By Joanna Depledge

Twenty years ago today, on 21 March 1994, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change came into force. The world was, of course, very different then.  The EU had only 12 members. The Russian Federation and Eastern Europe were in the throes of massive political and economic dislocation.  The internet was in its infancy, and unheard of throughout much of the globe. Mobile phones were newfangled gadgets for business executives (and only made phone calls). The idea that PV solar technology might bring telecommunications – largely through mobile phones – to vast swathes of Africa was pure fantasy. Oil cost under $14 a barrel.  China’s impending dominance over the world economy was on the horizon, but still far out into the future. The idea that Asian companies would end up “owning” substantial parts of Western industries would have seemed fantastical to mainstream analysts.

Climate change was just emerging as a major issue on the international stage. Public awareness was limited, especially so outside of North-Western Europe. National emissions data was sparse – few countries, outside the most advanced, knew much about their own emissions profile. Carbon trading was but an eccentric idea peddled by maverick academics.  The notion of funding carbon offset projects in developing countries to gain emission credits was almost taboo (remember AIJ – Activities Implemented Jointly?). Atmospheric CO2 concentrations had risen to around 359 ppm, but the landmark figure of 400 ppm – now inevitable within the next two years– was reassuringly distant. Most significantly, there was still time to act, and a sense of optimism that temperatures could be stabilized at a safe level.

Since then, the climate scene has become much bleaker. Advances in climate science have brought more bad news than good. Global emissions have risen by 50%, and the upward trend shows no signs of decelerating.  Although emissions have largely stabilized, or even fallen, in many (not all) of the richer OECD nations, these gains have been cancelled out by huge increases in many developing countries. The prospect of limiting global temperature rise to 2 degrees is growing slimmer by the day.

This lack of concrete progress in curbing emissions trends is an inglorious feature of the UNFCCC’s first two decades. There are many reasons for it.  One is the lack of effective institutional mechanisms for countries to automatically “graduate” into stronger commitments, once they reach a certain level of development. The major Asian and Latin American economies have therefore grown over the past 20 years without any serious prospect of future constraints on their carbon emissions. This was no oversight – some of the countries that were first in line to face pressure to curb their emissions growth (read China, India and the oil exporters) made quite sure such mechanisms were not included in either the Convention or the Kyoto Protocol. The fact that the US is such a laggard on climate change – as reflected in its persistently high emissions, in aggregate and per capita – has made it infinitely more difficult to persuade these emerging powers that they should restrain the growth in their carbon emissions. The distancing of Canada, Japan and the Russian Federation from the Kyoto Protocol – and Australia’s negative domestic stance – has made things much worse.

A frustrating feature of the climate landscape is the apparent disjuncture between domestic action and the international negotiations. This is a theme taken up by Michael Grubb in his Editorial in the latest issue of Climate Policy (vol. 14, issue, 3) – out soon. In many countries, notably China, some US states, Mexico, South Korea, Brazil, South Africa and elsewhere, there are promising moves towards effective emission reduction policies and a lower-carbon development path. And yet these do not follow through into a positive “can do” atmosphere in the negotiations – anything but, as (almost) everyone tries to argue why they should do less than anyone else.  Why?

This disjuncture – where the UNFCCC negotiations always reflect the lowest possible ambition – is also apparent in the context of other international arenas. It is becoming almost commonplace, now, for major countries to make solemn pledges and promises in bilateral or multilateral (eg G20) forums, not to mention such big jamborees as Rio+20, only to renege on these in the UNFCCC or related negotiating forums (China’s reported failure to follow through on bilateral promises made before Copenhagen is an obvious example; India’s alleged backtracking on G20 pledges to soften its stance on HFC controls is another). Why? There are many puzzles here for students of international relations.

