss and Damage mechanism were not resolved.

– Countries agreed to modalities governing ‘results-based finance’ for developing countries that halt deforestation..

2014. Lima

COP20 in Perus ended with a compromise text of the Lima call for climate action. The decision contains in an annex a draft text of the future agreement which will be used as a basis for further negotiations in 2015 leading to the final agreement being adopted in Paris. The decision contains also agreed scope of information on the future contributions which countries will put forward before Paris. The key expectation before the Lima COP was that it would provide a guidance to countries on how to prepare their Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs) to 2015 Agreement. However the expected comprehensive guidance on how to draft an INDC did not materialise.

The Lima decision reiterated invitation from Warsaw to each UNFCCC Party to submit to the Secretariat its INDC towards achieving the objective of the Convention. All INDCs are to be communicated in a clear, transparent and understandable way. Without clarity, transparency and understanding of INDCs it would not be possible to quantify and judge the proposed contributions. However, it is for each Party to decide what these qualifiers do mean in their case.

The decision also specified that the information provided by Parties together with their INDC (the upfront information, or UFI) may include (for each Party to decide) as appropriate in the light of differing national circumstances a number of specific information. Inter alia, countries are invited to provide, if they wish (since the decision specifies that they may do so), quantifiable information on the reference point including, as appropriate, a base year, time frame for implementation or period of implementation proposed for their contributions, scope and coverage of proposed INDCs, planning processes, assumptions and methodological approaches, including those for estimating and accounting for anthropogenic GHG emissions, and, as appropriate, removals.

All this information refers to mitigation that countries are planning to undertake under 2015 agreement. Although the requirements to include all of this information are not mandatory, they may serve as a basis for comparison based on understanding on how the proposed INDCs contribute to achieving the objective of the Convention as set out in its Article 2 and it is hoped that they will help to create peer pressure between countries to put forward ambitious contributions.

Parties were also invited to consider communicating their undertakings in adaptation planning or consider including an adaptation component in their INDCs. This should be interpreted that countries submitting their INDC on mitigation may also add an adaptation component to their INDC. 

2015. Paris

At COP.17 in Durban, parties to the UNFCCC agreed to work towards developing „ a protocol, another legal instrument, or an agreed outcome with legal force applicable to all Parties (to the UNFCCC)“. In December 2015, 196 countries subscribed to the Paris Agreement – a legally biding agreement which sets out the pathway towards climate neutral, resilient future for the globe. In the run up to the Paris COP, 186 countries submitted to the UNFCCC Secretariat their Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs), outlining steps which these countries intend to take in order to participate in the joint global effort of limiting temperature rise to well below 2°C and to pursue efforts to limit temperature increase to 1.5°C. The Agreement will enter into force when „at least 55 Parties to the Convention, accounting in total for at least an estimated 55 per cent of the total global greenhouse gas emissions [will] have deposited their instruments of ratification, acceptance, approval or accession” to the UNFCCC. While parties still have to work out the details – and this will be done not only in the run up to the next COP in Marrakesh but also in the following years until the new agreement kicks in from 2021. The Paris Agreement offers a clear direction towards a long-term goal, a decision to monitor and regularly strengthen joint action, a commitment to transparency of action and support for countries in need with respect of finance, technology and capacity building in order to bring about the real change. Developed countries will continue to provide and mobilise climate finance to support developing countries, mobilising USD 100 billion a year until 2025. A new, higher, collective financial goal will be adopted from 2026 onwards. 

The Agreement underlines the importance of adaptation and support to the most vulnerable countries. Adaptation is treated with an importance which previously was attributed to mitigation only. The Agreement introduced a cycle of action for strengthening adaptation efforts which is similar to the cycle of mitigation action. The issue of loss and damage is acknowledged as separate from adaptation, and the Warsaw International Mechanism on Loss and Damage is strengthened by becoming permanent.

Parties agreed to five-year cycles of action. In continuation of their INDCs, all parties to the Agreement are expected to undertake and communicate ambitious (new or updated) action plans with a view of achieving jointly the purpose of this Agreement. Each party’s successive NDC will represent a progression beyond that party’s current NDC, and reflect its higher ambition in the light of different national circumstances. A global stocktake will enable parties to judge whether these joint efforts are on track and inform the implementation of their action plans. This is the first global agreement which provides a common framework to the global efforts to fight climate change for developed and developing countries. These efforts will take into account such crucial issues as equity, sustainable development and poverty, with provision of support and developing countries taking the lead. 



The Ad Hoc Working Group on the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action (ADP) was a subsidiary body of the UNFCCC established at COP.17 in Durban. It was set up in order to develop a protocol, another legal instrument or an agreed outcome with legal force under the Convention applicable to all Parties. Parties to the UNFCCC agreed that the work on the new agreement would be completed no later than 2015 in order to be adopted at the COP.21 in Paris, with a view to be implemented by all parties from 2020. The ADP also aimed to discuss how to close the ambition gap between reductions necessary to limit the increase of global temperature to below 2°C and the level of reductions that may be achieved by parties, if they implement their collective 2020 reduction pledges and commitments. The agenda that was finally agreed in the course of the following year confirmed the creation of two workstreams within the ADP: the first workstream (WS1) focussing on agreement on a new legal instrument in 2015 for the period after 2020, and the second workstream (WS2) focussing on raising ambition in the period up to 2020. In the course of 2012 and 2013, the ADP worked under both WS through workshops and roundtables, enabling parties to share the views and exchange opinions on a range of issues. At COP.18 in Doha, parties agreed to deliver the elements of a draft text of the future global Agreement by the end of 2014. The ADP continued discussions on the scope, design and structure of the 2015 Agreement, and on the ways and means of increasing pre-2020 ambition in 2013. At the next COP in Warsaw (COP.19) parties agreed that they would communicate their proposals for the new climate agreement “well in advance” of COP21, „by the first quarter of 2015 by those Parties ready to do so”. These proposals have also been defined as ‘contributions’ (Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs)) rather than ‚commitments’ or ‚pledges’. A year before the pivotal COP in Paris, COP.20 in Lima adopted a decision known as the Lima call for climate action, containing in an annex a draft text of the future agreement. The Lima decision requested parties to intensify work under ADP, with a view to presenting to all parties before May 2015 a negotiating text which will be subject to agreement in Paris.

Throughout 2015, ADP met 5 times, discussing further iterations of the negotiations text. The text used by parties as a reference for all the drafts was adopted at the first ADP meeting of 2015, convened in Geneva in February 2015. In Geneva the ADP agreed at closing plenary to treat the text developed at that meeting as a starting point and basis for further negotiations aimed at preparing a final draft text for the Paris COP. The Geneva text contained all the proposals of all the parties and was 64 pages long. During negotiations that followed, parties strived to streamline the text and make it workable. The ADP Co-Chairs conducted intensive consultations between negotiating sessions in a transparent and inclusive manner. In parallel, ADP worked under its second work stream towards increasing pre-2020 ambition and closing the ambition gap. The progress on the draft text was slow but the intensive climate diplomacy and additional effort of both COP Presidencies, Peru and France have led to a success in Paris, where ADP concluded its mandate on 5 December by forwarding the draft text of the agreement to the COP for further deliberations. Adoption of the Paris Agreement by the Parties to the UNFCCC has led to institutional changes: Parties set up a new Ad Hoc Working Group on the Paris Agreement which replaced the ADP. Its first task will be to develop further guidance on features of the nationally determined contributions for consideration and adoption by the Conference of the Parties serving as the meeting of the Parties to the Paris Agreement at its first session at the next COP in Marrakesh.