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History of UNFCCC & COP

In 1990, the UN General Assembly established the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee (INC) for a Framework Convention on Climate Change. The INC held five sessions where more than 150 states discussed binding commitments, targets and timetables for emissions reductions, financial mechanisms, technology transfer, and “common but differentiated” responsibilities of developed and developing countries. The text of the resulting United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) was adopted in May of 1992, and in June, the UNFCCC opened for signature at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, bringing the world together to curb greenhouse gas emissions and adapt to climate change.

The UNFCCC entered into force in 1994. Countries that signed the treaty were, and still are, known as “Parties.” With 196 Parties, the Convention now has near-universal membership. Parties meet annually at the Conference of the Parties (COP) to negotiate multilateral responses to climate change.

The ultimate objective of the Convention is to stabilize greenhouse gas concentrations “at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic (human induced) interference with the climate system.” It states that “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.” The Convention places the onus on developed countries to lead the way. Because industrialized countries are the source of most past and current greenhouse gas emissions, they have been expected to do most to cut emissions on home ground. These nations are called Annex I countries, and they agree under the Convention to support climate change activities in developing countries by providing financial support for action on climate—above and beyond any financial assistance they already provide to these developing nations. In addition, industrialized countries agree to share technology with less-advanced nations.

In addition, the Convention acknowledges the vulnerability of all countries to the effects of climate change and calls for special efforts to ease the consequences, especially in developing countries that lack the resources to do so on their own. 

Watch the 15-minute "History of Climate Governance" video here.

More on the structure and goals of the UNFCCC here.

More on the history and structure of the COP here and here.