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First steps to a safer future: Introducing The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change


The UNFCCC entered into force on 21 March 1994. Today, it has near-universal membership. The 197 countries that have ratified the Convention are called Parties to the Convention.

The UNFCCC is a “Rio Convention”, one of three adopted at the “Rio Earth Summit” in 1992. Its sister Rio Conventions are the UN Convention on Biological Diversity and the Convention to Combat Desertification. The three are intrinsically linked. It is in this context that the Joint Liaison Group was set up to boost cooperation among the three Conventions, with the ultimate aim of developing synergies in their activities on issues of mutual concern. It now also incorporates the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands.

Preventing “dangerous” human interference with the climate system is the ultimate aim of the UNFCCC.

First steps to a safer future: the Convention in summary
The Convention:

Recognized that there was a problem.

  • This was remarkable for its time. Remember, in 1994, when the UNFCCC took effect, there was less scientific evidence than there is now. The UNFCCC borrowed a very important line from one of the most successful multilateral environmental treaties in history (the Montreal Protocol, in 1987): it bound member states to act in the interests of human safety even in the face of scientific uncertainty.

Related reading: Science

Sets a lofty but specific goal.
  • 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."

How do we know what is "dangerous anthropogenic interference"? See IPCC's Reports

Puts the onus on developed countries to lead the way.
  • The idea is that, as they are the source of most past and current greenhouse gas emissions, industrialized countries are expected to do the most to cut emissions on home ground. They are called Annex I countries and belong to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). They include 12 countries with "economies in transition" from Central and Eastern Europe. Annex I countries were expected by the year 2000 to reduce emissions to 1990 levels. Many of them have taken strong action to do so, and some have already succeeded.

What compelled these countries to act? See The Kyoto Protocol

Directs new funds to climate change activities in developing countries.
  • Industrialized nations agree under the Convention to support climate change activities in developing countries by providing financial support for action on climate change-- above and beyond any financial assistance they already provide to these countries. A system of grants and loans has been set up through the Convention and is managed by the Global Environment Facility. Industrialized countries also agree to share technology with less-advanced nations.

Related reading: Cooperation & Support

Keeps tabs on the problem and what's being done about it.
  • Industrialized countries (Annex I) have to report regularly on their climate change policies and measures, including issues governed by the Kyoto Protocol (for countries which have ratified it).

  • They must also submit an annual inventory of their greenhouse gas emissions, including data for their base year (1990)and all the years since.

  • Developing countries (Non-Annex I Parties) report in more general terms on their actions both to address climate change and to adapt to its impacts - but less regularly than Annex I Parties do, and their reporting is contingent on their getting funding for the preparation of the reports, particularly in the case of the Least Developed Countries.

You can find all Parties' submitted reports and the inventories of Annex I Parties here: National Reports

Charts the beginnings of a path to strike a delicate balance.
  • Economic development is particularly vital to the world's poorer countries. Such progress is difficult to achieve even without the complications added by climate change. The Convention takes this into consideration by accepting that the share of greenhouse gas emissions produced by developing nations will grow in the coming years. Nonetheless, in the interests of fulfilling its ultimate goal, it seeks to help such countries limit emissions in ways that will not hinder their economic progress. One such win-win solution was to emerge later, when the Kyoto Protocol to the Convention was conceived.

Related reading: the Clean Development Mechanism of the Kyoto Protocol

Kicks off formal consideration of adaptation to climate change.
  • 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 which lack the resources to do so on their own. In the early years of the Convention, adaptation received less attention than mitigation, as Parties wanted more certainty on impacts of and vulnerability to climate change. When IPCC's Third Assessment Report was released, adaptation gained traction, and Parties agreed on a process to address adverse effects and to establish funding arrangements for adaptation. Currently, work on adaptation takes place under different Convention bodies. The Adaptation Committee, which Parties agreed to set up under the Cancun Adaptation Framework as part of the Cancun Agreements, is a major step towards a cohesive, Convention-based approach to adaptation.

Related reading: Adaptation


The original authentic Convention text in all six official United Nations languages.

pdf-icon Arabic (622 kB)

pdf-icon Chinese (833 kB)

pdf-icon English (51 kB)

pdf-icon French (69 kB)

pdf-icon Russian (89 kB)

pdf-icon Spanish (60 kB)

The consolidated versions of the Convention text, including amendments to Annex I and II, in all six official United Nations languages, have been prepared by the secretariat, and can be found hereunder.

pdf-icon Arabic (175 kB)

pdf-icon Chinese (340 kB)

pdf-icon English (266 kB)

pdf-icon French (121 kB)

pdf-icon Russian (257 kB)

pdf-icon Spanish (155 kB)

Status of Ratification
Find out which countries are Parties to the UNFCCC here.
Rio 2012

2012 marked the 20th anniversary of the Rio Earth Summit. In the birthplace of the three Rio Conventions, the Rio 2012 summit took place on 4 to 6 June 2012. It focused on two themes: a green economy in the context of sustainable development and poverty eradication; and the institutional framework for sustainable development.

Read more about it, and about the follow-up, at the Rio 2012 website.