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United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC)

The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change was established in 1992 after the first IPCC Climate Assessment Report revealed that humans were causing global warming, that is was likely to continue, and that the consequences could be disastrous. The UNFCCC itself is a nonbinding treaty that was drafted in Rio de Janeiro at the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED – sometimes called the “Earth Summit”).

Though the UNFCCC is non-binding and does not provide for sanctions against those who violate it, it did give rise to the Kyoto Protocol, which was signed in 1994. The Kyoto Protocol does include legally binding conditions.

The UNFCCC attempts to gain consensus on strategies to address climate change by bringing together leaders of various nations. Its work is supplemented and underscored by the scientific work of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).


The UNFCCC divides the world into five distinct groups, each of which is assigned different levels of commitment to climate change action. The classification is as follows:

  1. Annex I (41 countries and European Union)
    • Industrialized Nations
    • Economies in Transition (EIT) – Russian and Eastern Europe
  2. Annex II (24 countries and the European Union)
    • Members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development
    • Required to give financial and scientific support to EIT and developing countries
  3. Annex B
    • Countries that have first (2008-2012) or second-round (2013-2020) greenhouse gas emissions targets as outlined in the Kyoto Protocol
  4. Non-Annex I
    • Developing countries
    • Allowed to volunteer to become Annex I when “sufficiently developed”
  5. Least-developed countries (49 countries)
    • Defined as having limited capacity to adapt or mitigate climate change

Criticism of the UNFCCC

The UNFCCC is not without its critics, who usually fall into two categories. In the first category are those who think the UNFCCC goes too far. In the second category are those who think the UNFCCC does not go far enough.

Among those who think the UNFCCC goes too far, the primary complaint is that the Kyoto Protocol is economically damaging and unnecessarily punitive to a number of established countries while allowing others to continue to emit GHGs at unprecedented levels. This argument is particularly true of Canada who withdrew in 2011 citing an unwillingness to force citizens to pay penalties that amount to wealth transfers out of the country. The United States never ratified the agreement to begin with, citing not only the same problem that Canada raised, but also the fact that large polluters, like China, were not subject to the same penalties despite their strong economy and industrialized status. In 2010, Japan refused to sign up for the second term of the Kyoto because its major economic competitors (China, India, and Indonesia) would not face the same penalties. In 2012, similar arguments were made by New Zealand, Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan.

For those who think the Kyoto Protocol does not go far enough, the criticism is that even though GHG reduction goals have not been achieved, little is being done to rectify the problem. It seems that without the U.S. and other industrialized countries backing the Kyoto, it is difficult to enforce its provisions.