The international political response to climate change began with the 1992 adoption of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), which sets out a legal framework for stabilising atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases (GHGs) to avoid “dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system.” The Convention, which entered into force on 21 March 1994, has 197 parties. In December 1997, delegates to COP 3 in Kyoto, Japan, agreed to a protocol to the UNFCCC that committed industrialised countries and economies in transition to achieve emissions reduction targets. These countries, known as Annex I parties under the UNFCCC, agreed to reduce their overall emissions of six GHGs by an average of 5% below 1990 levels in 2008-2012 (the first commitment period), with specific targets varying from country to country. The Kyoto Protocol entered into force on 16 February 2005 and now has 192 parties. In December 2015, at COP 21 in Paris, France, parties agreed to the Paris Agreement.

The UN Climate Change Conference convened in Paris, France, in November and December 2015 and culminated in the adoption of the Paris Agreement on climate change. In Paris, countries agree to take action with a long-term perspective. In particular, the Paris Agreement included in Article 4 the provision that countries should: “Strive to formulate and communicate long-term low greenhouse gas emission development strategies, mindful of Article 2 taking into account their common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities, in the light of different national circumstances”.

And in accordance with Article 4, all Parties are invited to: “Communicate, by 2020, to the secretariat mid-century, long-term low greenhouse gas emission development strategies in accordance with Article 4, paragraph 19, of the Agreement, and requests the secretariat to publish on the UNFCCC website Parties’ low greenhouse gas emission development strategies as communicated”.

The Agreement creates two five-year cycles. One cycle is for parties to submit Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs), each successive contribution representing a progression from the previous contribution, reflecting common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities, in the light of different national circumstances. By 2020, parties whose INDCs contain a timeframe up to 2025 are requested to communicate a new INDC and parties with an NDC timeframe up to 2030 are requested to communicate or update these contributions. The second cycle is a global stock-take of collective efforts, beginning in 2023, following a facilitative dialogue in 2018.

All parties are to report on their efforts using a common transparency framework, with support provided for developing countries to fulfil their reporting obligations. The Agreement establishes, inter-alia, a mechanism to contribute to the mitigation of GHG emissions and support sustainable development and a technology framework to provide overarching guidance to the Technology Mechanism.

The Paris Agreement entered into force on 4 November 2016, 30 days after the dual entry into force requirement of ratification by at least 55 countries representing at least 55% of global GHG emissions was met. As of 5 December 2016, 118 countries have ratified the agreement, parties representing 80% of global emissions.

European Union Climate Change policy in relation to the UNFCCC

The EU, its Member States and EEA member countries committed to limiting or reducing their GHG emissions under the UNFCCC and the Kyoto Protocol. The first commitment period under the Kyoto Protocol ran from 2008 until 2012; the second, 8-year commitment period runs from 2013 through 2020. In this context, the EU is committed to cutting its emissions by 2020 by at least 20 % compared to 1990 levels (or 30 % subject to the conclusion of a comprehensive international climate change agreement). The EU is also committed to increasing, to 20 %, the share of renewable energy in the EU’s gross final energy consumption (with a minimum 10 % share in the transport sector) under the Renewable Energy Directive (RED), and to saving 20 % of the EU’s energy consumption through increased energy efficiency. The three ‘20-20-20’ targets form part of the EU’s 10-year growth strategy, Europe 2020, alongside targets pertaining to employment, education, research and innovation, social inclusion and poverty reduction. To meet the 2020 GHG target, sub-targets were set for emissions covered by the EU ETS (which are governed by a single EU-wide cap), and for other emissions not covered by the EU ETS (where differentiated binding targets have been set for each Member State and for each year of the period between 2013 and 2020, under the Effort Sharing Decision - ESD). The RED also sets differentiated binding targets for each Member State for 2020 and provides indicative trajectories for the period from 2011 to 2020. Concerning energy efficiency, Member States defined their own non-binding targets for energy consumption for 2020 under the Energy Efficiency Directive (EED). These targets take various forms, and some of them may be subject to revision in future years.

EU leaders have endorsed the objective of reducing Europe’s GHG emissions by between 80 % and 95 % by 2050, compared to 1990 levels, in the context of necessary reductions to be collectively achieved by developed countries, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). To ensure that the EU is on a cost-effective track towards meeting this long-term objective, EU leaders agreed, in October 2014, on a 2030 climate and energy policy framework for the EU. They endorsed a binding EU target of an at least 40 % domestic reduction in GHG emissions by 2030 compared to 1990. They also set a target, binding at EU level, of at least 27 % for the share of renewable energy consumed in the EU in 2030, as well as an indicative target at EU level of at least 27 % for improving energy efficiency in 2030 compared to projections of future energy consumption based on the current criteria.

On the level of policies and measures, the EU has already in 2001 agreed that the EU emissions trading system (EU ETS) would be the cornerstone of its policy to combat climate change. The EU ETS is the key tool to reduce GHG emissions from energy-intensive installations in the power sector and the production industry. In the EU ETS, a harmonised approach is used to reduce, GHG emissions of installations across the EU. A reduction cap on the overall emissions is ensures the environmental integrity of the system, and the option to trade allowances strives to achieve such reductions cost-effectively. For the other economic activities, the so-called effort sharing decision was agreed upon. This sets binding annual GHG reduction targets at the level of individual Member States for all non-EU-ETS sectors such as transport, buildings, agriculture and waste. The targets are differentiated among the Member States, taking into account relative differences in national wealth. Each MS needs to report its emissions on an annual basis and progress to target achievement is monitored by the European Commission.

This reporting is done under the EU’s GHG monitoring mechanism which is in line with the internationally agreed obligations and reporting rules. Within the Effort Sharing Decision, each Member State has some flexibility to implement its own choice of instruments to ensure targets are achieved. However, each Member State does need to ensure compliance with the binding agreements made in the frame of the 202 energy and climate package and the 2030 climate and energy framework as described above. These include the Renewable energy Directive, the Energy Efficiency Directive, the Energy Performance of Buildings Directive, the Labelling Framework Directive, and CO2 standards and fuel quality requirements for the use of intensity of the fuels in transport. In addition to their annual GHG emissions reporting the Member States have to report progress to agreements made in each of this Directive on a frequent basis (frequency depending on the specific Directive - usually every two years). The EU’s progress report (“Implementing the Paris Agreement – Progress of the EU towards the at least -40% target “) shows that the EU remains firmly on course to reach its 2020 target for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. After an emissions drop of 4% in the previous year, 2015 saw a slight rebound of 0.7%. While the EU’s industrial emissions continued to decline, transport emissions increased and emissions from space heating were higher this year after an unusually warm winter in the year before.