Environmental Think Space

The world is a dangerous place, not because of those who do evil, but because of those who look on and do nothing – Albert Einstein

Talking about Climate Change!

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The 18th session of the Conference of the Parties (COP) began Monday in Doha, Qatar. Clearly the issues of climate change are being discussed, but who are discussing these issues? When did these talks start? How have they progressed? And what are they really talking about?

Maybe climate change is only something you’ve glance over in the news (if it’s even there) or other media formats, and you can’t sort through the overload of information being thrown at you when you start to dig deeper. There are many aspects to climate change: the science, economics, controversies, policy options, law, and the politics. The climate talks taking place right now are a part of the politics of climate change (although all other aspects do arise in these talks).

The COP is an association of all the countries that are Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). There are now 195 parties to the convention taking part in climate change negotiations. All parties to the UNFCCC are represented at the COP. So, who are these parties? And what is the UNFCCC about?

The countries that are parties to the Convention are UN members and are organized into different regional groups and negotiating coalitions.

The UN has an established practice of dividing UN members into five regional groups:
1. Africa
2. Asia (including the Pacific)
3. Central and Eastern Europe
4. Latin America and the Caribbean (GRULAC)
5. Western Europe and Others (WEOG)

These regional groups are only of limited relevance to the interest groups or coalitions in the climate change regime. These regional groups are used almost exclusively to nominate candidates to the Bureaux and specialized bodies, rather than the promotion of interests.

The political coalitions are based on the common interests or geographic affinities of their members and are a means to pool resources and negotiating clout. There is no formal process for establishing these groups (Parties decide to form them and inform the COP Bureau, the SBs or the secretariat); they meet informally during sessions to exchange information, and develop and agree upon common positions.

The major coalitions include:

  1. G77 and China –> the main advocate of developing countries (non-Annex I); operates as a group in the context of the wider north/south divide in climate negotiations
  2. AOSIS (Alliance of Small Island States) –> a coalition of low-lying and small island countries; 39 member countries and 4 observing countries and territories; will disproportionately suffer from impacts such as sea-level rise and natural disasters
  3. African Group –> the only regional group that also serves as a negotiating coalition; concerns include poverty, lack of resources, and vulnerability to extreme weather events; not entirely homogenous in its interests
  4. Least Developed Countries (LDCs) –> 50 countries; low income, weak human resources, high economic vulnerability
  5. European Union –> 27 member states; articulate a common position on all issues; the country that holds the EU Presidency speaks for the European Union and its 27 member states.
  6. Umbrella group –>  a loose coalition of non-EU developed countries which formed following the adoption of the Kyoto Protocol; the Group is usually made up of Australia, Canada, Iceland, Japan, New Zealand, Norway, the Russian Federation, Ukraine and the US.
  7. JUSSCANNZ –> made up of Japan, US, Switzerland, Canada, Australia, Norway, and New Zealand; with the rise of the Umbrella group, JUSSCANNZ is much less active than it once was but still functions as an information sharing coalition and usually meets once or twice during sessions
  8. OPEC (Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries) –> do not negotiate as a group but do coordinate their positions and strategies; Algeria, Indonesia, Iran, Kuwait, Libya, Nigeria, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, and Venezuela; some OPEC countries have questioned the need for strong action and highlight scientific uncertainty.
  9. CACAM (Central Asia, Caucasus, Albania and Moldova) –> formed to clarify the status of its members in the climate change regime; these countries are developing countries which perceive themselves to be economies in transition; the Convention, Kyoto Protocol and associated decisions only recognize economies in transition (EIT) in developed countries (Annex I) and classify all developing countries as non-Annex I with no economies in transitions (EIT).
  10. EIG (Environmental Integrity Group) –> Mexico, Republic of Korea, and Switzerland; these three countries do not share much economically or nationally, other than that they do not belong in an already formed group; generally Switzerland leads and coordinates this group.

So these regional and coalition groupings are important to the dynamics of climate change discussions, negotiations and action. But what is the UNFCCC exactly? As the name states, the UNFCCC is a convention, which is also known as a treaty. It is a written, international agreement creating mutually agreed obligations for different states and are normally open for signature and ratification, and is governed by international law.

The UNFCCC became open for signature in 1992, and entered into force in 1994. The purpose of the Convention is to stabilize greenhouse gas emissions in developed countries and help developing countries cope with the problem. The Convention itself is not legally binding as it does not set limits on individual countries emissions and contains no enforcement mechanisms. However, it provides the framework for negotiating protocols that do set legally binding limits on emissions (i.e. the Kyoto Protocol).

The UNFCCC divides countries into Annex I and Non-Annex I countries (as well as Annex II countries):

Annex I are developed countries and economies in transition (EIT);

Non-Annex I countries are developing countries;

and Annex II countries are those developed countries which pay for costs of developing countries.

It’s important to ponder about the fact that the UNFCCC sets up the issue of climate change with a north/south approach or a north/south divide and what this means for future discussions and action. 

