Although the greenhouse effect caused by human activities was recognised by science long ago, climate change only entered the international political agenda in the late 1970s. It took even longer for the international community to adopt an international treaty that set some common rules aimed at reducing emissions and adapting to climate adverse effects. Indeed, the UN climate regime was only formed in the early 1990s and since then it has constantly evolved through negotiation processes that have led to the adoption of new treaties and protocols.
The inception of the UN climate regime coincides with the adoption of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, which entered into force in 1994, and includes 197 parties today. The regime’s other centerpieces are the Kyoto Protocol and the Paris Agreement, adopted respectively at COP3 in 1997 and at COP21 in 2015. The COP (Conference of the Parties), which convenes annually, is the supreme decision-making body of the Framework Convention wherein most UN climate diplomacy occurs.
The first COP was held in 1995 in Berlin, presided by Germany’s then- Federal Minister for the Environment, Angela Merkel, while this year’s COP — the 26th one — will be held in Glasgow from the 1st to the 12th of November. At the top of the COP26’s agenda there’s the need to reach an agreement over the so-called “Rulebook” - for the implementation of the Paris Agreement – as well as to raise ambitions to keep the 1,5°C target within reach.
The treaties’ objectives: limiting global warming
Keeping the global average temperature increase below a certain threshold is at the heart of the climate regime. This main objective appears, although in different forms, in all the three treaties that regulated or are regulating climate change at the UN level.
While the UNFCCC sets the generic objective of stabilizing greenhouse gas (GHG) concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that will prevent dangerous human interference with the climate system without specifying a target, it was only with the adoption of the 2015 Paris Agreement that a long-term temperature goal was agreed. Indeed, the Paris Agreement aims to keep the global average temperature rise below 2°C compared to pre-industrial levels and invites the parties to make greater efforts to limit the increase to 1.5°C.
The Kyoto Protocol (1997), on the contrary, did not have a specific temperature objective but operationalized the one stated in the UNFCCC, setting binding emission reduction targets for a group of industrialized countries (Annex I countries).
Reducing emissions: who should take responsibility?
The issue of how to differentiate efforts fairly around mitigation (burden sharing) has always been central and controversial in UN climate negotiations. Parties of the UN climate governance system have tried to agree on principles over who has to contribute, and by how much, to the mitigation efforts. The UNFCCC and subsequent climate agreements – the Kyoto Protocol and the Paris Agreement – have come up with different architectures around the distribution of mitigation efforts among parties.
All these architectures were based on the principle of ‘common but differentiated responsibilities’ (CBDR), which recognizes that climate protection is a common goal for the entire international community, though at the same time justifies a differentiation of the burdens borne by countries given the different extent to which they have contributed —and continue to contribute — to the deterioration of the climate.
The principle has evolved, especially during the transition from the Kyoto Protocol (1997) to the Paris Agreement (2015). While in the Kyoto Protocol there was a clear differentiation of obligations between developed and developing countries, especially in terms of emissions reduction, the Paris Agreement eliminated the so-called "bifurcation" (or firewall) between the two groups of countries by creating rules and provisions common to all parties.
As aforementioned, the Kyoto Protocol followed an annex-based, differentiated structure by establishing binding emissions targets and stringent annual emissions reporting for developed countries (Annex I) while setting no mandatory targets for developing nations (Non-Annex I). By recognizing their significant, historical responsibility, 37 industrialized countries and economies in transition plus the EU (Annex I) committed toreducing overall global emissions by 5.2% compared to 1990 levels. This emission reduction target was to be achieved over the 2008–2012 period (the first commitment period). Then, at COP18 in Doha, the Kyoto Protocol was extended for a second commitment period (2013 – 2020).
Mainly as a consequence of the changes in the global economy and in global emissions distribution, the Kyoto architecture became inadequate. The Kyoto “firewall’ dividing the commitments between developed and developing countries became a problematic feature, particularly considering the rapid economic growth of a group of emerging countries with booming emissions (including China, India, Brazil, and South Africa) who, under the Kyoto regime, were exempted from emissions reduction obligation.
The Paris Agreement, which regulates the post-2020 period, marked a strong change of direction compared to previous regime architecture. This treaty was built on the idea that the new major emitters, previously exempted from any commitments, were to be included in the mechanisms of mitigation envisaged by the UN climate governance. The idea at the basis of the Paris treaty is that every country, without distinction between developed and developing ones, would set goals to curb carbon emissions in an effort to avert the worst effects of climate change.
In addition, it lacks the centralized, top-down approach of the Kyoto protocol, meaning it does not impose any specific reduction target to any country or group of countries, instead leaving governments themselves indicate their objectives and national policy measures through the “Nationally Determined Contributions” (NDCs). If taken cumulatively and fully respected, these contributions should allow the international community to achieve the objective of keeping the temperature well below 2°C – ideally 1.5°C – by the end of the century. Furthermore, according to the provisions of the treaty these plans must be updated every five years and, above all, they must pursue a growing ambition.
Members of the Paris Agreement recently asked the UNFCCC Secretariat to provide a report to have a clearer understanding ahead of COP26 around the aggregate emissions reduction pathways deriving from the climate actions plans communicated in the new — or updated — versions of the NDCs. According to the NDC Synthesis Report – which includes information from all 191 Parties of the Paris Agreement based on their latest NDCs available in the interim NDC registry, as of July 30th, 2021 – without more ambition, the world is on a catastrophic trajectory towards a 2.7°C temperature increase by the end of the century.
If the NDCs are fully implemented, climate-altering emissions are projected to decrease by 12% in 2030 compared to 2010 levels. The IPCC, instead, estimates that keeping global average temperatures below 1.5°C requires a 45% reduction in CO2 emissions by 2030 and a 25% reduction to limit warming to 2°C. The emission gap is still significant.
The Paris Agreement institutional and regulatory architecture is far from being perfect; however, to keep its science-based objectives within reach, countries should not hide behind excuses but rather raise their ambition by both taking adequate decisions at the COP26 and improving their national plans to build a zero emissions world by mid-century not just in theory, but in practice, too.
The words pronounced by the Secretary General at the opening of the 76th UN General Assembly – “We are on the edge of an abyss – and moving in the wrong direction” – is an alarm bell that should not let the political ruling class, the business world, nor anyone who cares about the future of our planet sleep peacefully.