What are UNFCCC and COP20?

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The United Nations will hold COP20, the 20th session of the Conference of the Parties to the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), starting December 1st in Lima, Peru. This conference is a precursor for the COP21 in Paris, 2015, in which the objective is to achieve a binding and universal agreement on climate from all countries. The goal for COP20 is to draft the agreement that will be adopted in 2015.

The UNFCCC is an international environmental treaty negotiated at the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro, commonly known as Earth Summit, from June 3 to the 14th, 1992. The main goal of the treaty is to “stabilize greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system.”  The UNFCCC is most notable for the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, which set internationally binding emission reduction targets for its parties. This protocol focused on developed countries as most responsible for greenhouse gas levels and their reduction. This involved requiring countries to monitor emissions and maintain records of any market-based mechanisms used to meet emission targets, including emissions trading.

Credit: UN Photo/Michos Tzavaros
Credit: UN Photo/Michos Tzavaros

Each year the signatories to the UNFCCC meet in Conferences of the Parties to assess progress in mitigating climate change. Given the diversity of population, development, and other factors of countries that contribute to climate change, the UNFCCC is based on the principle that parties should act “on the basis of session of the Conference of the in Lima, Peru. The main goal of the treaty is to “stabilize greenhouse gas equality and in accordance with their common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities.”  This allows countries to act to mitigate climate change at multiple levels while taking into account contribution and ability to mitigate climate change. Another fundamental principle of the UNFCCC is the polluter pays principle, which dictates that those responsible for producing pollution are responsible for the damage caused to the environment.

The four main foci of COP20 are adaption, climate finance, mitigation, and technology. According to a recently published UN document that is likely to form the basis of a draft negotiating text for COP20, there are a number of ideas being formulated, with potentially drastic measures. Once such possibility mentioned is that national pledges may face “top-down adjustment based on a global carbon budget…with no backsliding allowed.” Other, less severe options are for “all major economies to take absolute economy-wide emission reduction targets” and for leading developing economies to accept greenhouse gas restrictions. The long-term goal for climate mitigation is to limit temperature increase below 1.5-2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. However, according to the COP20 website, “aiming too high has cost the COP dearly in the past” and therefore Peru is focusing on “maintaining a balance between making a big impact and realism.”

According to Christiana Figueres, executive secretary of the UNFCCC, the “litmus test of success” for COP20 in Lima will be “a clear draft of the universal agreement, a shared determination by all to deliver significant national contributions to build a low carbon resilient future, initial capitalization of the Green Climate Fund, and the mobilization of a broad coalition of actors turning potential into reality on the ground.” While many are keeping one eye firmly on COP21 in Paris, 2015, COP20 remains a crucial step in establishing what is to become perhaps the most significant climate change agreement ever reached.

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