Climate Change

Climate Change

Avoiding the consequences of climate change will require large cuts in global greenhouse emissions and significant efforts to mitigate and adapt to changing weather patterns.

"The science is clear.  Climate change is happening.  The impact is real.  The time to act is now."

-Ban Ki-moon, Secretary-General of the United Nations

Foundations of Climate Science

Storm clouds hover in Kansas. (AP Photo/The Salina Journal, Tom Dorsey)

Greenhouse effect discovered

In 1824, French physicist Joseph Fourier discovered how the atmosphere traps heat and maintains the earth’s temperature. He had revealed what became known as the "greenhouse effect," whereby solar radiation is absorbed by the earth and reemitted as infrared radiation. British Physicist John Tyndall later expanded on this theory, measuring the different heat-absorbing capabilities of gases in the atmosphere and publishing Contributions to Molecular Physics in the Domain of Radiant Heat in 1872.

Edwin Laurentin Drake stands in front of his well with a local druggist. (AP Photo/HO)

Second Industrial Revolution

Innovations in the steel, coal, oil, chemical, and electrical industries triggered the second Industrial Revolution, beginning a new era of natural resource exploitation and economic growth. After U.S. oil-driller Edwin Drake struck oil in Pennsylvania in 1859, chemists discovered that petroleum could be converted into gas, kerosene, and distillate. Consequently, oil transitioned from small-scale use (primarily as heating fuel and lubricant) to large-scale use as a fuel driving industrial production. Coal use also increased during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries as coal-powered steam engines spread through Europe and North America.

People view an ice cave at Glacier National Park, Montana, in July 1932. (AP Photo/HO/George Grant/Jerry Desanto)

Research on the burning of fossil fuels

In 1896, Swedish scientist Svante Arrhenius wrote [PDF] about the important role carbon dioxide plays in regulating the earth’s temperature. He formulated a "greenhouse law" describing the direct relationship between carbon dioxide concentrations--or the burning of fossil fuels--and global warming. Independently of Arrhenius, U.S. geologist Thomas Chamberlin proposed in 1899 that global temperatures correlate with atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide.

In 1908, Arrhenius published Worlds in the Making, which argues that the increased carbon dioxide emissions from industrial growth could help prevent the next ice age. Thirty years later, British engineer Guy Stewart Callendar expanded [PDF] on this idea, calling global warming a positive externality that would delay "the return of the deadly glaciers." His claims were met with widespread skepticism, and Callendar reportedly wrote in his personal notes that "the idea that man’s actions could influence so vast a complex is very repugnant to some."

Diver is shown inside SeaLab II off the coast of San Diego, California. (AP Photo/U.S. Navy).

U.S. Office of Naval Research funds climate change science

In the wake of World War II, the United States began funding basic scientific research through the U.S. Office of Naval Research. Among the projects underwritten was the study of weather patterns and climate. Meteorological research was considered particularly important because weather conditions could affect the operational success of a mission. Military-funded research helped build the foundation of climate change science.

The World Meteorological Organization building in Geneva. (Denis Balibouse/Reuters)

World Meteorological Organization is founded

Originally founded as the International Meteorological Organization in 1873, the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) was incorporated as a specialized agency of the United Nations in 1951. In addition to promoting the exchange of meteorological information and coordinating international research efforts, the WMO has been integral in the development of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the earlier Global Atmospheric Research Program.

In 1979, the WMO hosted the First World Climate Conference in Geneva, Switzerland. Helping to motivate climate-related research and collaboration, the conference established the World Climate Research Program and World Climate Program.

The sun sets off the coast of Cardiff on the Pacific Ocean.

Oceans not limitless carbon sinks

Before 1957, most scientists believed that the world's oceans would absorb any excess carbon dioxide generated by anthropogenic sources. In 1957, however, Scientists Roger Revelle and Hans Suess discovered that the chemistry of marine waters inhibits the absorption of carbon dioxide. The Revelle-Suess paper [PDF] helped spur the beginning of the global warming debate.

The sun sets off the coast of Cardiff on the Pacific Ocean. (REUTERS/Mike Blake)

International Atomic Energy Agency created

The United Nations helped create the independent International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), responsible for monitoring civilian nuclear programs and enforcing the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. Although its mandate is not specifically related to climate, the IAEA indirectly supports climate change mitigation by providing international coordination and support for the development of nuclear power-a nearly emissions-free source of energy.

The Mauna Loa Observatory atmospheric research facility sits on the island of Hawaii. (AP Photo/Chris Stewart)

Birth of the Keeling curve

U.S. Scientist Charles David Keeling began measuring carbon dioxide (CO2) levels in the atmosphere at the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii. Over time, his graph of the rising levels became known as the "Keeling curve" and attracted global attention to the link between manmade activities and greenhouse gases.

When Keeling began plotting his data in 1958, the air contained CO2 levels of 315 parts per million (ppm). In May 2012, the observatory measured a record-high CO2 level of 396.77 ppm. According to some climate models [PDF], any concentration of carbon dioxide beyond 350 ppm can trigger unsafe conditions in the environment.

A fire tug fights flames on the Cuyahoga River near downtown Cleveland, Ohio, where oil and other industrial wastes caught fire. (AP Photo)

Environmentalism in the United States

The U.S. public became more sensitive to environmental issues in the 1960s. One important catalyst was the 1962 publication of Silent Spring, in which marine biologist Rachel Carson detailed the environmental impacts of a pesticide commonly known as DDT. Fallout from Silent Spring helped shape modern environmentalism and spur the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency.

A second trigger came in 1969, when an oil-polluted river in Ohio went up in flames. The 1969 Cuyahoga River fire attracted widespread attention, including a TIME magazine feature that described the river as "chocolate-brown, oily, bubbling with subsurface gases." Both incidents brought greater attention to environmental destruction, primarily from human pollution, and inspired citizens to organize for change.

U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson charts a course for his administration in a speech to a joint session of Congress. (AP Photo)

U.S. President Johnson's address

In a high-profile acknowledgement of the link between fossil fuels and pollution, U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson addressed Congress: "This generation has altered the composition of the atmosphere on a global scale through ... a steady increase in carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels." This address was delivered after President Johnson had signed the Clean Air Act of 1963, among other important pieces of environmental legislation [PDF].

President John F. Kennedy addresses the United Nations General Assembly in 1961. (AP Photo)

Global Atmospheric Research Program

Speaking at the United Nations in 1961, U.S. President John F. Kennedy suggested "further cooperative efforts between all nations in weather prediction and eventually weather control." With its origins in this speech, the Global Atmospheric Research Program (GARP) was established under the World Meteorological Organization and the International Council of Scientific Unions six years later. The goal of GARP was to understand atmospheric and weather conditions through the use of observational and modeling programs. The data collected through GARP furthered the scientific community’s understanding of weather and climate patterns.

An infrared satellite photo released shows an iceberg larger than the state of Delaware, which has broken off Antarctica’s Ronne Ice Shelf in October 1998. (REUTERS/HO Old)

Threats to world temperature and sea levels

In 1967, meteorologists Syukuro Manabe and Richard Wetherald published a three-dimensional climate model that shows the effect of increased carbon dioxide concentrations on the distribution of temperatures in different layers of the earth’s atmosphere. They predicted that doubling the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide would increase world temperatures by approximately 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit).

One year later, John H. Mercer of the Institute of Polar Studies said [PDF] that rising temperatures would melt Antarctic ice shelves, raising sea levels by four to six meters.

Science to Policy

A student in a gas mask "smells" a magnolia blossom on Earth Day, April 22, 1970. (AP Photo)

First Earth Day celebrated

Activists across the country celebrated the first Earth Day, highlighting the growing importance of environmentalism in the United States. According to the UN Environmental Program, Earth Day became a "landmark in the history of the environmental movement." Since 1970, Earth Day has been celebrated annually in countries throughout the world, though some celebrate it on the March equinox rather than April 22.

President Nixon signs legislation placing new curbs on smog from auto exhaust on December 31, 1974. (AP Photo)

Two new U.S. agencies created

On October 3, 1970, U.S. President Richard Nixon merged three organizations to form the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). By the end of the decade, NOAA had begun issuing sober reports on the effects of carbon dioxide on global temperatures.

Two months later, Nixon also created the Environmental Protection Agency to establish and enforce environmental protection standards, conduct research, combat pollution, and assist in developing new policies for environmental protection.

