A brief history of the UNFCCC


In some ways, the human experience is dialectic: we encounter a problem, we formulate a solution, which, in turn, either becomes or illuminates a new problem. In her new book, Ruth DeFries terms these cyclical stages the Ratchet, Hatchet, and Pivot. For instance, as the human population grows and demand for food increases, we have devised farming systems to “ratchet” up food sources. These farming systems help alleviate hunger, allowing the population to increase once more. But the “hatchet” falls, as our farming system produces limited food sources. Enter human ingenuity, an infinite resource that helps us “pivot” toward other farming techniques for solutions.

The UNFCCC process was developed through a similar cycle.

The Problem: CFCs

Remember when the ozone layer was a hot topic? In the 1980s it had a gaping hole in it. The ozone layer hangs about 14 miles above the Earth’s surface, blocking out most of the sun’s high frequency ultraviolet (UV) rays. And we all know UV rays can cause skin cancer, among other things (including reproductive problems in smaller animals). Humanity saw the writing on the wall: without this protective shield, we are screwed.

As the science became clearer on how big the hole was, and how much bigger it would get without intervention, countries and advocate groups came together to talk about solutions. Scientists identified the culprit: chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs). This colorless gas was invented in the 1920s as an alternative to other known toxic gases (sulfur dioxide and ammonia) used in refrigerants and aerosols. CFCs were extolled for their relative safety, and by 1980 they were regularly used in air-conditioning systems and big hair spray (a signature look for the 80s). Little did we know how destructive this gas was to the unstable bonds of an ozone molecule.

A little science breakdown: at about 14 miles above Earth, UV rays are strong enough break up oxygen (O2) molecules into two free oxygen atoms. These free individual oxygen atoms can then bond with other O2 molecules, creating O3 – aka ozone.  Unfortunately, those same UV rays are also strong enough to break up the molecules of CFCs, releasing free chlorine atoms into the ozone layer. Chlorine atoms then steal oxygen atoms, breaking down O3, creating a hole.

The Solution: ban CFCs

The solution was simple: ban CFCs. And we did. We banned them through international negotiations at the 1985 Vienna Convention for the Protection of theh Ozone, and through 1987 Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer. This effectively stopped the production of CFCs:


Done, right?

A New Problem: GHGs

The investigations into CFCs led to a deeper understanding of greenhouse gases (GHG). As world leaders began proclaiming victory, new scientific evidence emerged: there are more gases doing more harm to the environment. Carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4), nitrous oxide (N2O), water vapor, and halocarbons are naturally occurring gasses emitted by animals, plants, water bodies and soils through respiration, digestion, evaporation, and decomposition. However, as human population and development surges, so have our use and emissions of these gases. Increased concentration of these gases in the atmosphere trap the sun’s warm radiation, which would otherwise bounce back into space. As we are seeing, warming of the earth is leading to  rising sea levels, permanent loss of species, and the proliferation of pests. Each of these have their own resounding consequences.

A New Solution: UNFCCC

By 1990, we had passed the 350 ppm mark, the limit of what is considered a safe level of concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere.  But unlike CFCs, it is impossible to ban all these other GHGs. These gases are a product of life. But we could regulate and reduce their emissions through policy. We now needed continuous information and communication on GHG levels and what countries could to to reduce their emissions. This is the origin of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change,  launched in 1990 by the UN General Assembly, and adopted in  1992. Countries party to the UNFCCC have been meeting regularly ever since.  The Conference of the Parties (CoPs) is the highest decision-making body of the Climate Change Convention.

This year is particularly significant. CoP 21 will convene in Paris, where countries are expected to produce a binding international climate action agreement. The target is limiting global temperature rise to 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. It is easy to imagine the difficulty of a negotiation process involving many sovereign countries, focusing on numerous economic sectors, with their own opportunities and obstacles to mitigation.

The Pivot

The ozone hole is healing, its complete recovery is “imminent”. Through international negotiations, the decision to phase out CFCs was unanimous. The question is, can we get consensus on effective actions to avoid the disastrous consequences of global warming?

I will be on a flight to Bonn tonight, where country leaders and climate experts are in the middle of these discussions. Negotiators are rounding up their first week discussing emissions targets and strategies. I will follow these discussions (particularly those relating to land use emissions from forests and agriculture), and attempt to synthesize and communicate my experience here.