Adoption of the Paris Climate Agreement in 2015 was a landmark for international climate policy, providing a framework for global climate action and spurring countries to set ambitious national climate plans (known as nationally determined contributions, or NDCs). Over the last two years, as the first round for strengthening climate targets took place, 156 countries submitted new or updated NDCs, of which 93 reduce total emissions compared to the previous NDCs. Countries have also agreed to a “rulebook” for the Paris Agreement that, among other things, puts in place a robust new framework for transparency on climate action.

But since its adoption, and even before, commentators and scholars have raised questions about whether the process under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) can respond sufficiently to the urgent challenges posed by climate change.

We have witnessed important progress under the Paris Agreement, yet national climate commitments remain nowhere near enough to meet the global goal of limiting temperature rise to 1.5 degrees C (2.7 degrees F) — the limit scientists say is necessary for preventing the worst effects of climate change — nor are these commitments enough to support critical efforts to adapt to climate impacts. And even with existing commitments, work remains to ensure they have the planning and funding behind them to translate into real action.

Much of the responsibility for translating the Paris Agreement’s goals into actual action rests with national governments. Yet, as the latest climate science underscores the urgency needed and many countries look ahead to the next UN climate summit (COP27) in November 2022, it’s also time to consider how the UNFCCC can use its international platform to drive national governments to act with the speed and scale required to address the climate crisis.

Former UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon addresses the Comité de Paris at the UN Climate Change Conference in 2015, alongside Christiana Figueres, Executive Secretary of the UNFCCC.
Former UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon addresses the Comité de Paris at the UN Climate Change Conference in Paris in 2015, alongside Christiana Figueres, Executive Secretary of the UNFCCC. Photo by UN Photo/ Mark Garten

The Role of the UNFCCC in Speeding Up Global Climate Action

The global UNFCCC treaty was created in 1992 with the objective to “stabilize greenhouse gas concentrations” and “prevent dangerous human interference with the climate system.” Since then,  multilateral cooperation on climate has evolved to include additional treaties (the Kyoto Protocol and the Paris Agreement) as well as an implementation architecture to advance climate action and fulfill treaty objectives. (We use the acronym UNFCCC to refer collectively to these treaties and corresponding UN climate processes.)

As the international community focuses on implementation of the Paris Agreement, the UNFCCC needs to tackle several challenges. Building on recent WRI research and a public webinar exploring how experiences under the UNFCCC and the Kyoto Protocol over the last 30 years can inform and support implementation of the Paris Agreement, here are five key issues that should be addressed:

1. The shift from negotiation to implementation.

During the recent webinar Director of WRI’s International Climate Initiative David Waskow argued that the UNFCCC must catalyze action: “The UNFCCC is no longer just a treaty body. It’s also not a WHO [World Health Organization] — for example, it doesn’t have an implementation role on the ground in the way that the WHO might have. At its best, the [UNFCCC] is a catalytic institution.”

Following the adoption of the Paris Agreement and the corresponding Paris Rulebook, the UNFCCC is seen as shifting from being primarily a platform for international treaty negotiations to one that supports and monitors implementation. As part of this shift, the UNFCCC must leverage its role as a catalytic institution.

One way to do so would be to leverage processes already established to advance transparency and accountability — including through the Paris Agreement’s Enhanced Transparency Framework. These processes are vital for providing information and understanding progress (and gaps) in implementation and offering platforms for country-to-country exchanges and shared learning.

Another way the UNFCCC has sought to catalyze action and support is through its constituted bodies and work programs, which have grown from eight in 2000 to nearly 30 today. These are designed to tackle a range of key issues for implementation, especially ones that are vital for developing countries — from capacity-building and finance to adaptation and loss and damage.

The UNFCCC must work to ensure that its institutional structures are well-organized to support implementation on the ground and that these structures have the resources they need to be effective, including the necessary funding and staff.

Countries should take advantage of upcoming climate talks and consider regularly reviewing the entire landscape of bodies and work programs to address resource gaps and identify opportunities to enhance their effectiveness. And countries must consider whether the proliferation of bodies has been effective and whether more resources are needed for the UNFCCC to actually play a catalytic role in mobilizing implementation.

2. Advancing accountability and spurring more climate action.

The annual UN climate conferences (COPs) have become the go-to place for announcing ambitious new plans, coalitions and commitments. The natural follow-on question is whether all the pledges made during COPs and under the umbrella of the UNFCCC will actually achieve the Paris Agreement’s goals. The 2030 NDC targets announced thus far would lead to a dangerous 2.5 degrees C of temperature rise by 2100, as well as leave critical gaps on mitigation, adaptation, loss and damage and finance.