UNEP Executive Director Achim Steiner addresses a news conference in Kenya’s capital Nairobi on June 27, 2006. (REUTERS/Antony Njuguna)

United Nations Environment Program established

Established following the UN Conference on Human Environment, the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), is the UN’s lead body for the environment and has a significant mandate for climate change activities. UNEP coordinates the Global Environment Facility, a parent institution of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and UN’s program to reduce emissions from deforestation and degradation, and sponsors the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change conferences. UNEP also works to promote global mitigation efforts and help developing countries build adaptation capacity.

Vicomte Etienne Davingnon of the Belgian Foreign Ministry appears at a press conference after a meeting of the International Energy Agency on February 7, 1975. (AP Photo/Michael Lipchitz)

International Energy Agency created

Recovering from the fallout of the first oil shock, sixteen major oil-importing countries and Norway met in Paris and established the International Energy Agency (IEA). The new agency was designed to counterweigh the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries and exert leadership on energy issues.

The agency’s original mandate [PDF] focused on coordinating measures during oil shortages. But with developments in the energy market, the IEA broadened its scope to incorporate the so-called "Three E’s": energy security, economic development, and environmental protection. The IEA’s annual World Energy Outlook is now an authoritative source on world energy trends and forecasts.

Deforestation is seen near the city of Santarem, Brazil, in December 2004. (AP Photo/Victor R. Caivano)

Deforestation and climate change

Meteorologist Bert Bolin published an article arguing that the expansion of forestry and agriculture was contributing to the increase of atmospheric carbon dioxide. His findings asserted that the emissions resulting from poor forest conservation and agricultural practices were akin to one-quarter of those released by fossil fuels.

This image from April 2000 is one of the first taken by the Terra spacecraft, a climate satellite that takes measurements of the land and atmosphere. (REUTERS/NASA)

National Climate Program Act

Congress passed the National Climate Program Act (NCPA), which increased climate research funding and established the Climate Program Office to manage all federally funded research on climate issues. The act was designed to "assist the Nation and the world to understand and respond to natural and man-induced climate processes and their implications." In December 2000, Congress updated [PDF] the act and a proposed amendment to the act would develop a national climate change adaptation plan.

In 2009, the National Climate Service Act (NCSA) of 2009 replaced the NCPA. The NCSA established the National Climate Service within the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The National Climate Service is mandated with understanding climate change across "geographic scales" and its subsequent effect on the public. Additionally, the National Climate Service is charged with assisting federal agencies as well as state, local, private and public sectors with the formulation and implementation of plans to address climate change.

President Reagan addresses a press conference in 1983. (REUTERS/Mal Langsdon)

NAS and EPA reports

Within days, twin reports on global warming were released by the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). In "Can We Delay Greenhouse Warming?," the EPA predicted that climate change "could be catastrophic." The EPA report was the first warning by the U.S. federal government that global warming was an imminent threat.

Later that week, the NAS produced the congressionally commissioned Changing Climate, a report by the Carbon Dioxide Assessment Committee. The scientific findings of the NAS resembled those of the EPA, but the tone was more cautious. U.S. President Ronald Reagan’s science adviser praised the NAS study and called the EPA report "unwarranted and unnecessarily alarmist."

Horses graze near a solar power station in England. (NTRES REUTERS/Darren Staples/CRB)

Villach Conference

Despite its lack of fanfare, the Villach Conference was a major turning point in the global discussion on the effects of greenhouse gases on the environment. Hosted by the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), and the International Council for Science (ICSU), the Villach Conference gathered scientists from twenty-nine countries to assess the effect of greenhouse gases and aerosols on the climate.

Participants found that other greenhouse gases reinforce and accelerate the impact of carbon dioxide on the environment. They also concluded that increasing concentrations of greenhouse gases could raise the mean temperature of the world to the highest point in human history. The final statement from the conference suggested that a "global convention" be convened in the future to address the issue of global warming.

Delegates attend the opening ceremony of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in Bangkok, April 30, 2007. (REUTERS/Sukree Sukplang)

IPCC established

The World Meteorological Organization (WMO) and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) established the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to coordinate international climate science and assess the impact of climate change. The IPCC does not produce original research, but draws on the work of scientists worldwide, compiling their research into a series of technical reports. Its assessment reports are the authoritative resource on climate change, and include widely read summaries for policymakers.

James Hansen, director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, gestures before the Copenhagen Climate Change Congress. (REUTERS/Scanpix/Jens Norgaard Larsen)

Nasa scientist testifies before U.S. Senate

James Hansen, a scientist at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), testified before the U.S. Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources that human-induced global warming had already begun. According to Hansen, the first five months of 1988 were hotter than any similar period in the climate record. Hansen became particularly famous for his assertion that "the safe upper limit for atmospheric CO2 is no more than 350 ppm [PDF]."

The hole in the ozone layer as seen in a series of satellite images. (REUTERS/STR New)

Montreal Protocol

An important international environmental agreement, the Montreal Protocol mandates a gradual phase out of ozone-depleting substances (ODS). Developed nations were required to reduce consumption and production of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) to half of 1986 levels by 1999, and developing nations were to meet the same targets by 2009. The protocol took effect on January 1, 1989, and has been amended several times since. The ozone layer is recovering because of the Montreal Protocol, and former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan has called it "perhaps the single most successful international agreement to date," due to high participation and direct positive effect.

Since the phasing out of CFCs in the mid-1990s, a large group of compounds known as hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs) has served to replace CFCs as refrigerants and insulation. Curtailing these ODS came under the purview of the Montreal Protocol in 1992, and the accord has steadily achieved their phase out over time. Most recently, in April 2013, the Multilateral Fund—the protocol’s funding mechanism—struck an agreement with the Chinese government on the elimination of HCFCs. In exchange for $385 million over a seventeen-year period, China committed to retiring all production capacity by 2030.

Margaret Thatcher on January 3, 1985. (REUTERS/Staff KY)

First major leader calls for action at UN

British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher made a groundbreaking speech to the UN General Assembly on the importance of tackling climate change. "The problem of global climate change is one that affects us all and action will only be effective if it is taken at the international level," she said. "It is no good squabbling over who is responsible or who should pay." Thatcher told her audience that they should aim to have a convention on global climate change ready by 1992. Contemporary reports say the speech triggered mixed reactions from other states, and that developing countries in particular requested more energy-related aid.

Icebergs break free from the Bering Glacier into the meltwaters of Vitus Lake on July 22, 1997. (REUTERS/STR New)

First IPCC assessment report

The first assessment report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was released just weeks before the Second World Climate Conference, and helped to shape the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). The report documents a global warming of between 0.3 and 0.6 degrees Celsius (0.5 and 1 degree Fahrenheit) over the preceding century, and estimated an increase of 0.3 degrees Celsius (0.5 degrees Fahrenheit) per decade during the twenty-first century.

Cows walk in desert that used to be part of the Aral Sea, once the world’s fourth-largest lake, near the Uzbek town of Nukus in September 1995. (REUTERS/Shamil Zhumatov)

Second World Climate Conference

Sponsored by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), and other international organizations, the Second World Climate Conference convened in Geneva with representatives from 137 countries and the European Community. Although no binding agreements emerged, the conference did contribute to the subsequent development of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) by affirming the principle that climate change is a common concern of humankind."

Chinese President Jiang Zemin delivers a speech during the opening ceremony of the second Global Environment Facility (GEF) Assembly in Beijing on October 16, 2002. (REUTERS/Andrew Wong/RCS)

Global Environment Facility

The Global Environment Facility (GEF) was created to help developing countries improve the environment worldwide. Conceived as part of a World Bank pilot program, the GEF became a separate institution the following year at the Rio Earth Summit. The GEF helps finance projects to address six main issues: loss of biodiversity, climate change, degradation of international waters, ozone depletion, land degradation, and persistent organic pollutants.

UN Framework

Brazilian President Fernando Collor de Mello as he signs the framework convention on climate change at the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development on June 4, 1992. (AP Photo/Eduardo DiBaia)

Rio Earth Summit and UNFCCC treaty

At the Rio Earth Summit, the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) became the foundation of the global climate change regime. The treaty aims to "prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system" by holding countries to "common but differentiated responsibilities" for reducing emissions. It divides parties into developed (Annex I) and developing (non-Annex I) countries. As of November 2010, the UNFCCC had 192 states party, and countries that have not signed the convention may accede to it at any time.

Although the convention does not create binding targets, it includes provisions for the addition of future protocols. It also requires countries to report their national inventory of greenhouse-gas emissions and sinks each year.

In addition to the UNFCCC, the Rio Earth Summit led to two other conventions: the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) and the Convention to Combat Desertification (CCD). The meeting also showcased Amazonian deforestation, though public interest waned soon afterward.

The plenary of the opening of the Fifth Session of the Conference of the Parties of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in Bonn. 

