United Nations

Publication - March 25, 2008
The United Nations plays a key role in coordinating the international response to climate change. But it is no simple job getting cooperation and agreement from the member states of the UN — all intent on pursuing their own self interests and policies — even when the evidence clearly shows that failing to act would be disastrous for all.

The two UN institutions that deal most directly with climate change are the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). The first provides scientific and technical advice to policy makers, and the second develops policy mechanisms to deal with climate change.

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change

The IPCC was established in 1988 by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). At the time, it was recognized that climate change was a serious issue, and that world leaders would need unbiased scientific advice independent of national interests and corporate influence.

The role of the IPCC is to advise policymakers about the current state of knowledge and provide reliable information pertaining to climate change. It does not conduct any scientific research itself, but instead reviews the thousands of papers on climate change published in peer reviewed literature every year and summarizes the state of knowledge on climate change in its assessment reports, which are published every five years or so. About 1,000 experts from all over the world were involved in drafting the assessment report in 2001, and about 2,500 were involved in its review. The IPCC also publishes a variety of other reports on request of governments, intergovernmental organizations or international treaties.

The IPCC is broken down into three working groups. The first working group assesses the scientific aspects of the climate system and climate change. That is, it reports on what we know about climate change — if it is happening, why it is happening and how fast it is happening. The second working group assesses the vulnerability of socioeconomic and natural systems to climate change, negative and positive consequences of climate change and options for adapting to it. That is, it looks at what degree climate change will impact people and the environment, and what changes might reduce its impacts. The third working group assesses options for limiting greenhouse gas emissions and otherwise mitigating climate change. That is, it examines ways we can stop human caused climate change, or at least slow it down.

Greenpeace relies heavily on IPCC reports as the basis for its international climate campaign.

See the scientific consensus page for a brief overview of the IPCC’s latest conclusions, or visit its website.

United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change

The UNFCCC was agreed at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in 1992, and has since been ratified by 189 countries. Its ultimate objective: “[The] stabilization of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system. Such a level should be achieved within a timeframe 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.”

The convention then goes on to say: “The parties should protect the climate system for the benefit of present and future generations of humankind, on the basis of equity and in accordance with their common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities. Accordingly, the developed country parties should take the lead in combating climate change and the adverse affects thereof.”

Read the full text of the convention.

The UNFCCC is, as its name implies, a framework convention, and needs subsidiary legal instruments to meet its goals. It has a non-binding target, which calls for industrialized countries to bring their emissions back to 1990 levels by 2000. However, it was obvious by 1995 that these voluntary targets were inadequate. Realizing the need for another approach, in 1995 the parties established a process to negotiate a protocol with binding targets and timetables as a matter of urgency. The result was the Kyoto Protocol, which was agreed in December 1997 and finally entered into force on Feb. 16, 2005.

The annual meetings of the convention are called Conferences of the Parties (COPs). These meetings are attended by government officials, industry lobbyists, Greenpeace and many other groups. Most of the parties are genuinely seeking a way forward, looking even beyond Kyoto, but there are always those with vested interests in the continuation of the fossil fuel industry whose main goal is to cripple the convention and generally prevent any true progress on the issue.