The Second World Climate Conference

The Second World Climate Conference was an important step towards a global climate treaty. Sponsored by the World Meteorological Organization WMO), the United Nations Environment Programme UNEP), and other international organizations, the conference was held in Geneva from 29 October to 7 November 1990. The Conferenceās main objectives were to review the UNEP/WMO World Climate Programme (WCP) and to recommend policy actions.

With various international climate conferences stressing its importance, expectations for this conference were high. The Conference was held at a crucial time in the climate treaty negotiation process. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) had completed its First Assessment Report in time for the conference, which in turn was to provide critical input for the first session of the International Negotiating Committee for a Framework Convention on Climate Change (INC). The resulting Ministerial Statement, however, disappointed many of the participating scientists as well as other observers because it did not offer a high level of commitment. Nevertheless, the statement did represent, by virtue of its high political level and wide-spread participation, a critical step on the road to a treaty on climate change.

The scientists and technology experts at the Conference issued a strong statement highlighting the risk of climate change. The first part of the Conference consisted of a series of non-governmental scientific sessions attended by 747 scientists and technology experts from around the world. In addition to 18 Expert Panels and Task Groups, the participants established a Consultation Group on Special Needs of Developing Countries. The resulting Statement of the Scientific and Technical Sessions made specific recommendations on the significance of greenhouse gases for climate change; the use of climate information in assisting sustainable social and economic development; priorities for enhanced research and observational systems; public information; the impact of climate change on water resources, forests, agriculture and food, oceans, fisheries, and coastal zones; necessary changes in energy production and consumption patterns; the impact of climate change on land use, urban planning, and human health; and the implications of climate change for sustainable development.

The scientific statement also noted that the First World Climate Conference had urged states to foresee and prevent changes to the climate that might have adverse effects. In the 11 years since then, it continued, a clear scientific consensus had emerged on the estimated range of global warming that is to be expected during the 21st century. Accordingly, the Second World Climate Conference science meeting agreed that it was time for the world community to take strong measures to reduce sources and to increase "sinks" of greenhouse gases, despite the remaining scientific uncertainties: "If the increase of greenhouse gas concentrations is not limited, the predicted climate change would place stresses on natural and social systems unprecedented in the last 10,000 years."

The Conference issued a Ministerial Declaration only after hard bargaining over a number of difficult issues. The second part of the Conference consisted of discussions among heads of government and ministers from 137 states and the European Community. These discussions were preceded by preparatory negotiations between government officials, which were convened to prepare a text for submission to the ministers. A key issue was whether or not to set emissions targets and to refer specifically to carbon dioxide. The final declaration, adopted after hard bargaining, did not specify any internationally agreed targets. This omission provoked some criticism from delegates and observers who considered the EC target of achieving 1990 emissions levels for carbon dioxide by the year 2000 to be the minimum basis of an acceptable policy for developed countries.

Despite their difficulties, the participants did agree on a number of points. The key agreements, included in the Declaration, were that participants

recognize a number of principles that had emerged in international climate discussions, including the concept of climate change as a common concern of humankind, the principle of equity and the common but differentiated responsibility of countries at different levels of development, the concept of sustainable development, and the precautionary principle;

stress the need for further scientific research on the causes and effects of climate change and recommend that this be done mainly through support of the World Climate Programme (WCP);

state that response measures must be adopted without delay, despite remaining scientific uncertainties;

urge developed states, which are responsible for 75% of the worldās emissions of greenhouse gases, to "establish targets and/or feasible national programmes or strategies which will have a significant effect on limiting emissions of greenhouse gases ...";

recognize that the emissions from developing countries must still grow to accommodate their development needs; nevertheless, these states should, with support from the developed nations and international organizations, take action; and

call for elaboration of a framework treaty on climate change and the necessary protocols - containing real commitments and innovative solutions - in time for adoption by the UN Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) in June 1992.

For further reading:

Environmental Policy and Law No. 20 (1990) p. 196, p. 220.

Hajost, in Yearbook of International Environmental Law, Vol. 1 (1990), pp. 100-104.

Last revised 1 May 1993 by the Information Unit on Climate Change (IUCC), UNEP, P.O. Box 356, CH-1219 Ch‰telaine, Switzerland. Tel. (41 22) 979 9111. Fax (41 22) 797 3464. E-mail