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CRS: A U.S.-centric Chronology of the International Climate Change Negotiations

Author: Jane A. Leggett
February 8, 2011

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As background to the ongoing negotiations, this document provides a U.S.-centric chronology of the international policy deliberations to address climate change from 1979-2011.

The United States is a Party to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), but not to its subsidiary Kyoto Protocol (discussed below). The UNFCCC treaty was intended to address growing global concern about the possibility of human-induced global warming. As a Party, the United States has certain obligations under the treaty, and our behaviors in that context are likely to continue to draw attention on the world stage. The executive branch continues to negotiate and implement international obligations, while committees of Congress engage in oversight, providing input to the executive branch formally and informally, and deciding on program authorities and appropriations for these activities.

In addition, the United States has exercised leadership for decades on climate change science, and has supported related partnerships, technology research and development, and other forms of international cooperation. Given the continuing public and legislative debate over whether and how to address climate change, the 112th Congress may continue to engage on international climate change. The United States, like other industrialized countries, reports greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions annually and submits quadrennial national communications of policies and programs. The United States is the only one of 194 UNFCCC Parties that is not also party to the Kyoto Protocol. Under the Kyoto Protocol, 37 of the highest income countries committed to reduce their GHG emissions to specific levels during the period 2008 to 2012. The Kyoto Protocol allows Parties to use emissions trading markets to minimize the costs of achieving those reductions. Developing countries, however, have no GHG obligations, and their exemption has become a focal point of conflict in negotiations on actions in the period after 2012. Negotiations under way since 2007 have run on two tracks: one under the Kyoto Protocol (which is subsidiary to the Convention), to extend commitments of developed, Annex I, Parties beyond 2012, and the second track under the UNFCCC, regarding commitments for all Parties. Both tracks convened in Copenhagen, Denmark, in 2009 under a deadline to agree on steps to address climate change beyond 2012.

The 2009 Copenhagen conference was beset by strong differences among countries. The Parties did not adopt, but “took note of,” a “Copenhagen Accord,” agreed among the United States and two dozen countries (notably including China). The Copenhagen Accord may have marked a turning point, by addressing all countries' commitments in one instrument and laying out essential compromises. In December 2010, many elements of the Copenhagen Accord were adopted by Parties in the “Cancun Agreements.” These embody GHG pledges made by all major emitting Parties; enhancements to reporting and review systems to ensure “transparency” of implementation; pledges for financial assistance; and additional new points of agreement.

As background for congressional deliberations, this document provides a U.S.-centric chronology of international climate change policy from 1979 to 2010. This chronology identifies selected external events and major multilateral meetings that influence both the current legal and institutional arrangements, and the contentious choices about future international cooperation.

Many in Congress are concerned with the merits of a treaty, or the goals and obligations one might embody. A particular concern regards parity of actions and effects on trade competitiveness among countries. Additional issues include the compatibility of any international agreement with U.S. domestic policies and laws; the adequacy of appropriations, fiscal measures, and programs to achieve any commitments under the agreement; and the desirable form of the agreement and related requirements. A new treaty would require Senate consent to ratify it and federal legislation to assure that U.S. commitments are met.

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