The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) is an international treaty approved and opened for signature by the Parties during the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. Until now, 192 countries plus the European Union have ratified, accepted, approved or signed up to the Convention. The signatories recognized global climate change as “a common concern of mankind” and undertook to establish a global strategy “to protect the climate system for present and future generations”.

On entering into force in 1994, the UNFCCC established an international legal regime whose main objective, defined in Article 2, is to stabilize GHG concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system. This would be achieved within a time frame sufficient to allow ecosystems to adapt without endangering food production and enabling economic development to proceed in a sustainable manner. In Article 4, the Convention establishes the commitments of the Parties, clearly distinguishing between the Annex I Parties– which the instrument defines as the developed nations plus industrialized countries in transition to a market economy – from the non-Annex I Parties, defined as the developing countries.

As for mitigation, the Convention establishes that the developed country Parties shall take the initiative in combating climate change and should therefore return to their pre-1990 levels of GHG emissions by around 2000.

Article 3 of the UNFCCC establishes the principle of “common but differentiated responsibilities” – common because all countries contribute to climate change and all will suffer the consequences, and differentiated because some countries are more responsible for global warming than others due to their historic and current emission levels and are better equipped than others, both technologically and economically, to confront the problem.

Article 7 establishes that the Conference of the Parties (COP), the supreme body of the Convention (dealt with in more detail in item 1.4) shall meet once a year to discuss matters related to its effective implementation. It also establishes a permanent secretariat2, based in Bonn; two subsidiary bodies (also dealt with in more detail below): the Subsidiary Body for Scientific and Technological Advice3 (SBSTA) and the Subsidiary Body for Implementation4 (SBI); and a financial mechanism5. The Convention also establishes procedures for the settlement of disputes, the drafting of amendments and the adoption of annexes and protocols. Although each Party has the right to one vote, all issues have been resolved by consensus, since no agreement has been reached on the voting rules.

The secretariat functions as the Convention’s institutional framework, responsible for all activities related to organization, operations, coordination, support and internal and external integration, include:

  • organizing and providing the necessary support services for sessions of the COP and the subsidiary bodies;

  • collating, transmitting, compiling and publishing information and reports in accordance with the provisions of the Convention, articularly in regard to the developing country Parties;

  • establishing administrative and contractual mechanisms, preparing activity reports and undertaking other secretariat functions, under the guidance of the COP;

and maintaining communications with the IPCC and other international bodies, such as the Global Environment Facility (GEF), the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), among others.