International Climate Change Legislation: Frameworks & Developments

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Countries around the world are grappling with how to address climate change and its related risks through legislation. The United Nations has developed many binding international treaties on climate change. Highlighted below are some key pieces of international climate change legislation.

United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC)

Nearly all the world’s countries have ratified the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC), an international treaty intended to stabilize greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere. Adopted in 1992, the parties to the UNFCC are part of the Conference of the Parties (COP). The COP holds annual meetings to evaluate its progress in meeting climate change goals and to make decisions.

While the UNFCCC’s primary objective is “the stabilization of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system,” it does not set specific targets. Many countries have adopted other treaties that set specific targets for greenhouse gas emission reduction.

Kyoto Protocol

Adopted in 1997, the Kyoto Protocol includes a series of obligations to slow climate change by reducing greenhouse gases. The United States did not ratify the Kyoto Protocol. It entered into force in 2005, following ratification by Russia and Canada.

The Kyoto Protocol lists several greenhouse gases countries must seek to reduce, including carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, and hydrofluorocarbons. Article 3 of the Kyoto Protocol assigns binding greenhouse gas emission targets for each party country. Countries may not emit greenhouse gases over their assigned amounts.

Climate Change Air Pollution
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To enforce the goal of reducing climate change, the Kyoto Protocol imposes penalties on parties that have emitted greenhouse gases over their allocated amounts. For every ton of carbon dioxide emitted over its assigned amount, the breaching party must reduce its overall emissions by 1.3 tons in the subsequent period. The breaching party must also develop a compliance action plan going forward.

Another component of the emission reduction targets are commitments to energy efficiency, renewable energy, protection of natural resources, and phasing out fiscal incentives to industries that are heavy emitters of greenhouse gases.

Doha Amendment

In 2021, the Doha Amendment amended the Kyoto Protocol. The Doha Amendment established a second commitment period for implementing measures to reduce emissions. Under the Doha Amendment, by 2020, countries were to collectively achieve an 18% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from 1990 levels.

Paris Agreement

The Paris Agreement’s main goal is to mobilize countries to take proactive measures to curb the rise in global temperatures. The agreement aims to keep the rise in global temperatures well below 2 degrees Celsius, and actively pursues efforts to limit the temperature further to 1.5 degrees Celsius.

More than 190 countries adopted the Paris Agreement in December 2015. It entered into force in November 2016. Parties to the Paris Agreement must combat climate changes through specific financial, technological, and capacity-building measures.

The Paris Agreement seeks to improve climate change resiliency and to mobilize financial resources in support of its goals. Among the Paris Agreement’s key provisions are:

  • Nationally determined contributions (NDCs): The climate action plans that each country sets for itself are known as nationally determined contributions (NDCs). Countries must update them every five years. For developed countries, NDCs should be economy-wide.
  • REDD+ mechanism: REDD+ stands for countries’ efforts to reduce emissions from deforestation and degradation of forests. Parties are encouraged to follow the REDD+ framework, which provides guidance for the sustainable conservation of forests.
  • GHG emissions peaking and goal of achieving zero net emissions: According to this principle, parties should peak their greenhouse gas emissions as soon as possible, and then proactively work to slow emissions from that point onwards. The Paris Agreement has an ambitious goal to reach zero net emissions by 2050.

China, one of the world’s biggest greenhouse gas emitters, is also a party to the Paris Agreement. However, there are been questions about China’s ability to deliver on its commitment to lowering emissions. In 2020, former President Donald Trump notified the United Nations that the United States was formally withdrawing from the Paris Agreement.

Adoption of Climate Change and Energy Policies by the EU

The European Union has implemented several of its own climate change initiatives to curb greenhouse gas emissions. For example, in June 2018 the EU adopted accounting rules for land use and forestry. Known as the LULUCF Regulation, it requires member states to follow certain accounting rules for calculating greenhouse emissions and removals.