Berlin Mandate

From March 28 to April 7, the first gathering of all countries party to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC)--commonly referred to as the Conference of the Parties (COP-1)--convened in Berlin, Germany.

In response to skepticism about countries' ability to meet their commitments under the UNFCCC, COP-1 proposed to develop a two-year period plan of action for countries to meet their targets under the convention. This declaration of action is known as the Berlin Mandate. The conference highlighted a policy rift between the United States and many other members, who were pushing for legally binding cuts in greenhouse-gas emissions.

The Second Conference of the Parties (COP-2) was held in Geneva, Switzerland. At the conference, the United States said for the first time that it would seek a binding international agreement on greenhouse gas emissions. On July 17, U.S. undersecretary for global affairs, Timothy Wirth, proposed a plan to reduce global emissions, much of which was incorporated into the conference's ministerial declaration [PDF].

A petrochemical factory in Taiwan's northern Taoyuan county. 

IPCC's second assessment released

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released its second assessment report in 1995. In the report, the IPCC asserts that "greenhouse gas concentrations have continued to increase," argues that "the balance of evidence suggests a discernable human influence on global climate," and says that the "climate is expected to continue to change in the future."

The president of Toyota Motor Corporation unveils the Prius, the world’s first commercial hybrid vehicle. (REUTERS/Kimimasa Mayama/JAPAN TOYOTA)

Toyota Prius premieres in Japan

The Toyota Prius debuted in Japan in 1997. Three years later, Toyota began to market the midsize hybrid-electric vehicle worldwide. Since then, the Prius has consistently been the world’s best-selling hybrid, and has sold more than 1.8 million units worldwide. According to Toyota, Prius vehicles have produced 4.5 million tons less carbon dioxide than similar gasoline-powered cars. Critics, however, contend that the manufacturing of a Prius’ engine and battery carries a carbon footprint which outweighs the environmental benefits, and that diesel may prove a more fuel-efficient technology.

Al Gore addresses a budget policy meeting at the White House on December 1, 1997. (REUTERS/Larry Downing/GORE ENVIRONMENT)

Byrd-Hagel resolution

By a vote of ninety-five to zero, the U.S. Senate passed the nonbinding Byrd-Hagel resolution, which opposed U.S. participation in any climate protocol that fails to include binding commitments for developing countries. Despite some senators’ reservations, the passage of the Byrd-Hagel resolution essentially blocked U.S. accession to the Kyoto Protocol. Vice President Al Gore symbolically signed the Kyoto Protocol the following December, but the Clinton administration knew that any attempt to ratify it would be dead on arrival in the Senate.

Kyoto Takes Shape

Protesters stage a die-in outside the Kyoto International Conference Hall on December 5, 1997. (REUTERS/Eriko Sugita/ENVIRONMENT KYOTO)

Kyoto Protocol

The third meeting of states party to the UN climate change convention adopted the Kyoto Protocol on December 11, 1997. The protocol sets the environmental goals and obligations for its signatories to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide and five other greenhouse gases. Signatories must report their net contributions to global greenhouse-gas levels.

The protocol provides three mechanisms to create a carbon market, including emissions trading, the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM), and Joint Implementation (JI). CDM and JI are specifically designed to help developing countries and transition economies reach their emissions targets. The protocol excludes emissions from international shipping and aviation.

At the fourth conference of the UN climate framework (COP-4) in Buenos Aires, a two-year plan of action was adopted, stipulating that the Kyoto Protocol should be implemented by 2000. Ultimately, this deadline was delayed for an additional four years. Originally set to expire in 2012, the COP-17 in Durban, South Africa, agreed to extend the Kyoto Protocol until 2017. The COP-17 outcome document, the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action, calls for the drafting of a successor to the protocol by 2015 for it to come into force by 2020.

In this February 6, 2007 satellite image from NASA, a band of brown haze appears to narrow somewhat as it crosses over South Korea, then spreads out over the Sea of Japan. (AP Photo/NASA)

Massive "brown cloud" found

During the Indian Ocean Experiment in 1999, the UN Environment Program (UNEP) observed a massive layer of pollution blanketing the air in South Asia. Scientists called the pollution the "brown cloud" and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) corroborated the UNEP’s findings three years later. Studies attributed the cloud to "both biomass combustion (such as residential cooking and agricultural burning) and fossil fuel combustion." According to the UNEP, atmospheric brown clouds "influence [PDF] climate and the biosphere in a fundamental way."

European deputies hold umbrellas at the European Parliament in Strasbourg on October 26, 2000, to alert the European Union of the need to act on climate change ahead of the Hague summit. (REUTERS/Vincent Kessler)

COP-6 in The Hague and Bonn, Germany

The sixth meeting (COP-6) of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) was held in the Hague, Netherlands. Negotiations stalled when the European Union and United States disagreed over a variety of proposals, including a tougher compliance regime and a U.S. plan to get credit for its carbon sinks. Talks collapsed without an agreement after the European Union rejected a last-minute compromise lead by the United States, and COP-6 was scheduled to resume the following year.

COP-6 recommenced in July 2001 in Bonn, Germany. This time, negotiations among the 178 countries achieved a breakthrough on several key issues, including technology transfer, despite significant concessions to Japan and Russia on carbon sinks. Having opted out of the Kyoto Protocol four months prior, the United States was not party to the new agreements and attended the Bonn conference only as an observer nation.

UNEP Executive Director Klaus Tˆpfer at a press conference in Geneva. (REUTERS/Pascal Volery/HM/CRB)

IPCC findings "sound alarm bells"

Climate change scientists from more than one hundred countries endorsed Climate Change 2001, the third assessment report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The report offers "new and stronger evidence that most of the warming observed over the last fifty years is attributable to human activities." In response to the assessment, Klaus Tˆpfer, the head of the UN Environmental Program, said, "The scientific consensus presented in this comprehensive report about human-induced climate change should sound alarm bells in every national capital and in every local community."

Protesters dress as white bears during a demonstration against President George W. Bush on June 12, 2001. (REUTERS/Yves Herman)

United States rejects Kyoto Protocol

On March 28, 2001, the Bush administration confirmed that the United States would not implement the Kyoto Protocol, though it said it would remain "engaged" in international negotiations regarding climate change. White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer said that the Kyoto Protocol "is not in the United States’ economic best interest" and argued that "there’s nothing to withdraw from because there is no treaty in effect." The move triggered widespread criticism from officials around the world, particularly in Europe.

Mounted Moroccan policemen ride past the congress hall of the COP-7 international climate summit in Marrakech. (AP Photo/Michel Euler)

COP-7 in Marrakech, Morocco

The seventh meeting (COP-7) of states party to the UN climate change convention gathered in Marrakech, Morocco. At the meeting, the European Union and the Group of Seventy-Seven (comprised entirely of developing countries) faced developed nations like Japan, Canada, and Australia, who wanted more credit for their carbon sinks. Like COP-6, concessions were made on carbon sinks, notably to Russia for its forest management activities. Ultimately, negotiators settled on the rules for meeting targets that were previously set by the Kyoto Protocol, laying the groundwork for the protocol’s entry into force in 2005. The final agreements were called the Marrakech Accords. The United States attended as an observer but did not participate.

Traffic is jammed for blocks in New York City. (REUTERS/Peter Morgan/BM)

First major greenhouse gas cap-and-trade legislation defeated

The U.S. Senate voted on the McCain-Lieberman Climate Stewardship Act, the first major greenhouse gas cap-and-trade legislation in the United States. The bill was designed to establish emissions trading and to cap emissions from industrial sources at 2000 levels by 2010, covering 85 percent of U.S. total emissions in 2000. The bill was defeated by a vote of fifty-five to forty-three. The Climate Stewardship Act was reintroduced in committee in both 2005 and 2007, but neither made it to the floor for a vote.

Steam and smoke rise from cooling towers on the outskirts of Moscow. (AP Photo/Ivan Sekretarev)

Russia breathes life into the Kyoto Protocol

Russia formally ratified the Kyoto Protocol, giving it the necessary membership quota to enter into effect as a legally binding treaty. Russia had signed the protocol in 1999, but despite pressure from the European Union, resisted formal ratification for five years, citing economic concerns. In May 2004, the European Union sweetened the deal by backing Russia’s bid for the World Trade Organization. In exchange, Russian President Vladimir Putin expedited ratification of the climate agreement.


The Eiffel Tower as seen through polluted skies in Paris, France. (REUTERS/STR New)

European Union's Emissions Trading System launched

The EU Emissions Trading System (EU ETS) is the largest cap-and-trade carbon system in the world. By putting a price on carbon emissions, the ETS aims to help EU members meet Kyoto commitments at a lower cost. The ETS requires countries to create national plans for allocating permits to businesses. Companies that emit less than their assigned amount can sell their allowances on a market, where they are bought by other companies that have not made sufficient operational changes to reduce emissions.

