The Framework Convention on Climate Change

Notwithstanding the difficulties, the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (FCCC) was signed on schedule in June 1992 by over 150 nations (United Nations, 1992). The convention was criticized by environmental groups for not mandating reductions in greenhouse gas emissions comparable to the Montreal Protocol commitments on CFCs. Instead, Article 4 somewhat ambiguously obliges industrialized countries to "adopt national policies and take corresponding measures" with the "aim of returning" anthropogenic emissions by 2000 to their levels in 1990. (The 38 industrialized nations are listed in Annex I of the convention and are thus customarily termed "Annex I" countries.) At the present, writing on the eve of this deadline, it is evident that only a handful of Annex I countries can achieve this "aim," and those few only because of exceptional circumstances—a fact that demonstrates how ambitious the target actually was.

The framework convention is, in fact, much stronger than its true ozone analogue, which was not the Montreal Protocol but the earlier 1985 Vienna Convention. The FCCC mandates rigorous national reporting by industrialized countries on the results of the above-mentioned measures. Significantly, it also requires the parties to periodically assess the "adequacy" of the commitments, with the clear implication that revisions were intended. Further, the FCCC recognizes the precautionary principle as a criterion for such action: "Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty should not be used as a reason for postponing such (precautionary) measures" (Article 3). The FCCC also contains commitments for all parties—North and South—to develop national programs "to mitigate climate change by addressing anthropogenic emissions by sources and removal by sinks"; no deadlines, however, are set for establishing such programs.

Like the Montreal Protocol, the FCCC was clearly conceived as establishing a long-term and dynamic process of addressing climate change. In this context, I believe that the convention's strongest feature is its "ultimate objective" (Article 2), against which all future commitments must be measured:

"The ultimate objective [is to achieve] 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 time-frame 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."

It is unfortunate that the state of the science, then as now, cannot yet inform us what level of concentrations would be "dangerous," nor what the desirable time frame might be. Although the lack of such indices complicates the task for governments to negotiate quantitative commitments, the concepts incorporated in the objective remain valid guides for action.

At the convention's First Conference of Parties, in Berlin in early 1995, the parties had available preliminary findings from the IPCC's second report. The IPCC, while somewhat lowering its previous model projections of global warming and sea-level rise, nevertheless expressed greater confidence in the revised estimates. Most significantly, the panel for the first time concluded that the data indicated the presence of "a discernible human influence on global climate" (IPCC, 1996).

Influenced by the IPCC findings, the parties in Berlin formally acknowledged that the Article 4 commitments made in 1992 by industrialized countries were not adequate. They could not, however, agree on how these commitments should be strengthened. After heated negotiations, the result was a compromise: a "Berlin Mandate" required the parties to negotiate, by 1997, "quantified limitation and reduction objectives within specified timeframes— "otherwise known as targets and timetables—"for anthropogenic emissions by sources and removals by sinks."

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