CIESIN Reproduced, with permission, from: United Nations Environment Programme. 1990. How policy-makers are responding to global climate change. United Nations Environment Programme Information Unit for Climate Change Fact Sheet 201. Nairobi, Kenya: United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) Information Unit for Climate Change (IUCC).

Fact sheet 201

How policy-makers are responding to global climate change

The first time climate change was recognized as a serious problem by an international gathering was in 1979. The First World Climate Conference, held in February of that year, was a major scientific meeting. It issued a declaration calling on the world's governments "to foresee and prevent potential man-made changes in climate that might be adverse to the well-being of humanity." (See fact sheet 213.)

A large number of international conferences on climate change have been convened since then. Attended by policy-makers, government leaders, and scientists, they have addressed both scientific and policy issues. Important meetings have been held in Toronto (fact sheet 215), the Hague (fact sheet 217), Noordwijk (fact sheet 218), Bergen (fact sheet 220), and elsewhere. The Second World Climate Conference, held in 1990 in Geneva, was a particularly crucial step towards a binding global convention on climate change (fact sheet 221). Some of these meetings have taken place under the auspices of the United Nations and its specialized agencies. Others have been held within regional for a such as the European Community, the Commonwealth, and the South Pacific Forum. Individual governments have also taken the initiative to convene international or regional gatherings to discuss climate change. A number of meetings have been dedicated to the particular concerns of small island states (fact sheet 203) and of developing countries (fact sheet 204).

The 1992 UN Framework Convention on Climate Change is the first binding international legal instrument to address the issue (fact sheet 234).[1] Adopted after two years of intensive negotiations within the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee on Climate Change (INC -- see fact sheet 209), it was opened for signature in Rio de Janeiro at the June 1992 UN Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED see fact sheet 207). The INC negotiators relied heavily on the First Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC see fact sheet 208), a body established jointly by the United Nations Environment Programme and the World Meteorological Organization (UNEP and WMO see fact sheet 206). They were also considerably influenced by the Ministerial Declaration issued by the Second World Climate Conference and by policy statements adopted by numerous other climate conferences. The Convention incorporated a number of newly emerging legal principles that had been developed or affirmed by various climate conferences (fact sheet 202).

The Climate Convention will help to fill the legal vacuum that has existed until now . . . The Convention was signed by 155 states during UNCED. It will enter into force after it has been ratified by 50 states, which will probably take a few years. In the meantime, states are expected to start working towards the aims set by the Convention on a voluntary basis.

. . . but much work remains to be done. States must now strive to ensure that the Convention enters into force as soon as possible. At the same time, government experts must start discussing strong, concrete measures to include in future annexes and protocols to the Convention. These protocols can be expected to set out more specific commitments, such as timetables for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Even before the Convention was adopted, some countries had already taken unilateral legal action at the national level. Most OECD member states have set national targets for stabilizing or reducing their emissions of greenhouse gases.[2] In 1990, the Council of the European Communities (EC) adopted a policy that provides for stabilizing the emissions of carbon dioxide the most significant greenhouse gas at 1990 levels by the year 2000. A strategy to limit carbon dioxide emissions and to improve energy efficiency is currently being elaborated by the EC Commission (fact sheet 211).

In addition, two other international environmental treaties address climate change indirectly. The amended 1987 Montreal Protocol on Substances That Deplete the Ozone Layer legally obliges its parties to phase out chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) by the year 2000 (fact sheet 224). Although inspired by concern over the destruction of the ozone layer, this protocol is significant also for climate change since CFCs are greenhouse gases. Similarly, the 1979 Geneva Convention on Long-Range Transboundary Air Pollution and its protocols regulate the emission of noxious gases, some of which are precursors of greenhouse gases (fact sheet 225). These treaties, however, do not address the complex set of inter-related climate issues.

For further reading:

Churchill and Freestone, eds., "International Law and Global Climate Change", London (1991).

"Environmental Policy and Law", Nos. 19 (1989), 20 (1990), 21 (1991). and 22/1 (1992) pp. 5-15.

Goldman and Hajost, in "Yearbook of International Environmental Law", No. 2 (1991), pp. 111-115.

Hajost, in "Yearbook of International Environmental Law", No. 1 (1990), pp. 100-104.

Jurgielewicz, "International Law and the Global Environment: Prospects for a Legal Order", University of London thesis (forthcoming).

Lang, Neuhold and Zemanek (eds.), "Environmental Protection and International Law", London (1991) (see in particular chapter 6).

Zaelke and Cameron, "Global Warming and Climate Change: An Overview of the International Legal Process", in "American University Journal of International Law and Policy", Vol. 5/2 (1990), pp. 249-290.


1 Report of the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee for a Framework Convention on Climate Change, May 1992, A/AC.237/18 (Part II)/Add.1

2 International Energy Agency, "Climate Change Policy Initiatives Update", 15 July 1991.

******************************************************************** Last revised August 1992 by the Information Unit on Climate Change, UNEP, Palais des Nations, CH-1211 Geneva 10, Switzerland.

tel: (+41) 22 789-4062

fax: (+41) 22 789-4073