The system entered its second phase of operation in 2007, where it cut the number of emissions allocations, allowed trading in credits in other mechanisms under the Kyoto protocol, and opened the system to several non-EU members. Prices in the system peaked at a high of 30 euros per ton of CO2 in early 2006, but are currently half that amount. The third phase will commence in 2012 and is currently being negotiated [PDF].

A Pakistani villager leads his buffalos through the floodwaters while returning to his town of Khairpur Nathan Shah in October 2010. (REUTERS/Akhtar Soomro)

WHO and CDC discuss deaths from climate change

On November 17, 2005, the World Health Organization (WHO) released statistics estimating that climate change contributes to more than 150,000 deaths and five million illnesses per year through fluctuating temperatures, violent storms, and climate-sensitive diseases. The WHO also reported that these figures could double by 2030. The same week, Howard Frumkin, director of the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention, first referred to climate change as "a significant health challenge."

Al Gore poses to promote his movie, An Inconvenient Truth, in Zurich, Switzerland. (REUTERS/Andreas Meier)

An Inconvenient Truth

After premiering at the Sundance Film Festival, An Inconvenient Truth opened in New York and Los Angeles. The documentary catalogues former U.S. vice president Al Gore’s fight against global warming and became widely popular, winning the Academy Award for best documentary feature. The film raised public awareness about climate change, but was also accused of misrepresenting scientific findings for political purposes.

On October 12, 2007, Gore and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) were dually awarded the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize for "their efforts to build up and disseminate greater knowledge about man-made climate change, and to lay the foundations for the measures that are needed to counteract such change."

Jacques Chirac delivers his 2007 New Year’s speech in Paris (Courtesy Reuters/Philippe Wojazer).

Chirac's carbon tariff

In a New Year’s address, French President Jacques Chirac said that Europe should tax imports from countries that do not regulate greenhouse-gas emissions, including the United States. After the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released "unequivocal" evidence of global warming in early February, Chirac amplified calls for an EU carbon tariff and rallied forty-five countries around the prospect of creating an international body to oversee emission mitigation.

The European Union considered implementing carbon tariffs in January 2008, as did the United States in July 2009, but both plans fell through.

Protestors demonstrate in Essen, Germany, as part of an initiative against carbon dioxide pollution.

EPA guilty for failing to consider emissions

Voting five to four, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled [PDF] that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) must consider regulating tailpipe emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. The case negated the EPA's claim that it lacked the jurisdiction to do so.

Two years later, the EPA authorized California to apply stricter greenhouse-gas-emissions standards for new motor vehicles--standards that President Barack Obama pledged to apply to the entire country.

British Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett speaks at the UN Security Council on the relationship between energy, security, and climate on April 17, 2007.

Security implications of climate change

In April 2007, the UN Security Council held its first (and only) debate on the impact of climate change on peace and security. More than fifty speakers gathered for the day-long event, which was chaired by the United Kingdom. Delegates discussed ways to deal with climate-related security threats, including refugees, infectious diseases, and famine. The debate occurred just one day after eleven retired U.S. generals reported that "climate change can act as a threat multiplier for instability in some of the most volatile regions of the world."

Activists hold a melting globe while protesting a G8 summit in Heiligendamm, Germany, on May 25, 2007 (Courtesy Reuters/Fabrizio Bensch).

U.S. pursues new global climate framework

President George W. Bush announced the formation of a "new international climate change framework." By gathering the world’s biggest greenhouse-gas emitters for a series of Major Economies Meetings (MEMs), he planned to complete the new framework by the end of 2008. The forum was relaunched by President Barack Obama in March 2009 as the Major Economies Forum (MEF). The first MEF on Energy and Climate was held in Washington, DC, convening sixteen developed and developing economies. The forum was an expanded version of the Bush administration’s MEM, and facilitated a "candid dialogue" in preparation for the fifteenth conference of partis (COP-15) in Copenhagen, Denmark, in December 2009.

At its eleventh meeting held in September 2011, MEF representatives pledged to continue to seek a balanced, feasible agreement on global climate change, specifically with regard to the future of the Kyoto Protocol, which was revisted at the seventeenth conference of parties (COP-17) held in Durban, South Africa, in December 2011.

A general view of the city and Kun Yu River in Beijing on June 22, 2007 (Courtesy Reuters/Jason Lee).

China's new role

China surpassed the United States as the world’s biggest emitter of carbon dioxide. According to the report from the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency, China’s 2006 emissions exceeded those of the United States by 8 percent. The same month, China unveiled its National Climate Change Program [PDF], increasing support for energy efficiency measures and renewable energy development.

Yvo de Boer, executive secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, shakes hand with the president of COP-13 in December 2007. (REUTERS/Murdani Usman)

COP-13 in Bali, Indonesia

The thirteenth meeting of states party to the UN climate change convention was held in Bali, Indonesia, where delegates tried to design a post-Kyoto climate regime.

However, COP-13 was plagued by political bickering, particularly between the United States and the European Union. After rocky negotiations, delegates produced the Bali Action Plan, which called for "deep" but unspecified cuts in global emissions. Divided into five pillars, the plan focused on emissions reduction, mitigation, adaptation, technology transfer, and financing to create a global climate accord. The Bali Action Plan launched a "comprehensive process to enable the full, effective and sustained implementation of the Convention through long-term cooperative action, now, up to and beyond 2012," with the aim of drafting a successor to the Kyoto protocol and adopting a decision at COP-15 in Copenhagen, and lays out a two-year process that concluded in December 2009 with a conference in Copenhagen.

Engineer Jean-Francois Martin checks photovoltaic panels on the island of Reunion. (REUTERS/Ed Harris)

EU releases 20/20/20 by 2020

The European Union released ambitious new targets to combat climate change. According to the 20/20/20 [PDF] plan, by 2020, Europe will reduce greenhouse-gas emissions by 20 percent, produce 20 percent of its energy from renewable sources, and increase energy efficiency by 20 percent.

The European Parliament adopted this final package of climate and energy measures on December 17, 2009, but only after difficult negotiations amid the developing financial crisis.

China Vice Premier Wang Qishan and U.S. Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson shake hands in Annapolis, Maryland, on June 17, 2008. (REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst)

U.S.-China framework signed

The United States and China signed a ten-year framework (TYF) for energy and environment cooperation under the auspices of the Strategic Economic Dialogue, which was later rebranded the Strategic and Economic Dialogue. According to the framework, potential areas for U.S.-China collaboration include renewable sources of clean energy and clean fossil fuel.

In November 2009, the United States and China agreed to a new U.S.-China Energy Efficiency Action Plan under the TYF that promotes cooperation on technology and policy relating to energy efficiency. The U.S.-China Renewable Energy Partnership and the U.S.-China Energy Cooperation Program were established to encourage further collaborative efforts on energy security and renewable energy technology.

Trees burn during the clearing of peatland area for palm oil plantation in Riau province Indonesia on November 11, 2009. (REUTERS/Beawiharta Beawiharta)

UN-REDD created

According to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the destruction of forests accounts for 17 percent of total global greenhouse-gas emissions.

Following the Bali Action Plan’s call for the international community to act on deforestation in developing countries, the United Nations developed an initiative to address the problem. The UN Collaborative Program on Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation in Developing Countries (UNREDD) brings together the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, UN Development Program, and UN Environment Program.

The combined effort gathers financing and assists developing countries in land management and forest conservation efforts. To date, UN-REDD has distributed $42.6 million to pilot programs in nine countries in South America, Southeast Asia, and Africa.

Wind turbines at a wind farm in northern England. (REUTERS/Dylan Martinez)

World Bank creates Climate Investment Funds

To support clean energy technology and climate adaptation and mitigation activity in developing countries, the World Bank and regional development banks established the Climate Investment Funds (CIF) in July 2008. Industrialized countries pledged approximately $7.2 billion as of January 2013. While the World Bank is increasing its engagement on climate change, it also funds projects that run against mitigation efforts, such as a $3.75 billion loan to build a coal power plant in South Africa.

U.S. President Barack Obama addresses the UN summit on climate change in New York on September 22, 2009. (REUTERS/Mike Segar)

UN Summit on Climate Change

One day before the opening of the sixty-fourth session of the UN General Assembly debate, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon hosted a UN Summit on Climate Change. Nearly one hundred heads of state attended, making it the largest climate-related gathering to date.