It includes five sets of principles: the principles of common but differentiated responsibilities (CBDR) and respective capabilities; attention to be paid to the specific needs of the particularly vulnerable developing countries; the adoption of the precautionary approach, subject to the cost-effectiveness principle; the recognition that all countries have the right to, and must pursue, sustainable development; and the need to support an open, international economic system.

Since the UNFCCC entered into force the parties have been meeting annually in these COP sessions to assess the progress in dealing with climate change.

I would also like to mention that the first time climate change was discussed on a global level was in 1979 at the First World Climate Conference. From this conference onwards until the UNFCCC, the issue of climate change was being framed and developed by politicians and scientists. So talk of climate change has been going on globally for roughly 30 years and so this is not something entirely new, but it is becoming more prominent as we are beginning to witness the major impacts of climate change.

Now, the Kyoto Protocol is a treaty that supplements the UNFCCC with legally binding obligations on the industrialized countries to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. However, Parties to the UNFCCC are not required to adopt the protocol (which is what happened with the United States in 2001; the US signed but did not ratify the Protocol as a US Resolution call to not accept any future binding quantitative targets until and unless key developing countries also meaningfully participated).

The Kyoto Protocol was adopted in 1997 at COP-3 and entered into force in 2005. 19o states have ratified the Protocol (formally 191, until Canada withdrew in Dec. 2011). The Protocol provides policies and measures from which Annex I countries can make a selection of appropriate policies for their country. The Protocol called on developed countries to jointly reduce their total emissions of six GHGs by 5.2% for the period of 2008-2012; it also included five mechanisms to promote the implementation of the agreement (joint fulfillment, joint implementation (JI), the clean development mechanism (CDM), emissions trading (ET), and the financial mechanism).

Trends Post-Kyoto
After Kyoto, by trying to implement measures and policies and through COPs and MOPs (Meeting of Parties to Kyoto), particular issues, obstacles and challenges were realized:

There are winners and losers in climate change, where potential winners do not feel motivated to take action (generally rich, developed countries).

Energy security is a more dominant issue than climate change.

Decoupling emissions from economic growth is not easy.

Questioning of whether major developing countries should be temporarily exempt  from meaningful actions.

COP-11 (2005) would launch negotiations for a second period of commitments.

COP-13 (2007) adopted Bali Action Plan (launched a 2-year process to promote a post-Kyoto agreement on a shared vision, adaptation measures, mitigation measures, technology development and transfer, and financial assistance and investment to be adopted at Copenhagen in 2009)

Call for NAMAs (nationally appropriate mitigation actions) to be adopted by developing countries –> most developing countries gave suggestions on how this could be done but they also all point to the CBDR principle of the Convention.

There was a wave of interest in the potential of policies to be taken at local government levels, with sub-national governments becoming more active especially those with non-participating/slow-moving countries.

In contrast, past processes of decentralization and federalism gave decision-making power in some fields to sub-national government levels, which meant that central governments had limited power to actually implement policy in the national context.

There was an increase in litigation and using the courts as another means to force action.

A trend to link climate change with development and development cooperation.

The witch hunt with respect to IPCC scientists and science has given a major blow to the scientific legitimacy of the climate change problem and the need for action.

The economic recession has put other competing priorities on the table reducing the urgency for action.

A 2008 UN Human Rights Council produced a report arguing that climate change will affect the rights of groups of individuals, displace them, and lead to enhanced security risks which may point to a potential legal solution.

COP Sessions
It is also important to mention that there are also observers who are not Parties to the Convention that attend COP sessions. Intergovernmental organizations (IGOs) observe COP sessions. Those that are a part of the UN system such as UNEP, GEF, World Bank, etc. do not need to apply for admissions, while those who are not a part of the UN system must apply. Examples include the Commonwealth Foundation, European Forest Institute, European Investment Bank, IUCN, etc. (view list).
Civil society engages with the COP sessions through representative NGO observers. Such organizations include the American Lung Association, Amnesty International, numerous universities, Mining Association of Canada, etc. (view list).
Since these organizations attend COP sessions there is a lot of controversy around lobbying taking place during these events by big business and those wishing to halt climate action. At COP-15 a new environmental award was created by Friends of the Earth, the Angry Mermaid, for the organization “doing the most to sabotage effective action on climate change.” Among the contenders were the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, the American petroleum industry for spending millions lobbying against climate legislation, the European chemical lobby for attempting to undermine EU attempts to cut carbon emissions, and Monsanto (who “won”) for presenting GM crops as another climate-change solution.

So, there is a brief (yes, brief) explanation of the UNFCCC, Kyoto and the coalition groupings and some of the issues and events post Kyoto, which I think is enough for this entry. Talks in Qatar will continue until the 6th of December so more will be posted with respect to COP-18.



Gupta, J. (2010). A history of international climate change policy, Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews, 1(5): 636-653, DOI: 10.1002/wcc.67.

Yamin, Farhana and Joanna Depledge. The International Climate Change Regime: A Guide to Rules, Institutions and Procedures. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004.


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