International climate 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.

COPs bring together representatives from each UNFCCC signatory country, which in 2019 comprised 196 States and the European Union. The UNFCCC is thus a universal convention. COP sessions also bring in non-state actors, including governmental and non-governmental organizations, local government bodies, trade unions, businesses, scientists and youth representatives.

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.

From Kyoto to Paris: seeking a binding protocol

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.

Drawing up the Paris Agreement rulebook

After COP21, work began at COP24 in Katowice in 2018, Poland, to draw up the rulebook for the Paris Agreement’s implementation, continuing at COP25 in Madrid the next year. This work produced a set of texts which guide all technical aspects of implementing the Paris Agreement.

Only one rule was not adopted at COP24, in the absence of political consensus. It was that on flexibility mechanisms and cooperation between States for the implementation of their emissions reductions (provided for in Article 6 of the Paris Agreement). Certain States refused to take into account the environmental integrity of the Paris Agreement in emissions quota accounting.

Consensus was again not achieved at COP25 in Madrid, where certain States were particularly obstructive. However, COP25 did produce results:

  • Actions under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change concerning “loss and damage” were strengthened;
  • The “Action Agenda”, which unifies and promotes climate initiatives by non-state actors and civil society was also strengthened, with a new mandate through to 2025;
  • Other agreements were also reached, such as on capacity building and technology transfers;
  • The general operating rules of the agreement’s compliance mechanism were defined;
  • Thanks to the efforts of a large number of countries, it was agreed that the objective of increasing the level of ambition in 2020 was included in the COP session’s final decision.

Recent negotiations also led to significant progress being made on the inclusion of human rights principles in the implementation of the Paris Agreement.
The implementing texts of the Paris Agreement now incorporate public participation, the contribution of civil society organizations, and taking into account gender equality in the drafting of climate policies. The “Gender Action Plan” (GAP) for the fight against climate change was renewed for five years.
Another positive outcome was the involvement of indigenous peoples in fighting climate change. The Local Communities and Indigenous Peoples Platform, which was created at COP21, is now fully operational. This is a major step forward in terms of addressing the challenges faced by these populations, often the first victims of climate change.

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 2020