Global action on climate change

Greenhouse gas emissions have global consequences. Dealing with climate change therefore requires coordinated action by nations around the world.

United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC)

The UNFCCC was created in 1992 as the main forum for international action on climate change. Its overall aim is to:

achieve… stabilization of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system. Such a level should be achieved within a time frame sufficient to allow ecosystems to adapt naturally to climate change, to ensure food production is not threatened and to enable economic development to proceed in a sustainable manner.

195 countries have joined the international agreement (known as a convention). Negotiations focus on four key areas:

  • mitigating (reducing) greenhouse gas emissions
  • adapting to climate change
  • reporting of national emissions
  • financing of climate action in developing countries

The Kyoto Protocol

UNFCCC negotiations led to the Kyoto Protocol in 1997. The Kyoto Protocol set a target for 37 industrialised countries to reduce their emissions by an average 5% below 1990 levels, for the period of 2008 to 2012. As part of this group the UK committed to a 12.5% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.

The targets were met successfully. Overall, the 37 countries reduced global emissions by over 10%. But this was not enough to offset the increasing emissions from other industrialising countries (such as China), meaning total global emissions grew over the period.

A second Kyoto commitment period has been agreed from 2013 to 2020. Fewer countries have signed the second commitment agreement, although the UK and the EU are participating.

The Paris Agreement

Continuing UNFCCC negotiations led to the Paris Agreement in December 2015.

The Paris Agreement is the first truly global effort to reduce emissions. To date, 160 UNFCCC parties have made voluntary pledges to reduce emissions up to 2030, including China, the US and the European Union (on behalf of the UK and other EU nations).

The main aim of the Paris Agreement is to hold the increase in global average temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit warming to 1.5°C.

Overall, the current pledges would lead to lower global emissions compared to previous expectations. But further action will be required to keep warming to below 2°C or 1.5°C.

Recognising this gap in ambition, the Paris Agreement schedules a review of pledges in 2018 so that countries can tighten them where possible. There will be another review in 2023 and further reviews every five years after that.

Preparing for climate change

The UNFCCC commits all signatory nations to formulate, implement, publish and update measures to prepare for the impacts of climate change, known as ‘adaptation’. It also commits countries to cooperate on adaptation and provides a variety of support mechanisms for the implementation of adaptation measures in developing countries.

In 2010, the Cancun Adaptation Framework was adopted, and it was agreed that adaptation must be given the same priority as mitigation. The framework calls for further action on adaptation including reducing vulnerability and increasing resilience to climate change in developing countries.

The Paris Agreement also places significant emphasis on the need for adaptation action around the world.