Climate Change Information Sheet 17
The international response to climate change: A history
- Climate change was recognized as a serious problem by the First World Climate Conference 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 (ICSU).
- 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 policymakers, 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), and the Bergen Conference (May 1990).
- The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released its First Assessment Report in 1990. Established in 1988 by UNEP and WMO, the IPCC 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. It published its findings following a rigorous survey of the world-wide scientific and technical literature. Vetted by experts and government officials, the First Assessment report confirmed the scientific evidence for climate change and enabled governments to base their policy decisions on the most up-to-date information available. It had a powerful effect on both policymakers and the general public and provided the basis for negotiations on the Climate Change Convention.
- The 1990 Second World Climate Conference called for a framework treaty on climate change. Sponsored by WMO, UNEP and other international organizations, this key conference featured negotiations and ministerial-level discussions among 137 states plus the European Community. The final declaration, adopted after hard bargaining, did not specify any international targets for reducing emissions. However, it did support a number of principles later included in the Climate Change Convention. These were climate change as a "common concern of humankind", the importance of equity, the Acommon but differentiated responsibilities" of countries at different levels of development, sustainable development, and the precautionary principle.
- 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 Principles.
- 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 state must also 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 COP1, 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.
- The IPCC adopted its Second Assessment Report in December 1995. Published in April 1996, 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 change. The IPCC will produce a series of technical papers and special reports before publishing its Third Assessment Report in 2001.
- The COP will continue to meet on a regular basis. COP2 was held at the Palais des Nations in Geneva from 819 June 1996. COP3 will be held from 112 December 1997 in Kyoto, Japan. It is expected to adopt a "protocol or another legal instrument" committing developed countries to reducing their greenhouse gas emissions after the year 2000. It will also continue to review national communications and promote other activities that support the Convention. If COP3 is successful, it will help to generate the momentum needed to combat climate change in the 21st century.
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