The significance of the event was elevated by the presence of President Hu Jintao, the first Chinese leader to address the UN at its headquarters. Similarly, in his first UN address, U.S. President Barack Obama acknowledged that "developed nations that caused much of the damage to our climate over the last century still have a responsibility to lead--and that includes the United States." Following the summit, both China and India proposed to voluntarily reduce their energy intensity by 40-45 percent, and 20-25 percent, respectively.

On December 7, 2009, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Director Lisa Jackson announces a new Obama administration position that greenhouse gasses are a threat to public health. (REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst)

EPA determines that greenhouse-gas emissions are a health hazard

Ahead of the Copenhagen conference, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency released findings determining that climate change constitutes an "enormous problem" with significant implications for public health and national security. The report notes that excess levels of six greenhouse gases pose a danger to public health and welfare, and that climate change more generally will exacerbate resource scarcity and related migration.

Activists from Christian Aid demonstrate at the UN Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen, Denmark. (REUTERS/Keld Navntoft/SCANPIX)

COP-15 in Copenhagen

The fifteenth meeting (COP-15) of states party to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) was held in Copenhagen, Denmark. According to the Bali Action Plan, the post-Kyoto climate regime would be finalized at this meeting.

After volatile negotiations, delegates produced the nonbinding Copenhagen Accord, which aims to limit global temperatures to 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) above preindustrial levels. The accord was criticized for failing to create a binding agreement on emissions reductions that could replace Kyoto.

However, it was also praised for gaining pledges of $30 billion a year until 2012, and aiming to raise $100 billion a year by 2020. It also calls on Annex I countries to submit proposals of "quantified economy-wide emissions by 2020" and non-Annex I countries to submit a proposal of their mitigation actions.

Rajendra K. Pachauri, chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) at the United Nations climate change conference in Copenhagen on December 7, 2009. (REUTERS/Bob Strong)

Call for transparency at the IPCC

In November 2007, the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) presented "unequivocal" evidence of a change in climate due to "human activity." Predicting dire consequences from climate change for "biodiversity and water and food supply," the report also pointed to warming as a global health and security problem. The fourth IPCC assessment injected a sense of urgency into the thirteenth meeting of parties (COP-13) to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) held less than a month later in Bali, Indonesia.

Since the report’s release, however, leaked documents and email correspondence of scientists have called into question the methods of the IPCC. An independent review, undertaken by the InterAcademy Council (IAC), found that the body needed to implement firm regulations to ensure no future scandal harms its credibility. In May 2011, the IPCC announced structural reforms geared toward implementing the review’s recommendations--steps taken include a more intensive review for future assessment reports and greater citation of alternative scientific claims.

An ambulance drives along Red Square in heavy smog, caused by peat fires in nearby forests, in central Moscow in August 2010. (Alexander Demianchuk / Reuters)

Increasing weather variability

The year 2010 witnessed extensive flooding in Pakistan, mudslides in China, and peat fires in Russia caused by drought. In addition, a huge ice island broke off from the Greenland ice sheet, causing fears that its drift would block shipping lanes in the North Atlantic. The combination of these events caused concern in the meteorological community over links to climate change, especially in light of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change 2007 prediction that "the type, frequency and intensity of extreme events are expected to change as Earth’s climate changes."

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon accepts a report of the Advisory Group on Climate Change Financing in New York on November 5, 2010. (REUTERS/Lucas Jackson)

UN high-level panel report on climate financing

The United Nations High-Level Advisory Group on Climate Change Financing was convened by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon earlier in the year to develop a plan for achieving the $100 billion in climate financing by 2020 pledged by the Copenhagen Accord. The group’s final report, released in November 2010, cited emission taxes, trading markets, and taxes on international travel as possible avenues of funding to achieve the pledge.

Activists from the environmental protection in Cancun on December 9, 2010. (Courtesy ReutersREUTERS/Jorge Silva)

Green Climate Fund established

The Green Climate Fund(GCF), a $100-billion fund to assist developing countries in mitigating and adapting to climate change, was established in the final statement [PDF] of the sixteenth meeting of the Conference of the Parties (COP-16) to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in Cancun, Mexico in December, 2010. The GCF governing mechanism was launched in Durban, South Africa at COP-17 by decision 3/CP.17 [PDF] and it held its first meeting in late August 2012.

National flags of the U.S. and China are seen in front of an international hotel in Beijing January 17, 2011. (Courtesy Reuters/Jason Lee).)

China and U.S. agree on climate steps

Meeting in Washington, DC, for the third Strategic and Economic Dialogue, U.S. and Chinese leaders declared their mutual intent to "ensure the comprehensive, effective, and sustained implementation of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change... and to achieve a positive outcome at the UN Climate Change Conference in Durban, South Africa." Tension between the United States and China has sidelined previous attempts at gaining international consensus on addressing climate change.

The 2008 Strategic and Economic Dialogue resulted in a ten-year framework for energy and the environment between the U.S. and China. A year later, the two countries penned the U.S.-China Energy Efficency Action Plan under the auspices of the ten-year framework.

U.S. President Barack Obama listens to his introduction during a visit to DeSoto Next Generation Solar Energy Center in Arcadia (Courtesy Reuters/Jim Young).

Solyndra scandal in the United States

In September 2011, Solyndra, the California-based solar panel manufacturer, filed for bankruptcy, sparking a scandal over the $535 million dollar federal loan guarantees provided to the company by the Obama administration. Days after Solyndra filed for bankruptcy, the Federal Bureau of Investigation raided their offices as part of an investigation into whether Congress received misinformation about the company’s financial health. Despite an audit that indicated the company was in questionable financial health, the government maintained its loan guarantee, the terms of which allowed private investors to be paid back before the government in case of bankruptcy. Regardless of the investigation’s conclusions, the Solyndra scandal could place other green energy orientated initiatives in jeopardy.

Steam and other emissions are seen coming from funnels at a chemical manufacturing facility in Melbourne (Courtesy Reuters/Mick Tsikas).

Australia passes carbon tax

In October 2011, Australia’s lower house of Parliament narrowly passed a highly contentious carbon tax by a vote of seventy-four to seventy-two. The bill also passed Australia’s senate in November. The legislation will initially impose a per-ton carbon tax before transitioning into a market-based trading scheme in 2015. Australia is one of the world’s highest per-capita greenhouse gas emitters and the bill aims to reduce emissions five percent from 2000 levels by 2020 and 80 percent by 2050. With passage of the bill, Australia will join the European Union and New Zealand in having national trading schemes, leaving the United States as one of the last remaining Annex I countries yet to adopt a comprehensive national carbon tax.

Ministers gather in a huddle during a plenary session at the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP-17) in Durban on December 11, 2011 (Courtesy Reuters/Reuters Staff).

COP-17 in Durban

Delegates of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) met in Durban, South Africa, for the seventeenth Conference of Parties (COP-17) from November 28 to December 11. The result of the conference negotiations, the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action, included extending the Kyoto Protocol to the end of 2017 and opening negotiations for the creation of another climate change accord with "legal force" to be drafted by 2015 and enter into force by 2020. The new accord would differ from the Kyoto Protocol by applying greenhouse gas emissions targets to developing countries in addition to developed ones.

Delegations from the nearly two hundred countries present during the negotiations also clarified implementation mechanisms for global climate change initiatives such as the Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation plus pro-forest activities program (REDD+), the Clean Development Mechanism, and the Green Climate Fund, among others. The COP-18 is scheduled to take place in November 2012 in Qatar.

Canada’s Environment Minister Peter Kent after announcing that Canada will formally withdraw from the Kyoto protocol on climate change on December 12, 2011 (Courtesy Reuters/Chris Wattie).

Canada withdraws from Kyoto

Canada’s environment minister, Peter Kent, announced Canada’s decision to withdraw from the Kyoto Protocol the day after the United Nations Framework Convention for Climate Change (UNFCCC) seventeenth Conference of Parties (COP-17) concluded in Durban, South Africa. Inefficacy was cited as the main reason for Canada’s withdrawal, as the world’s two largest emitters--China and the United States--are not party to the accord. Kent, along with Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper, further suggested that the Kyoto Protocol impedes rather than facilitates international environmental conservation. Canada’s decision could save the country an estimated $14 billion in penalties associated with the Kyoto Protocol, as a result of the country’s failure to meet specific greenhouse gas emissions reduction targets.

Canada is the first country to formally withdraw from the Kyoto Protocol. Some climate change experts believe that its decision to pull out of the treaty could encourage other countries--such as Japan or Russia--to do the same.

Smoke is released into the sky at the ConocoPhillips oil refinery in San Pedro (Bret Hartman/Courtesy Reuters).

