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Climate Change Information Sheet 18
The Climate Change Convention

The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Convention is the foundation of global efforts to combat global warming. Opened for signature in 1992 at the Rio Earth Summit, its ultimate objective is the "stabilization of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic [ human-induced] 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."

The Convention sets out some guiding principles. The precautionary principle says that the lack of full scientific certainty should not be used as an excuse to postpone action when there is a threat of serious or irreversible damage. The principle of the "common but differentiated responsibilities" of states assigns the lead in combating climate change to developed countries. Other principles deal with the special needs of developing countries and the importance of promoting sustainable development.

Both developed and developing countries accept a number of general commitments. All Parties will develop and submit "national communications" containing inventories of greenhouse gas emissions by source and greenhouse gas removals by "sinks". They will adopt national programmes for mitigating climate change and develop strategies for adapting to its impacts. They will also promote technology transfer and the sustainable management, conservation, and enhancement of greenhouse gas sinks and "reservoirs" (such as forests and oceans). In addition, the Parties will take climate change into account in their relevant social, economic, and environmental policies; cooperate in scientific, technical, and educational matters; and promote education, public awareness, and the exchange of information related to climate change.

Industrialized countries undertake several specific commitments. Most members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) plus the states of Central and Eastern Europe – known collectively as Annex I countries – committed themselves to adopting policies and measures aimed at returning their greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by the year 2000 (emissions targets for the post-2000 period are addressed by the Kyoto Protocol). They must also submit national communications on a regular basis detailing their climate change strategies. Several states may together adopt a joint emissions target. The countries in transition to a market economy are granted a certain degree of flexibility in implementing their commitments.

The richest countries shall provide "new and additional financial resources" and facilitate technology transfer. These so-called Annex II countries (essentially the OECD) will fund the "agreed full cost" incurred by developing countries for submitting their national communications. These funds must be "new and additional" rather than redirected from existing development aid funds. Annex II Parties will also help finance certain other Convention-related projects, and they will promote and finance the transfer of, or access to, environmentally sound technologies, particularly for developing country Parties. The Convention recognizes that the extent to which developing country Parties implement their commitments will depend on financial and technical assistance from the developed countries.

The supreme body of the Convention is the Conference of the Parties (COP). The COP comprises all the states that have ratified or acceded to the Convention (185 as of July 2001). It held its first meeting (COP-1) in Berlin in 1995 and will continue to meet on a yearly basis unless the Parties decide otherwise. The COP’s role is to promote and review the implementation of the Convention. It will periodically review existing commitments in light of the Convention’s objective, new scientific findings, and the effectiveness of national climate change programmes. The COP can adopt new commitments through amendments and protocols to the Convention; in December 1997 it adopted the Kyoto Protocol containing binding emissions targets for developed countries.

The Convention also establishes two subsidiary bodies. The Subsidiary Body for Scientific and Technological Advice (SBSTA) provides the COP with timely information and advice on scientific and technological matters relating to the Convention. The Subsidiary Body for Implementation (SBI) helps with the assessment and review of the Convention’s implementation. Two additional bodies were established by COP-1: the Ad hoc Group on the Berlin Mandate (AGBM), which concluded its work in Kyoto in December 1997, and the Ad hoc Group on Article 13 (AG13), which concluded its work in June 1998.

A financial mechanism provides funds on a grant or concessional basis. The Convention states that this mechanism shall be guided by, and be accountable to, the Conference of the Parties, which shall decide on its policies, programme priorities, and eligibility criteria. There should be an equitable and balanced representation of all Parties within a transparent system of governance. The operation of the financial mechanism may be entrusted to one or more international entities. The Convention assigns this role to the Global Environment Facility (GEF) on an interim basis; in 1999 the COP decided to entrust the GEF with this responsibility on an on-going basis and to review the financial mechanism every four years. In 2001 the COP agreed on the need to establish two new funds under the Convention – a Special Climate Change Fund and a fund for least developed countries – to help developing countries adapt to climate change impacts, obtain clean technologies, and limit the growth in their emissions. These funds are to be managed within the GEF framework. (The COP also agreed to establish an Adaptation Fund under the 1997 Kyoto Protocol.) The COP and its subsidiary bodies are serviced by a secretariat. The interim secretariat that functioned during the negotiation of the Convention became the permanent secretariat in January 1996.

The secretariat arranges for sessions of the COP and its subsidiary bodies, drafts official documents, services meetings, compiles and transmits reports submitted to it, facilitates assistance to Parties for the compilation and communication of information, coordinates with secretariats of other relevant international bodies, and reports on its activities to the COP. It is based in Bonn, Germany (see unfccc.int).

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