International Efforts: IPCC, UNFCCC, & COP

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), is the leading international body for the assessment of climate change, established by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) in 1988. Thousands of scientists from all over the world contribute to the work of the IPCC, which reviews and assesses scientific, technical, and socio-economic information (but does not conduct any research on its own).

The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), was created in 1994 to facilitate international cooperation in response to the threat of global warming. The first major action was the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, which has been ratified by 192 countries and other parties, such as the European Union. (The United States is the only major nation that did not ratify Kyoto; others include Afghanistan, Andorra, Southern Sudan, Taiwan, and Vatican City.)

Each year, parties to the UNFCCC hold a Conference of the Parties (COP) to plan and coordinate action. Most of the COP events, which include countries that did not ratify Kyoto, have produced spirited advocacy and discussion, but little action.

This t-shirt was worn by many youths at the COP-18 climate conference. 

COP-21 was held in 2015 in Paris, France, with 195 nations participating. The parties negotiated the first real agreement committing participants to do something about climate change: an agreement to hold global warming to less than 2° Celsius (3.6° Fahrenheit), with a ‘desirable’ goal of holding it to less than 1.5° C.

Many environmentalists and climate scientists question whether this historic agreement will be sufficient to prevent catastrophic global warming, saying that if we stopped all emissions today, the high levels of greenhouse gases (GHG) already in the atmosphere will persist for decades—and many measures show that these already-emitted GHG will push us past 1.5°C and possibly over 2°C. Others point out that the agreement fails to recognize the regenerative power of organic agriculture, which can sequester vast amounts of carbon into the soil if used instead of industrial agricultural practices.

According to the 2016 Emissions Gap Report from the U.N. Environmental Programme, “the Paris agreement, even if fully implemented, is consistent with a temperature increase of 3.2°C.”

COP-22 was held in November 2016, in Marrakech, Morocco. Representatives reported considerable progress in discussions on key details such as funding, but were unable to finalize agreements. COP-23 is scheduled for early November 2017, at a not-yet-determined location in Asia.

Big Ideas

  • The need for world-wide action is clear, but it can take many years for governments to act. (The UNFCCC was adopted in 1994, and it took 21 years to create an agreement.)
  • Even when government leaders recognize the threat of climate change, they may not consider all the threat and may struggle with taking effective action.

Sources and links to additional resources.