Launch of global coalition to combat short-lived pollutants

On February 16, 2012, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced the formation of a global coalition, inclusive of the United States, Sweden, Mexico, Canada, Bangladesh, and Ghana, to target so-called short-lived climate pollutants. The main goal of the coalition, called the Climate and Clean Air Coalition, is to combat pollutants like methane, black carbon (soot), and hydrofluorocarbons that only stay in the atmosphere a short time but nonetheless play a significant role in climate change and public health. In reducing short-lived pollutants, the coalition estimates that it could prevent a rise in temperatures by .5 degrees Celsius by 2050, effectively bringing the world 25 percent closer toward the goal of preventing a rise in global temperatures by 2 degrees Celsius. While the coalition has not yet determined its full mandate, it will be funded with $15 million--$12 million contributed by the United States--and will work in close coordination with the UN Environment Program.

Prime Minister of Norway Jens Stoltenberg addresses the United Nations Climate Change Conference/ (Mike Hutchings/Courtesy Reuters.

Norway opens $1 billion facility to test carbon capture and storage technology

On May 7, 2012, Norway opened a $1 billion government-funded facility to test the technology of capturing and storing carbon called carbon capture and storage (CCS). While still an unproven technology, the Norwegian center will test two "post-combustion carbon capture technologies" that may revolutionize the current fight against carbon emissions. The facility is the world’s largest and most advanced CCS laboratory and will ultimately shed light onto a technology that is increasingly considered a possible answer to the effects of climate change. During the seventeenth UN Framework Convention on Climate Change meeting in Durban, South Africa, the Clean Development Mechanism--a central implementation instrument of the Kyoto Protocol--was expanded to include CCS projects. Nevertheless, some environmental groups have suggested that CCS technology is dangerous and could potentially cause significant environmental harm itself.

New York’s Mayor Bloomberg speaks during Rio+C40 Megacity Mayors Taking Action on Climate Change in Rio de Janeiro (Sergio Moraes/Courtesy Reuters).

The C40 takes action

Mayors from the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group (C40), a grouping of over fifty megacities around the world working to fight climate change, gathered in Rio on June 19 for "Rio+C40: Megacity Mayors Taking Action on Climate Change." Founded after the October 2005 World Cities Leadership Climate Change Summit, the C40 has expanded to include fifty-eight cities. Already partnering with enterprises like the Clinton Climate Initiative, the C40 recently announced a new partnership with the Clean Air Coalition to improve cities’ waste management among other initiatives. The organization estimates that the 4,734 measures it has taken to combat climate change could reduce greenhouse gas emissions by over a billion tons by 2030.

Chains are pictured at the partially dried-up riverbed of the Rhine river at the western town of Duesseldorf (Ina Fassbender/Courtesy Reuters).

Global warming linked to heat waves

Researchers from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the United Kingdom’s Met Office argue in a new study that extreme weather events--especially heat waves and changes in the water cycle, which is responsible for an increase in both droughts and downpours--are more likely because of anthropogenic global warming. Published by the American Meteorological Society, the study examines six extreme weather events that occurred in 2011, including the Texas heat wave, flooding in Thailand, and the warm summer and cold winters in the United Kingdom and Europe. According to their findings, the Texas heat wave was twenty times more likely to occur than in the 1960s, and warm temperatures in the United Kingdom in November were sixty-two times more likely because of global warming. While these attribution studies are a nascent science, such findings indicate that the probability of extreme events has changed due to global warming.

Australia’s Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd (L) is welcomed by European Council President Herman Van Rompuy (R) at the EU Council headquarters in Brussels January 20, 2012. (Yves Herman/Courtesy Reuters).

Australia and European Union link carbon trading markets

In July 2012, Australia’s Clean Energy Future Package came into effect, with Australia aiming to transition by 2015 to a “fully flexible” cap-and-trade emissions trading scheme. One month later, Australia and the European Union announced their agreement to link their carbon markets, leading to the “first full international linking of emissions trading systems.” By July 2015, Australian businesses will be able to purchase European permits to emit CO2, and full two-way trade will begin in 2018.

A general view of Argentina’s Perito Moreno glacier near the city of El Calafate, in the Patagonian province of Santa Cruz. (Marcos Brindicci/Courtesy Reuters).

World Bank reports global temperatures will increase by 3 degrees Celsius by 2100

In November 2012, the World Bank released a report [PDF] that stated global temperatures would increase by “3 degrees Celsius above the preindustrial climate,” with a 20 percent likelihood that it could exceed 4 degrees Celsius by 2100 if countries did not take immediate robust action to combat the anthropogenic causes of climate change.

A view of the opening ceremony of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in Doha November 26, 2012.(Mohammed Dabbous /Courtesy Reuters).

Second round of Kyoto Protocol commitments agreed in Doha

In December 2012, at the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) eighteenth conference of parties (COP-18) in Doha, member states agreed to extend the Kyoto Protocol until 2020. The conference succeeded in securing pledges from developed countries to assist developing countries in mitigating and adapting to the effects of climate change. Participating countries agreed to negotiate a new, potentially legally binding, treaty to replace the Kyoto Protocol, to be signed by 2015 and put into effect by 2020. However, major emitters like Japan, Canada, and Russia opted out of the second round of commitments.

Superstorm Hurricane Sandy is seen on the east coast of the United States in this NOAA satellite image taken on October 28, 2012. (NOAA National Hurricane Center/Courtesy Reuters).

Link between global warming and extreme weather gains strength

In January 2013, NASA released a report linking the severe drought that hit the Amazon rainforest in 2005 to global warming that has caused the "long-term warming of tropical Atlantic sea surface temperatures," also indicating that other extreme weather events of that year, including hurricanes Katrina and Rita, were the result of global warming. Further evidence of the link between extreme weather and global warming due to climate change was released in March 2012 in a study [PDF] published by the IPCC on extreme weather increases caused by rising global temperatures. In October 2012, the Eastern seaboard was severely damaged by super storm Hurricane Sandy, the severity of which was widely linked to rising global temperatures.

A statue of China’s late Chairman Mao Zedong is seen in front of buildings during a hazy day in Shenyang, Liaoning province, on May 7, 2013. (Stringer/Courtesy Reuters)

CO2 levels exceed 400 ppm for first time in human history

Scientific instruments near the summit of Mauna Loa, Hawaii, have recorded carbon dioxide levels in the Earth’s atmosphere exceeding 400 parts per million (ppm) for the first time since the Pliocene era, when sea levels were at least thirty feet higher. Over the last 800,000 years, CO2 has oscillated between 180 ppm during ice epochs and 280 ppm during interglacial periods. "Today’s rate of increase," reports the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, "is more than 100 times faster than the increase that occurred when the last ice age ended." Climate scientists contend that a threshold of 350 ppm represents the safe upper limit for carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

Issue Brief

Scope of the Challenge

Climate change is one of the most significant threats facing the world today. According to the American Meteorological Society, there is a 90 percent probability that global temperatures will rise by 3.5 to 7.4 degrees Celsius (6.3 to 13.3 degrees Fahrenheit) in less than one hundred years, with even greater increases over land and the poles. These seemingly minor shifts in temperature could trigger widespread disasters in the form of rising sea levels, violent and volatile weather patterns, desertification, famine, water shortages, and other secondary effects including conflict. In November 2011, the International Energy Agency warned that the world may be fast approaching a tipping point concerning climate change, and suggested that the next five years will be crucial for greenhouse gas reduction efforts.

Avoiding the worst consequences of climate change will require large cuts in global greenhouse gas emissions. Humans produce greenhouse gases by burning coal, oil, and natural gas to generate energy for power, heat, industry, and transportation. Deforestation and agricultural activity also yield climate-changing emissions.

One way to reduce emissions would be to switch from fossil-fuel-based power to alternative sources of energy, such as nuclear, solar, and wind. A second, parallel option would be to achieve greater energy efficiency by developing new technologies and modifying daily behavior so each person produces a smaller carbon footprint. Additionally, retrofitting buildings and developing energy-efficient technology greatly help curb greenhouse gas emissions. All such measures, however, engender significant cost, and the onset of the global financial crisis has placed serious new constraints on national budgets both in the developed and developing worlds. Some climate change experts have expressed concern that the ongoing global financial crisis could defer action on climate change indefinitely.

Even if such reforms were implemented, substantial efforts will still be required to adapt to unavoidable change. Recent climate-related events, such as the flooding in Pakistan and Thailand, have caused focus to fall on adaptation financing to developing countries, which could support infrastructure projects to protect vulnerable areas. Other efforts might include drought-tolerant farming.