Dr. Arunabha Ghosh, CEO of the Council on Energy, Environment and Water, noted that “the UNFCCC needs to serve as [the] platform for active peer review from a range of stakeholders.” The UNFCCC has tools available, but will they be used to hold countries accountable — both individually and collectively?

For example, the UNFCCC must use the Paris Agreement’s Enhanced Transparency Framework and Global Stocktake to their fullest potential, understanding progress and ensuring countries’ accountability toward the Paris Agreement goals. The peer review processes of the Transparency Framework can be a useful forum for discussing progress (or lack thereof), while the Global Stocktake should highlight opportunities for stronger climate action.

3. Meaningfully addressing equity and climate justice.

Equity is a key principle in the international climate process, including through the concept of “common but differentiated responsibilities” and the differing circumstances countries face in taking climate action. But the process has yet to fully deliver climate-just outcomes. Ineza Grace, a youth leader from Rwanda, noted that “there is a long way to go to reflect equity, intergenerational equity and climate justice ... into the UNFCCC process.”

The current pace and scale of outcomes from the UNFCCC fail to respond to the urgency of climate change; to do so, it must spur more ambitious mitigation, scaled-up climate finance, enhanced tracking and support for adaptation, and provide support for loss and damage. Steps toward addressing equity and climate justice would include ideas presented by the ACT2025 consortium, such as establishing permanent agenda items on loss and damage, delivering $500 billion in accessible climate finance between 2020-2024, and exploring new and additional finance for loss and damage.

Furthermore, the promise of a just transition, fairly distributing the costs and benefits of climate action, is essential. Throughout these considerations, marginalized and impacted communities will need to be able to meaningfully and effectively contribute to UNFCCC discussions. Fully engaging these communities and including their voices, knowledge and lived experiences are the only ways to comprehensively integrate equity and climate justice into implementation of the Paris Agreement.

4. Harnessing the momentum driven by businesses, cities, communities and citizens.

Businesses, subnational governments, Indigenous peoples and many others are increasingly engaging in UNFCCC processes, bringing their leadership, determination and examples of on-the-ground action. The work of the UNFCCC’s Climate Champions, Race to Zero, Race to Resilience and other initiatives increasingly incorporate action from non-government actors.

These partnerships and initiatives can be powerful tools for collaboration. In WRI’s post-webinar survey for attendees, James Mawanda, the director of research at Development Intelligence Consultancy, said: “[The UNFCCC] should build on the strength of alliances and partnerships with other players in climate change and stakeholders. The power of partnerships is unequaled in bolstering resource mobilization and knowledge sharing.”

Non-state actors increasingly use the spaces provided during and alongside the COP, as well as UNFCCC partnerships and initiatives, to announce their own actions and plans, which is seen to lend credibility to these efforts. However, the UNFCCC will need to play a critical and contributing role to build better accountability for non-government action.

The Marrakech Partnership for Global Climate Action and its High-level Champions for Climate Action are well positioned to respond to the increasing clamor to capture accountability for non-state actors and could test various ways to advance accountability, such as through open dialogues on progress and challenges.

5. Expanding climate dialogues beyond the UNFCCC.

The connections between climate change and the ocean, biodiversity loss, ecosystem health, human health, and more are increasingly clear, and further efforts are underway to leverage linkages. The UNFCCC also needs to consider how best to build upon the linkages between each of those activities to propel more action — whether through joint delivery and collaboration with international organizations (for example, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN) or by incorporating and referencing climate-related work in COP decisions and UNFCCC workplans.

As discussions arise of climate mitigation in the international aviation and maritime transportation sectors, for example, the UNFCCC could make reference to and seek to join collaboration with efforts from the International Civil Aviation Organization or the International Maritime Organization, respectively.

An Evolution for the UNFCCC

The UNFCCC has served many important roles over the last three decades — from elevating the climate crisis and developing the international frameworks for action, including the Convention in 1992, the Kyoto Protocol in 1997, and the Paris Agreement in 2015. But now, with the Paris Agreement firmly in place, the UN climate process must think through how it can move with the speed and urgency required and catalyze action from national governments. Addressing the five challenges above is essential if the UNFCCC is to continue fulfilling its goals of stabilizing emissions and preventing dangerous climate change.