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The First Phase—Negotiating the UN Climate Convention

Abstract The adoption of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in 1992 was the result of a two-year negotiation process. The UNFCCC was globally supported but only contained (not legally-binding) objectives by developed countries to stabilise their greenhouse gas emissions between 1990 and 2000. In terms of process, negotiators managed to accelerate the negotiations in order to be ready by the Earth Summit of June 1992. Important tactics for global support for the Convention were the inclusion of the precautionary principle and the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities.


In 1989, the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) and the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) started preparations for negotiations on a framework convention on climate change. This initiative followed a series of governmental meeting and conferences which started at the end of the 1970s (van der Gaast and Begg 2012). In 1979, the WMO had organised the First World Climate Conference (WMO 1979). In 1985, the Villach Conference (Villach, Austria) called for global actions on climate change. In 1988 and 1989, three important conferences on climate change were organised in Toronto (Canada), Hamburg (Canada) and Noordwijk (the Netherlands), which already proposed quantified targets for limiting emissions of greenhouse gases. These discussions were supported by growing scientific knowledge on climate change and its possible consequences, which was particularly stimulated by the establishment of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), in 1988, by UNEP and WMO (van der Gaast and Begg 2012).

© Springer International Publishing AG 2017

W. van der Gaast, International Climate Negotiation Factors, DOI 10.1007/978-3-319-46798-6_3

From 1991 through mid-1992, climate negotiations took place during five sessions of the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee for a Framework Convention on Climate Change (INC).1 As explained below in this chapter, a key challenge during the negotiations was to agree on who was responsible for historic emissions of greenhouse gases and who was most vulnerable to a changing climate and how this could lead to a differentiation among countries based on historical greenhouse gas emission patterns and socio-economic welfare levels (Grubb and Patterson 1992). During the negotiations the latter concept became known as the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities (UNFCCC 1992a, p. 2).

At the fifth session of INC (May 1992), countries agreed on a compromise text which was opened for signature one month later at the UN Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED, held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil) as the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). The ultimate objective of the UNFCCC is to achieve a stabilisation of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere “at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system” (UNFCCC 1992a, p. 9 Art. 2). This should be achieved “within a time frame sufficient to allow ecosystems to adapt naturally to climate change, to ensure that food production is not threatened and to enable economic development to proceed in a sustainable manner” (UNFCCC 1992a, p. 9 Art. 2).

With the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities in mind, the UNFCCC formally distinguished between developed and developing countries, which allowed for assigning different commitments and responsibilities to different groups of countries, based on economic welfare levels and historic emissions of greenhouse gases. Developed countries were listed in Annex I of the Convention (so-called Annex I Parties) (UNFCCC 1992a, p. 32, Annex I). Annex I Parties agreed, in 1992, to return individually or jointly to their 1990 levels of anthropogenic emissions of CO2 and other greenhouse gases not controlled by the Montreal Protocol (see Box 1.1 in Chap. 1 for a short explanation of the Montreal Protocol) by the end of the 1990s. Developing countries (non-Annex I Parties) did not have such a quantified objective under the UNFCCC.

Since 1992, in the context of the UNFCCC, a large number of policies, measures and instruments have been developed which generally aim at climate change mitigation and/or adaptation. This chapter describes the process of designing the structure of the UNFCCC and discusses the main elements of the Convention, including the steps in the negotiation processes followed, as well as the tactical and facilitating aspects of the negotiations during the first half of the 1990s. The chapter concludes with an analysis of how and to what extent the three factors for successful negotiations, as discussed in Chap. 2, have been important during the UNFCCC negotiation process and the agreed outcome. [1]

  • [1] INC was established on 21 December 1990 by the UN General Assembly (Resolution 45/212). Itwas scheduled that INC would deliver a draft Convention text that would be ready for signature atthe 1992 UN Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil,May-June 1992).
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