Distribution of global emissions reinforces the need for broad multilateral cooperation in mitigating climate change. Fifteen to twenty countries are responsible for roughly 75 percent of global emissions, but no one country accounts for more than about 26 percent. Efforts to cut emissions--mitigation--must therefore be global. Without international cooperation and coordination, some states may free ride on others’ efforts, or even exploit uneven emissions controls to gain competitive advantage. And because the impacts of climate change will be felt around the world, efforts to adapt to climate change–adaptation–will need to be global too.

At the launch of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change seventeenth Conference of Parties (COP-17) in Durban, South Africa, many climate change experts were concerned that the Kyoto Protocol could expire in 2012 with no secondary legally binding accord on limiting global emissions in place. This fear, however, was somewhat assuaged as the nearly two hundred countries present at the COP-17 approved an extension of the protocol through 2017 and potentially 2020. A decision was also reached at the meeting to draft a successor accord to the Kyoto Protocol by 2015, which would ultimately come into force in 2020. Delegates also envisioned that the new accord would include greenhouse gas emissions targets for all countries, regardless of their level of economic development. This framework notably contrasts with that of the Kyoto Protocol, which primarily focuses on reducing emissions emanating from developed countries.

Despite these and other marked successes during the COP-17, the perceived lack of leadership by central players in the climate change debate--especially the United States--has elicited increasing concern about the long term prospects of the global climate change regime. Additionally, Canada’s December 2011 decision to withdraw from the Kyoto Protocol–based on domestic economic concerns as well as its view that the world’s top greenhouse gas emitters have refused to ratify the accord–has generated concerns that the Kyoto Protocol itself may be in danger of collapse. Both of these concerns and many other issues will likely be a part of the agenda for the COP-18, scheduled for November 2012 in Qatar.

Strengths & Weaknesses

Overall assessment

Overall assessment: An underdeveloped and inadequate system

The current centerpieces for multilateral action against climate change are the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), its associated Kyoto Protocol, the Copenhagen Accord, and the COP-17 Durban Platform for Enhanced Action ("Durban Platform"). The Kyoto Protocol includes firm commitments to curb emissions only from developed countries, but does not include the United States, and has no meaningful consequences for noncompliance; it has also come under unprecedented strain as Canada officially withdrew from the accord in December 2011. Specifically, Canada’s environment minister suggested Canada could only be a part of an accord which includes all major emitters as parties. As Japan and Russia could soon follow Canada’s example, the hopes for a legally binding climate accord--even if desirable--may be fading. Additionally, the regime, other than prodding numerous exemptions regarding greenhouse gas emissions, fails to provide emerging big emitters like China and India with meaningful targets and incentives to curb their emissions. The architecture for global climate governance looks particularly shaky after the fifteenth Conference of Parties (COP-15), in Copenhagen, failed to overcome entrenched differences among the major parties and deliver targeted emissions cuts. Following Copenhagen, COP-16, in Cancun, made some strides toward effective multilateral action, but the regime still falls well short of promoting needed action to effect positive change, including committing to a post-Kyoto framework.

Similarly, little progress was made during the COP-17 meeting in Durban. While parties agreed to extend the Kyoto Protocol until at least 2017 as well as solidified an operating structure for the Green Climate Fund, little was clarified concerning the form of a successor accord to the Kyoto Protocol. Delegates to the COP-17 did agree, however, that the new accord would include reduction targets for all nations, rather than exclusively those considered to be developed.

Although delegations at Durban, Cancun, and Copenhagen developed reporting mechanisms, funding pledges, and unilaterally declared country-specific emissions reduction goals, the ongoing lack of an international enforcement body has left these promises largely empty.

The limitations of the Durban Platform, as well as the increasingly tenuous status of the Kyoto Protocol, have created a fresh imperative for global action on climate change. The tension between developing and developed countries is fueled by ongoing disagreements over how to interpret a fundamental underpinning of the UNFCCC and Kyoto framework--namely, the principle of "common but differentiated responsibilities" [PDF] among industrialized (Annex I) and developing (non-Annex I) countries, particularly when it comes to establishing and achieving meaningful mitigation targets. The 2010 UN climate change summit in Cancun did not achieve a comprehensive international framework, nor did it expect to. The agenda was pushed to the 2011 meetings in Durban, South Africa, where the Kyoto Protocol was extended for another five years at least. Concerns, however, arose over the refusals of India, China, and the United States to unequivocally accept legally binding admissions targets at the meeting, placing doubt on the extent that other significant greenhouse gas emitters will participate in the new commitment window.

At the most basic level, countries disagree over climate monitoring and financing stipulations in the Kyoto Protocol or other legally binding accords. Climate frameworks struggle to effectively monitor greenhouse gas outputs, especially in developing countries. Many countries lack the domestic capacity to audit their total emissions; even if they are able to monitor national levels, some fear that reporting such numbers would encourage international pressure to cap their emissions. Others, like China, argue that an international monitoring system represents an infringement on national sovereignty and that developing states should be afforded some leniency in emissions as they are currently in critical stages of economic development.

Additionally, the climate regime does not adequately address the sources of financing needed to help developing countries cope with climate change. While the meeting in Copenhagen witnessed political progress, including pledges by industrialized countries to provide $100 billion by 2020 to developed countries and the Green Climate Fund was put into place at Cancun, concrete funding streams have yet to materialize. While the COP-17 attempted to clarify how the Green Climate Fund would operate and disperse funds, little firm monetary support was allocated to the mechanism. To date, the total disbursed funds for climate change initiatives, both within and outside of the UNFCCC, add up to only $2.1 billion.

Seeking a more flexible and effective approach, the United States and other emitters have begun to turn to "à la carte multilateralism," focusing on smaller, less formal frameworks, such as the Major Econonomies Forum (MEF) and the Group of Twenty (G20). The MEF was launched in March 2009 as a successor to the Bush administration’s Major Economies Meeting (MEM). The seventeen-member MEF, which includes countries responsible for approximately 80 percent of global emissions, has provided an arena for major emitting countries to confront tricky issues and hammer out viable strategies without entering the labyrinth of UN diplomacy. In February 2012, a six-state coalition was also established to tackle climate and public and health risks posed by short-lived pollutants including methane, hydrofluorocarbons, and black carbon (soot). Even these niche fora, however, are not immune to political rancor over legally binding emissions cuts.

Despite concern that alternative efforts to the UNFCCC process might undermine the credibility and success of that universal forum, the MEF and the parallel G20 have the potential to complement the UN track by enabling meaningful dialogue among the countries whose financial commitments and solutions on mitigation and technology truly matter. The MEF and G20 offer leaders a setting for candid dialogue where parties can meet to negotiate new bilateral and "minilateral" arrangements, align parallel domestic initiatives and regulatory approaches, and monitor each other’s progress as part of an informal, “pledge and review” process. Accomplishments of the MEF and G20 include, respectively, launching a Global Partnership on Clean Energy Technologies and reaching an agreement to phase out inefficient fossil fuel subsidies. In September 2011 the MEF reportedly held a "frank discussion" regarding the COP-17 meeting in Durban and the future of the Kyoto Protocol among other issues.

Beyond the UNFCCC process and minilateral forums like the MEF and G20, climate change is increasingly addressed by a host of other international actors whose primary mandate may not explicitly include climate change. Within the UN system alone, some twenty agencies work on climate change, often through their own specific lens. The implementation of projects, for example, is spread across institutions like the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), the Global Environment Facility (GEF), the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), and the World Bank, which work alongside bilateral agencies on mitigation and adaptation projects in developing countries. Although a proliferation of actors focused on this agenda is not necessarily negative, the lack of coordinated policies and programs can be a problem when it leads to redundancy. In part, this fragmentation reflects the inherent complexity of climate change, which has substantive connections to many issue areas, including development, finance, public health, energy, and security.

Understanding climate change threats

Understanding climate change threats: Strong but could be improved

The international climate regime is at its strongest when it comes to understanding the threats posed by climate change. Such efforts, which are centered on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), predate any other dedicated element of the regime. Yet, the infiltration of politics into the climate change debate has hampered the legitimacy and pervasiveness of new findings.

The IPCC was created in 1988 to review, assess, and synthesize the world’s scientific information related to climate change. It periodically releases assessment reports, which synthesize global data on climate change. The IPCC reports [PDF] are central in policy discussions of climate change, and their estimates play an outsized role in setting benchmarks for international action. The IPCC also produces occasional reports on urgent subjects such as carbon capture and technology transfer.

The IPCC is not without its critics, however, and a series of scandals concerning the methods of its reporting has somewhat weakened its legitimacy. Some have accused its reports of being politically driven--their summaries must be signed off on by all member governments--and overplaying the state of agreement on man-made climate change. Reacting to the findings of an independent review, the IPCC introduced institutional reforms in May 2011 to address some of these concerns. That said, the findings of the panel generally concur with those of major scientific associations [PDF], such as the U.S. National Academy of Sciences. Within the community of experts on climate science, few believe that IPCC reports overestimate the state of the problem.

