Chronicles of climate action

Through a close inspection of Conference of Parties, this new series of articles aims to trace the evolution of global climate change action over the years — dissecting challenges, opportunities, and human response thus far

Chronicles of climate action

In these columns, five and a half years ago (in July-August, 2018, to be precise), I had identified three crises facing the world that needed a collective and multilateral global response: economic/financial crisis, climate change crisis and the trade crisis. I had argued that the multilateral response to these crises would be collective action in the form of:

* A global financial system (mediated through interventions such as Basel norms and the G20 which showed its effectiveness to undertake coordinated action in the 2008 global financial crisis);

* The WTO, which would keep regulatory impulses in check and ensure free and fair trade in a transparent manner;

* The UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) would coordinate various strategies to keep global warming and the emission of greenhouse gases in check.

While the global financial crisis is behind us and the G20 has emerged as a bigger platform, discussing everything from geo-strategy to trade to climate change, the WTO and the UNFCCC face multiple challenges. The tariff wars between the US and China and general rise in tariffs across the world have challenged the role of the WTO as an impartial referee. However, the manner in which the dispute settlement mechanism of the WTO has been made irrelevant and ineffective, gives a signal that the big powers are not really interested in settling trade disputes impartially and fairly. The UNFCCC is also facing its own challenges with continued inaction or little action on issues such as climate justice and raising funds to support developing countries to shift to green technologies and cutting emissions.

In this series of articles, we will discuss the various issues related to climate change. As a technique or tool to help this series along, we will trace the development of the climate change talks from the first assessment report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in 1990, followed by the adoption of a multilateral treaty on climate change in 1992 in New York, and the signing of this treaty in the Rio Earth Summit in Rio De Janeiro in 1992. This treaty came to be called the UNFCCC, coming into force in 1994. Since then, the UNFCCC has become the forum and basis of global climate change negotiations.

The UNFCCC: Its genesis and early years

The UNFCCC was born after long discussions in the UN Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED), which culminated in the Rio Earth Summit of June 1992. However, its seeds were sown even earlier: in the Stockholm Conference on the Human Environment in 1972. This conference discussed the following main issues:

* Planning of human settlements for environmental quality;

* Informational, educational, social and cultural aspects of environmental issues;

* Natural resources management and implications for the environment;

* Development and environment;

* Identification and control of pollutants of international significance.

After the Stockholm Conference, there was a lot of scattered scientific evidence through the 1980s of accelerated global warming because of a concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Accordingly, the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) set up the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in 1988. In December 1990, the UN General Assembly established the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee for a Framework Convention on Climate Change (INC/FCCC), which was supported by the WMO and UNEP. The work of the INC/FCCC was taken up in the Rio Earth Summit of 1992.

As evident from above, the Rio Earth Summit of 1992 was a culmination of years of discussion in the various UN bodies and in the UNCED conference, two UN Conventions were agreed on: the UN Convention on Biodiversity and the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. Both the conventions were signed by 153 countries and the European Community. The other agreements introduced during the Rio Summit were: the Statement of Forest Principles, Agenda 21 (which was an agreement to work on a long list of issues related to sustainable development), and the Sustainable Development Commission to oversee the implementation of Agenda 21. However, on Finance, there was no agreement. There were two important numbers which were discussed and proposed: developed countries were to contribute 0.7 per cent of GDP for bilateral aid and a total of USD 125 billion annually. Developed countries did agree to the 0.7 per cent of GDP proposal but did not define a timeline. However, there was no agreement on the USD 125 billion, and Japan with a pledge of USD 2.5 billion and the EC with a commitment of USD 4 billion was too little as compared to the vast task at hand — that of limiting greenhouse gases as well as shifting to development policies that were environmentally sustainable. The Global Environment Facility (GEF) was set up to support developing countries in implementing the two conventions, but this was a small amount (the GEF disbursed only USD 436 million in its first year of existence).

For the present series of articles, we will focus on the UNFCCC and the various conferences that have led to some landmark global agreements over the years such as the Kyoto Protocol in 1997 and the Paris Agreement in 2015.

How has the UNFCCC fared?

The task before the UNFCCC since it came into force in 1994 has been challenging. With 150 countries and the European Economic Community having signed on in 1992, its membership has expanded to 198 countries in the recently concluded COP28 (or the 28th Conference of Parties). The biggest contribution of the UNFCCC is that most countries today recognise the problem of global warming, the need to reduce Carbon Dioxide Reductions (CDR), and the need to keep the rise in average global temperatures to within 1.5-2 degrees Celsius, as

compared to the pre-industrial levels (which basically means the average global temperatures during 1850-1900, when fossil fuels usage was not widespread). Most countries today have climate action plans and have ‘nationally predetermined contributions’ as agreed in the Paris conference.

A lot of academic research has been undertaken by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and by other academics and universities on various mitigation and adaptation strategies, various CDR scenarios and the concomitant social and economic policies that need to be followed to meet these CDR targets and control of temperature increases. On the other hand, there have been technological advances in various sectors, such as transport (electrical vehicles and batteries, efficient mass rapid transport such as Metros), energy (shift to renewables and better technology in renewables such as better wind turbines, solar panels and batteries), agriculture (crops needing lesser water and that which can withstand higher temperatures), manufacturing (more energy efficient processes) and so on.

Where the UNFCCC still has a lot to achieve is in the area of climate finance and climate justice, which was alluded to above. Developed countries seem to think that the problem will just go away, even though they all know that much more concerted action is needed and more finances need to be thrown at the problem.


In this series of articles, we will look at how climate change action has evolved globally over the years, what it has achieved and where more action is needed. We will do so, by looking at each of the Conference of Parties, what was discussed and decided and how policies changed as a result. We will also look at specific climate change challenges such as various ways to target CDR and associated technical and financial challenges, climate finance, climate justice, emerging technologies to tackle climate change and so on.

The writer is Additional Chief Secretary, Department of Mass Education Extension and Library Services and Department of Cooperation, Government of West Bengal

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