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date: 15 January 2021

Climate Multilateralism Within the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Changelocked

  • Joana Castro PereiraJoana Castro PereiraPortuguese Institute of International Relations, NOVA University of Lisbon
  •  and Eduardo ViolaEduardo ViolaUniversidade de Brasília

Summary

The signing of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) by 154 nations at the Rio “Earth Summit” in 1992 marked the beginning of multilateral climate negotiations. Aiming for the “stabilization of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system,” the Convention divided parties according to different commitments and established the common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities (CBDRRC) principle.

In 1997, parties to the Convention adopted the Kyoto Protocol, which entered into force in 2005. The Protocol set internationally binding emission reduction targets based on a rigid interpretation of the CBDRRC principle. Different perceptions on a fair distribution of climate change mitigation costs hindered multilateral efforts to tackle the problem. Climate change proved a “super wicked” challenge (intricately linked to security, development, trade, water, energy, food, land use, transportation, etc.) and this fact led to a lack of consensus on the distribution of rights and responsibilities among countries. Indeed, since 1992, greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere have increased significantly and the Kyoto Protocol did not reverse the trend.

In 2009, a new political framework, the Copenhagen Accord, was signed. Although parties recognized the need to limit global warming to < 2°C to prevent dangerous climate change, they did not agree on a clear path toward a legally-binding treaty to succeed the Kyoto Protocol, whose first commitment period would end in 2012. A consensus would only be reached in 2015, when a new, partially legally-binding treaty—the Paris Climate Agreement—committing all parties to limit global warming to “well below 2°C” was finally signed. It came into force in November 2016. Described in many political, public, and academic contexts as a diplomatic success, the agreement suffers, however, from several limitations to its effectiveness.

The nationally determined contributions that parties have presented thus far under the agreement would limit warming to approximately 3°C by 2100, placing the Earth at a potentially catastrophic level of climate change. Forces that resist the profound transformations necessary to stabilize the Earth’s climate dominate climate change governance. Throughout almost three decades of international negotiations, global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions have increased substantially and at a rapid pace, and climate change has worsened significantly.

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