And yet the story of the UNFCCC is much more complex, and perhaps more positive. Counterfactual questions are impossible to answer, but this one is worth posing – where would the response to climate change be without the UNFCCC? Consider the following achievements – many of them largely unsung – of the Convention:

  • Massively raising awareness of climate change, and throughout the world.   Part of the reason why the climate negotiations are becoming more difficult, is because there is a whole new crop of countries – rather passive in the early days – that are now actively participating in the talks, with high levels of awareness and understanding of their own particular interests and concerns. In the long run, this can only be a good thing.
  • Keeping climate change on the political agenda.  The annual cycle of negotiations ensures that climate change can never fall completely off the international radar.
  • Catalysing action on the ground, even in laggard countries, and even without the imperative to comply with legislation.  Without the awareness-raising and agenda setting of the UNFCCC, would California have set up its own trading scheme?  Would Abu Dhabi and Qatar be rebranding themselves as pioneers of the green economy? Would certified carbon neutrality have become fashionable among large business brands?
  • Establishing a rigorous reporting and review regime.  Over 40 countries have now been reporting their greenhouse gas emissions, in considerable disaggregated detail, on an annual basis for nearly 20 years. The quality of these emission inventories has increased significantly over time, largely due to training materials and opportunities within the UNFCCC.  This knowledge is passing on to the developing countries, who are now required to submit biannual reports on their emissions. This extension of the reporting regime for developing countries is a huge recent achievement in the negotiations.
  • Setting a limit on global temperature rise. The 2 degree goal may be inadequate for some, too ambitious for others, and legally unenforceable, but it is there, and provides an important marker towards establishing commitments that are actually based on science.
  • Pioneering new ways of controlling emissions, through emissions trading and offset mechanisms. It is difficult to imagine, now, how controversial the market mechanisms were when they were first launched under the Kyoto Protocol. Emissions trading and the offset mechanisms – joint implementation and the CDM – were largely untested and required sophisticated rules and regulations that would enable transparency and rigour, while attracting investment.
  • Designing a ground-breaking emissions accounting system. The credible functioning of the market mechanisms required the establishment of unprecedented system for accounting of emission transfers.
  • The market mechanisms under the UNFCCC/KP have catalysed a multitude of trading schemes around the world aimed at controlling emissions, now increasingly so in developing countries.
  • For all its flaws (well rehearsed in the literature), the CDM has engaged a wide group of countries for which the notion that saving carbon could generate value was previously alien
  • Making progress on deforestation.  Although the REDD+ mechanism is perhaps not as ambitious as initially hoped for, the climate change regime – under the UNFCCC – seems to have made more progress in setting up concrete mechanisms to reduce deforestation than in many other areas of specifically forestry negotiations in the international system.
  • Harnessing and leveraging funding for mitigation and adaptation.  There will never be enough money to tackle climate change, but without the UNFCCC and its funding arms, there would be a lot less. The climate change regime has also pushed other multilateral funding institutions to up their game on climate finance.

Perhaps most importantly, the regime is inching towards the ultimate goal of an emission control regime that covers the globe. Until Bali in 2007, the issue of concrete emission targets for developing countries was the great unmentionable in the negotiations.  Now, all but two (Iran and Saudi Arabia) of the top 20 GHG emitters have quantified emission pledges on record.  This is a huge political turnaround.

For all their blustering and posturing, the negotiations are – gradually – moving forwards and starting to deliver. The negotiating process – and the wider response to climate change that takes its cues from it, and in turn feeds back into it – is desperately messy, but it is nudging the world towards a lower carbon future.  Of course, it may all be too little too late, but one important lesson from the history of economic and technological transformation is that, once change gets underway, it can happen much faster than could ever be expected.  The contrasts between the world of 1994 and of 2014 pay testimony to this, even if those changes have not all been in the right direction for climate change.

The next two decades may well be the ones in which low-carbon systems finally take hold and start to steer global emissions onto a downward trend; and indeed they will have to be, if we are to stabilize global temperatures at anything resembling a safe level.  Progress under the UNFCCC during its first 20 years has laid the groundwork for this transformation.  The next 20 years must build on those achievements.

Happy anniversary UNFCCC!