UNFCCC AND KYOTO PROTOCOL PRIMER

Every year since the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC – see here) came into force in 1994, the UN has held massive international conferences of representatives from countries that are Parties to the Convention. The Convention (see here for text) has been signed by nearly all the world’s nations and sets an overall framework for intergovernmental efforts to “tackle the challenge posed by climate change”. 

Several affiliated UN groups meet at these gatherings but the most important is The Conference of the Parties (COP), the "supreme body" of the Convention. It is the highest decision-making authority related to fulfillment of the UNFCCC and is an association of all the countries that have agreed to the Convention. Conferences are typically then named after the number of the COP meeting taking place. For example, Copenhagen in December 2009 was the 15th meeting of the parties since 1994 and so is referred to as COP15.  Cancun was COP16 and the meeting in December 2011 is COP17, in South Africa.   

The basic assumption underlying the UNFCCC is that man’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions are driving the climate system to a dangerous future that can only be prevented by massive reductions in these emissions. The primary objective of this body is defined in the Convention as follows: 

“The ultimate objective of this Convention and any related legal instruments that the Conference of the Parties may adopt is to achieve, in accordance with the relevant provisions of the Convention, stabilization of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system.” 

 
 
"Please Help the World", film from the opening ceremony of the United Nations Climate Change Conference 2009 (COP15) in Copenhagen.

 

In reality, climate science is not sufficiently advanced that we can know what level of GHG concentrations in the atmosphere would result in “dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system”. Recent research strongly supports the conclusion that human GHG emissions are an inconsequential driver of global climate change.  

 

Also meeting at COP conferences is the CMP, the "supreme body" of the Kyoto Protocol, which is a protocol to the UNFCCC created in 1997. It came into force in 2005 and each year since then there has been a meeting, CMP1 being in 2005 and CMP6 being the latest in Cancun, Mexico.

Note that signatories to both the Kyoto Protocol and the UNFCCC may withdraw at any time with one year’s notice.  Here is part of Article 27 of the Kyoto Protocol: 

  1. At any time after three years from the date on which this Protocol has entered into force for a Party, that Party may withdraw from this Protocol by giving written notification to the Depositary.
  2. Any such withdrawal shall take effect upon expiry of one year from the date of receipt by the Depositary of the notification of withdrawal, or on such later date as may be specified in the notification of withdrawal. 

 

Here is Article 25 of the UNFCCC: 

  1. At any time after three years from the date on which the Convention has entered into force for a Party, that Party may withdraw from the Convention by giving written notification to the Depositary.
  2. Any such withdrawal shall take effect upon expiry of one year from the date of receipt by the Depositary of the notification of withdrawal, or on such later date as may be specified in the notification of withdrawal.
  3. Any Party that withdraws from the Convention shall be considered as also having withdrawn from any protocol to which it is a Party. 

 

Clearly, the most appropriate action for governments at this time is to withdraw from the UNFCCC, thereby automatically negating their obligations under the Kyoto Protocol. Cautious governments from developed countries that have no chance of meeting their Kyoto Protocol targets (which is virtually all of them) may only wish to withdraw from the Kyoto Protocol. Either approach is preferable to breaking such important international agreements.