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Lines in the Sand

Policy Analyst

The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) is an international treaty with the objective of stabilizing greenhouse gas (GHG) concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent anthropogenic (man-made) interference with the climate system. The treaty entered into force in 1994, but it is not a legally binding document, rather, it is a framework for negotiating other international treaties and agreements that are enforceable as they relate to GHG emissions. Starting in 1995, parties to the UNFCCC meet annually at the Conference of the Parties (COP) where they negotiate emission targets, implementation, and finance.

But what does international negotiating actually look like? The most likely image that comes to mind is representatives from every country in the world sitting in a big room with a miniature version of their flag in front of them hashing it all out. While member state delegations do on occasion all meet together, those high level negotiations generally do not take place with everyone in the same room. Instead, the UNFCCC created various groupings of countries, as well as subsidiary bodies that all work in various ways toward achieving the UNFCCC’s ultimate goals.

The first set of groupings is the designation between Annex I, Annex II, and Non-Annex I parties. Annex I parties are industrialized countries that have historically contributed the most to climate change. This group includes OECD countries, as well as countries that have economies in transition (EIT). Annex II parties are just OECD countries without the EIT’s. Non-Annex I parties are developing countries.

The 49 least developed countries (LDC) as determined by the United Nations (UN) are given special consideration under the UNFCCC because of their limited capacity to respond and adapt to the negative impacts of climate change.

In addition to the formal groups established by the UNFCCC and the UN, various other groupings have developed over the years that are critical to understanding how climate negotiations function. The first group is the G-77 or Grouping of 77. This group which started out as a group of 77 developing countries now includes 133, and is made up of non-Annex I countries as well as China. Positions and statements made by this group are referred to as statements by the “G-77 and China.”

Another important grouping in climate negotiations is Small Island Developing States (SIDS). These are a group of around 40 low-lying islands that are particularly vulnerable to sea level rise. Fiji, which holds the presidency of COP 23, is a member of the SIDS group. The European Union, Arab states, and African states all function as groups, and the Umbrella Group is made up of non-EU developed nations like the United States, Australia, Japan, and Russia to name a few. Finally, the group of Like-Minded Developing Countries (LMDC) is a new group of influential developing countries that are concerned with balancing their own development with the need to reduce emissions.

The two permanent subsidiary bodies to the UNFCCC are the Subsidiary Body for Scientific and Technological Advice (SBSTA) and the Subsidiary Body for Implementation (SBI). Membership of these bodies is open to any party, and countries generally send their experts in relevant fields to each subsidiary body’s work. Over the years the UNFCCC has established various other subsidiary bodies each with their own objective but ultimately heading toward the minimization of manmade interference with climate change, and adaptation to negative impacts the world is already experiencing.

The climate negotiations are driven by an attempt to balance the needs and the responsibilities of all of these various groups of countries and subsidiary bodies. While one of the major tensions in climate negotiations is between developed and developing countries, the level of development of a country is not the only line in the sand.

Just like in Texas, the traditional split between Democrat and Republican only explains so much. The Legislature is driven by tensions between urban and rural, between regions, between races, among a whole host of others. In the same way, international climate negotiations are driven by tensions between least developed and more developed countries, between island nations and landlocked nations, between cultures, between languages, between domestic politics, between business, and the role of NGO’s and civil society.

See all Climate and Sustainability post.