International climate change negotiations


International climate negotiations are part of a long process which started with the founding conference in Rio in 1992 then the COP1 in Berlin in 1995.

What is a COP?

In 1992, during the Rio Summit, 154 States, recognizing the existence of climate change resulting from human activity, decided to work together to limit global warming. This heralded the birth of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (or UNFCCC) and its decision-making body, the Conference of Parties (or COP).

A COP for all “Parties to the Convention” is held each year either in Bonn, the headquarters of the secretariat, or on a rotational basis in one country of the five UN regional groups. Each COP is an opportunity to review the application of the Convention, give details on the implementation of the decisions and negotiate new commitments with individual or shared objectives. Decisions are taken by consensus.

The COPs bring together the representatives from each UNFCCC signatory country, which in 2019 comprised 196 States and the European Union. The UNFCCC is therefore a universal convention but the COPs also involve non-State players such as governmental and non-governmental organizations, local government bodies, unions, businesses, scientists and young people.

The United Nations organizations also take part in these discussions, each in their area of expertise.

Background to climate negotiations

The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) was adopted in 1992 at the Rio Summit.

It entered into force in 1994 and was ratified by 197 Parties (196 States and the European Union). Its aim is to stabilize greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate.

The UNFCCC’s first practical and binding application was officialized by the Kyoto Protocol. The Kyoto Protocol was adopted in 1997 and entered into force in 2005 following ratification by 192 Parties (the United States never ratified it). It imposed emissions reductions on 37 developed countries of an average of -5% on 1990 (-8% for the EU) for the period from 2008 to 2012. The other countries did not commit to objectives in concrete numbers but were involved in the process through incentives.

The Protocol was extended at the Doha conference in 2012 for a second commitment period, imposing a greenhouse gas emission reduction target of at least 18% from 2013 to 2020 on 1990 levels for developed countries. The final compromise was driven by the European Union. The Union wished to link the extension of its commitment to the Kyoto Protocol to the adoption of a roadmap for a worldwide agreement. France, together with the European Union, therefore committed to participating in the second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol from 1 January 2013.

The European Union was the first to announce its greenhouse gas emission reduction target of 20% in April 2012 for the second commitment period.

However, in the end, the Protocol showed its limitations: Russia, Japan, New Zealand and Canada backed out. It was therefore necessary to find an ambitious, binding and universally applicable legal instrument which could succeed the Protocol.

From the COP15 in Copenhagen in 2009 to the COP20 in Lima in 2014, the conferences looked for an agreement on adopting a “protocol, another legal instrument, or an agreed outcome with legal force” which could take over from the Kyoto Protocol. With this goal in mind, the Parties affirmed their desire to limit global warming to below 2°C, made progress on the financing for the necessary actions and thus did the groundwork for the COP21 in Paris in 2015. After the COP21, work to draw up rules for implementing the Paris Agreement began and was completed in 2018 at the COP24 in Katowice, Poland. It comprised a set of texts which guide all technical aspects of implementing the Paris Agreement.

In 2018 and 2019, science also broadened the scope of knowledge on climate and global warming issues by publishing three Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Special Reports:

  • A report on the impacts of global warming of 1.5 ºC
  • A report on climate change and land
  • A report on the ocean and cryosphere in a changing climate

Updated: December 2019