The international response to climate change
The First World Climate Conference recognized climate change as a serious problem in 1979. This
scientific gathering explored how climate change might affect human activities. It issued a declaration
calling on the world’s governments "to foresee and prevent potential man-made changes in climate
that might be adverse to the well-being of humanity". It also endorsed plans to establish a World
Climate Programme (WCP) under the joint responsibility of the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), the
United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), and the International Council of Scientific Unions
A number of intergovernmental conferences focusing on climate change were held in the late 1980s and early
1990s. Together with increasing scientific evidence, these conferences helped to raise international
concern about the issue. Participants included government policy-makers, scientists, and environmentalists.
The meetings addressed both scientific and policy issues and called for global action. The key events were
the Villach Conference (October 1985), the Toronto Conference (June 1988), the Ottawa Conference (February
1989), the Tata Conference (February 1989), the Hague Conference and Declaration (March 1989), the Noordwijk
Ministerial Conference (November 1989), the Cairo Compact (December 1989), the Bergen Conference (May 1990),
and the Second World Climate Conference (November 1990).
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released its First Assessment Report in 1990.
Established in 1988 by UNEP and WMO, the Panel was given a mandate to assess the state of existing knowledge
about the climate system and climate change; the environmental, economic, and social impacts of climate
change; and the possible response strategies. Approved after a painstaking peer review process, the Report
confirmed the scientific evidence for climate change. This had a powerful effect on both policy-makers and
the general public and provided the basis for negotiations on the Climate Change Convention.
In December 1990, the UN General Assembly approved the start of treaty negotiations. The
Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee for a Framework Convention on Climate Change (INC/FCCC) met for five
sessions between February 1991 and May 1992. Facing a strict deadline – the June 1992 Rio "Earth
Summit" – negotiators from 150 countries finalized the Convention in just 15 months. It was
adopted in New York on 9 May 1992.
The 1992 UN Framework Convention on Climate Change was signed by 154 states (plus the EC) at Rio de
Janeiro. Twenty years after the 1972 Stockholm Declaration first laid the foundations of contemporary
environmental policy, the Earth Summit became the largest-ever gathering of Heads of State. Other agreements
adopted at Rio were the Rio Declaration, Agenda 21, the Convention on Biological Diversity, and Forest
The Convention entered into force on 21 March 1994. This was 90 days after the receipt of the
50th instrument of ratification (after signing a convention a government must then ratify). The
next critical date was 21 September when developed country Parties started submitting national communications
describing their climate change strategies. Meanwhile, the INC continued its preparatory work, meeting for
another six sessions to discuss matters relating to commitments, arrangements for the financial mechanism,
technical and financial support to developing countries, and procedural and institutional matters. The INC
was dissolved after its 11th and final session in February 1995, and the Conference of the Parties
(COP) became the Convention’s ultimate authority.
The Conference of the Parties held its first session in Berlin from 28 March - 7 April 1995. Delegates
from 117 Parties and 53 Observer States participated in COP-1, as did over 2,000 observers and journalists.
They agreed that the commitments contained in the Convention for developed countries were inadequate and
launched the "Berlin Mandate" talks on additional commitments. They also reviewed the first round
of national communications and finalized much of the institutional and financial machinery needed to support
action under the Convention in the years to come. COP-2 was held at the Palais des Nations in Geneva from 8 -
19 June 1996.
The IPCC finalized its Second Assessment Report in December 1995. Published in time for COP-2, the
Second Assessment Report was written and reviewed by some 2,000 scientists and experts world-wide. It was
soon widely known for concluding that "the balance of evidence suggests that there is a discernible
human influence on global climate." However, the Report did much more, for example confirming the
availability of so-called no-regrets options and other cost-effective strategies for combating climate
The Kyoto Protocol was adopted at COP-3 in December 1997. Some 10,000 delegates, observers, and
journalists participated in this high-profile event from 1 - 11 December. Because there was not enough time
to finalize all the operational details of how the Protocol would work in practice, COP-4, held in Buenos
Aires from 2-13 November 1998, agreed a two-year Plan of Action for completing the Kyoto rulebook. The agenda
of COP-5, which took place in Bonn from 15 October – 5 November 1999, was based on this Plan.
A political agreement on the operational rulebook for the Protocol was reached at COP-6. Meeting from
6 to 25 November 2000, COP-6 made good progress but could not resolve all the issues in the time available.
The meeting was suspended and then resumed from 16 to 27 July 2001 in Bonn. The resumed session reached
agreement on the political principles of operational rulebook for the Kyoto Protocol. This agreement
addressed the emissions trading system, the Clean Development Mechanism, the rules for counting emissions
reductions from carbon "sinks", and the compliance regime. It also outlined a package of financial
and technological support to help developing countries contribute to global action on climate change. The
work of translating the Bonn Agreements into detailed legal texts was finalized at COP-7, which was held in
Marrakech, Morocco, from 29 October to 9 November 2001. The Protocol is now ready for implementation.
The IPCC finalized its Third Assessment Report in early 2001. The Report concluded that the evidence
for humanity’s influence on the global climate is now stronger than ever before, and it presented the
most detailed picture to date of how global warming will affect various regions. It also confirmed that many
cost-effective solutions to rising greenhouse gas emissions are available today; in many cases, however,
governments will need to address various institutional, behavioral and other barriers before these solutions
can realize their potential.