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International Action on Climate Change: an Overview

The international response to climate change has become increasingly elaborate and prominent in recent years.  Much anticipation now greets the launch of new reports by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), and once a year the Conference of the Parties (COP) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) dominates the newspapers. 

This section provides an overview of the framework that guides the international response to climate change, and the key events that shape the global climate change calendar.  For news and updates, please visit the Gateway to the United Nations System Work on Climate Change

The science behind climate change: introducing the IPCC

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change or IPCC is the leading international body for the assessment of climate change.  Because of its scientific and intergovernmental nature, the IPCC embodies a unique opportunity to provide rigorous and balanced scientific information to decision makers. 

The IPCC is widely viewed as an impartial and highly credible institution, and its work informs climate change negotiations and policy-making around the world.  By endorsing the IPCC reports, governments acknowledge the authority of their scientific content. The work of the organization is therefore policy-relevant and yet policy-neutral, never policy-prescriptive.

The Interngovernmental Panel on Climate Change

The IPCC  was established by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) in 1988 to provide the world with a clear scientific view on the current state of knowledge in climate change and its potential environmental and socio-economic impacts. In the same year, the UN General Assembly endorsed the action by WMO and UNEP in jointly establishing the IPCC.

The IPCC is a scientific body under the auspices of the United Nations (UN). It reviews and assesses the most recent scientific, technical and socio-economic information produced worldwide relevant to the understanding of climate change. It does not conduct any research nor does it monitor climate related data or parameters.

For more information on the work and structure of the IPCC, please click here.

The IPCC’s key publications include first and foremost the Assessment Reports, which are composed of the full scientific and technical assessment of climate change.  Assessment Reports are generally produced in three volumes (one for each of the IPCC’s Working Groups) together with their Summaries for Policymakers and a Synthesis Report.  In addition to the Assessment Reports, the IPCC also produces Special Reports, which are materials that provide an assessment of a specific issue.

While these reports are quite technical, the information provided offers excellent starting points for parliamentary action on climate change.  Parliaments can draw on this expertise by, for example, inviting the authors of the IPCC reports to present the findings in parliament or take part in a Q&A session in the relevant committee.  Parliaments can also reach out to national experts who provided inputs for the reports, or make available the necessary resources for parliamentary staff to interpret the findings and prepare for legislative action.   

The international response to climate change: introducing the UNFCCC

The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (also referred to as ‘the Convention’) is an international treaty developed in 1992.  The countries that joined the Convention committed to cooperatively consider what they could do to limit average global temperature increases and the resulting climate change, and to cope with whatever impacts were, by then, inevitable. 

The Convention has been signed by 195 Parties to date.  Its full text is available here

The Kyoto Protocol

By 1995, countries realized that emission reductions provisions in the Convention were inadequate. They launched negotiations to strengthen the global response to climate change, and, two years later, adopted the Kyoto Protocol.

The Kyoto Protocol legally binds developed countries to emission reduction targets. The Protocol’s first commitment period started in 2008 and ended in 2012. The second commitment period began on 1 January 2013 and will end in 2020.

The Kyoto Protocol

The Kyoto Protocol was adopted in Kyoto, Japan, on 11 December 1997.  It commits industrialized countries to stabilize greenhouse gas emissions based on the principles of the Convention. The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate change itself only encourages countries to do so.

The Kyoto Protocol was structured on the principles of the Convention. It only binds developed countries because it recognizes that they are largely responsible for the current high levels of GHG emissions in the atmosphere, which are the result of more than 150 years of industrial activity. KP places a heavier burden on developed nations under its central principle: that of “common but differentiated responsibility”.

In Doha, Qatar, on 8 December 2012, the Doha Amendment to the Kyoto Protocol was adopted. This launched a second commitment period, starting on 1 January 2013 until 2020.

Under the Protocol, countries must meet their targets primarily through national measures. However, the Protocol also offers them an additional means to meet their targets by way of three market-based mechanisms: International Emissions Trading, Clean Development Mechanism and Joint Implementation. The mechanisms help to stimulate green investment and help Parties meet their emission targets in a cost-effective way.  To date, 192 Parties have ratified the Kyoto Protocol.

The Convention of the Parties (COP)

The Convention of the Parties or ‘COP’ is the supreme decision-making body of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.  All States that are Parties to the Convention (i.e. those countries that have signed and committed to the Convention) are represented at the COP.  The COPs usually meets once a year.  Parties to the Convention must submit national reports on implementation of the Convention to the Conference of the Parties (COP).

During the COP, countries review the implementation of the Convention and any other legal instruments that the COP adopts and take decisions necessary to promote the effective implementation of the Convention, including institutional and administrative arrangements. 

In recent years the COPs have been criticized for failing to take the decisive action that is required to tackle climate change.  Negotiations tend to be run by members of the UN system and national government; parliamentarians remain underrepresented.  Where possible, parliamentarians should push to attend these meetings and call for more ambitious action, both at the national and international level. 

National climate change legislation: The key to more ambitious international agreements

There is a correlation between strong domestic climate change legislation and high international ambition at the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).  Although the factors that determine a country’s negotiating position are many and complex, advancing domestic climate change legislation has a positive influence on such ambition.

National climate change legislation is not just something that should underpin an international agreement after it has been reached, rather it is an enabler that creates the political space for a deal.  This brief by the Climate & Development Knowledge Network and GLOBE International provides an overview of entry points for political action at the national level and outlines concrete recommendations for governments.  It also outlines what progress has been made with regard to climate change legislation at the national level, and what role legislators can play in pushing for further progress. 

To read the brief, please click here.  

Looking ahead: COP21 (Paris)

While the 20th session of the Conference of the Parties will be held in Lima later this year, much attention is already being directed towards COP21, to take place in Paris in December 2015.  The main objective of COP21 will be the development of a new global, legally binding agreement on climate change that is to be implemented as of 2020, when the second commitment period of the Kyoto protocol will end. 

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon has referred to the importance of this meeting for the wider international development agenda at his address at the 2014 World Economic Forum in Davos.  The Secretary-General stressed that “addressing climate change is also a great opportunity to support all our sustainable development goals. At the same time, the actions we take on sustainable development can help tackle climate change.”