The IPCC has also been criticized, from the other side, for underplaying the risks of extreme climate change, again because of the need for political consensus. Similarly, it has been criticized as lagging behind the current state of science because of its long and bureaucratic approval process. At a time when many studies are raising the possibility of extreme climate change, this may tend to bias the IPCC conservatively.

International cooperation on scientific observation and analysis has also benefited from several other forums for sharing global climate data. These include the Group on Earth Observations (GEO), a group of eighty governments committed to creating a Global Earth Observation System of Systems (GEOSS) as a common source for detailed data on everything related to climate change.

Despite these gains in researching, analyzing, and understanding climate change, a great deal of basic scientific work remains in clarifying the state of scientific opinion on the anthropogenic causes of climate change and ways to mitigate their effects. In addition, the international community needs to expand cooperation efforts in collecting data on the effects of climate change to facilitate adaptation and early warning systems.

Curbing emissions

 Curbing emissions: Some progress, but too few commitments

Many countries with mandatory targets under the Kyoto Protocol are on track to cut their greenhouse gas emissions, and large emitters such as China, India, and Brazil suggest that they will take voluntary steps to control levels of anthropogenic pollution. But despite these successes, the existing climate regime remains grossly inadequate when it comes to stabilizing greenhouse gas levels; moreover, regulations that have already passed or which are about to go into effect, like the EU airplane tax, continue to stir significant political controversy. Additionally, the December 2011 Durban Platform committed UNFCCC parties to establish a more universal post-Kyoto accord with "legal force," and in December 2012 at the UNFCCC COP-18, parties agreed to extend the Kyoto commitment period to 2020 and to enter into negotiations for a treaty to replace the Kyoto protocol in 2015. However, not all parties agreed to this second round of commitments and major emitters like Canada and Japan opted out.

The variance between commitment and action remains an obstacle to the development of a comprehensive solution. The non-binding Copenhagen Accord did little to force country-by-country accountability and action. The 2010 Cancun Agreement brought greenhouse gas reduction pledges under the auspices of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, but it remains to be seen if Cancun’s call for international assessment of implementation of these mitigation efforts will lead to substantive gains beyond the status quo. A shift in focus from diplomatic discussion over pledges to implementation is one positive outcome of the Cancun Conference.

The IPCC has called for a reduction in emissions to limit the increase in global temperatures by 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit). Although leaders at Copenhagen and Cancun used the same number to determine their mitigation pledges, the current growth in emissions, absent significant action on climate change, will case an average global temperatures of 5 degrees Celsius (9 degrees Fahrenheit), according to the most recent analysis produced by the Climate Interactive Scoreboard.

The core policy and regulatory instruments to curb greenhouse gas emissions exist at the national level, and performance therefore varies from country to country. At the international level, the Kyoto Protocol provides three mechanisms that can help countries control their emissions through flexible arrangements. The Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) allows industrialized countries to invest in climate-friendly projects in poor countries and earn carbon credits in exchange. The Joint Implementation (JI) mechanism enables industrialized countries to invest in climate-friendly projects in other industrialized countries and earn carbon credits in exchange. Lastly, emissions trading creates a market for trading carbon credits with countries that are over their target.

From the beginning, the most promising of the three was the CDM, which provides twin benefits of curbing emissions and facilitating economic development for non-Annex I countries. However, experts have pointed to inadequacies regarding its operations and its inability to deliver lower emissions at acceptable costs. In particular, the CDM is burdened with extensive bureaucratic entanglements that have delayed the actual registry of many preapproved projects. More seriously, critics blame the CDM for earning some companies heaps of carbon credits for low-cost changes, noting that national regulation or other means of financing emissions reductions might have been better alternatives. Additionally, some experts complain about China capturing a significant number of the carbon credits, known as Certified Emission Reductions (CERs), at the expense of other developing countries. However, China’s extensive participation may also help jumpstart its renewable sector, which could have ancillary long-term benefits. Although the COP-17 did not resolve all of these concerns, it did extend the CDM to include carbon capture storage projects—a move that enjoys significant private sector support.

Emissions trading, most developed within the EU framework, has also faced a barrage of criticism. Carbon markets are still in their infancy and fraught with challenges related to price discovery, price volatility, and exposure to political risk. At this stage, some businesses argue that the price of carbon is too low to support profitable opportunities. Similarly, environmental activists [PDF] argue that capital markets are too unregulated and unstable to serve as a foundation for global efforts against climate change. Despite the value of Europe’s carbon market approaching an estimated $120 billion in 2010, concerns remain about the future of the global carbon market absent a legally binding emissions accord.

The G20 has stressed the importance of market mechanisms to fight global warming, and some have argued that carbon markets can be seen as a cheap and simple way to ensure emissions reductions. When reinforced by regulation, such as the mandatory cap-and-trade system in Europe, emissions trading can be a beneficial mechanism [PDF] that contributes to overall emissions reductions. The EU carbon market, for example, has an estimated value of $120 billion. Similar to the EU model, nine states in the mid-Atlantic and northeast United States have created market-driven mandatory framework, called the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), to reduce emissions. To date, this is one of the most promising initiatives for emissions reduction in the United States.

Outside the Kyoto regime, international efforts to reduce carbon dioxide emissions have led to a UN program on Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (UN-REDD). The program provides financial incentives for poor countries to protect their national forests and thereby assigns them with some responsibility for global emissions reduction. By some estimates, tropical deforestation accounts for 15 percent [PDF] of annual global carbon dioxide emissions. The Kyoto Protocol, however, did not have any mechanism for conservation or prevention of deforestation as a means for mitigating climate change. Under the protocol, countries could seek credits and financial support after forests were cut down but no support was available to prevent them from cutting forests down in the first place. Fortunately, activism on the issue has generated enough interest for industrialized countries to commit $3.5 billion to provide funding for deforestation activities. Similarly, the COP-17 established a technical framework for facilitating deforestation products.Furthermore, in February 2012, the United States, along with Canada, Mexico, Sweden, Ghana, and Bangladesh, launched a joint effort to mitigate short-lived climate pollutants—such pollutants stay in the atmosphere only briefly, but they account for approximately of 30 percent of global warming—such as black carbon, hydrofluorocarbons, and methane. A limited fund of $15 million fund was set up to support the group’s efforts, but heavy emitters like Chian and India did not sign up.

Monitoring and enforcing emissions curbs

Monitoring and enforcing emissions curbs: Monitoring patchy but improving, enforcement nonexistent

Transparency in emissions cuts has become a relatively new focus of the climate change regime. The Bali Action Plan adopted new monitoring parameters that required both developed and developing countries to commit to mitigation actions that could be measured, reported, and verified (MRV). Strengthened somewhat at Copenhagen, this agenda was furthered in Cancun, where the final document called for "international assessment of emissions and removals related to quantified economywide emission reductions targets" for developed countries in a transparent manner. However, this language on enforcement has yet to be matched by a plan of implementation, likely making it a contentious issue for future international climate agreements. The 2011 Durban Platform may have created additional confusion regarding the enforcement of climate accords. Particularly ambiguous was its call for a new agreement with "legal force" to replace the Kyoto Protocol rather than one that is expressly "legally binding."

Under the current UNFCCC framework, developed countries report their emissions annually and developing countries are supposed to report theirs every six years. Emissions inventories in developed countries are generally agreed to be strong, and are accepted as the basis for international emissions trading (in which errors in emissions accounting would result in large financial transfers). Reporting from developing countries is widely considered to be much weaker, and the six-year reporting requirement is often violated. The exceptions are CDM projects, which are carefully monitored to determine whether promised emissions reductions are actually being achieved; here, monitoring is widely agreed to be strong. In an effort to improve monitoring, in 2009 the UNFCCC produced a new pledge and review process. This process tasks countries to publish emissions reductions goals in line with their national capabilities and then submit to international monitoring under the Copenhagen Accord.

The barriers to improving emissions monitoring in developing countries are threefold. First, many such countries lack the domestic capacity to monitor their own emissions, which makes international monitoring even more difficult. Existing emissions estimates are generally extrapolations based on energy use, and even large developing countries such as China and India, for example, do not know their total emissions output. This uncertainty is exacerbated in countries with significant emissions from deforestation because the technical means to precisely measure such emissions do not yet exist. Second, even if developing countries are able to monitor their emissions, many are wary that reporting emissions would open them to pressure to cap those emissions--something they have strongly resisted. Third, countries such as China publically state that concessions for an internationally verifiable monitoring system are a direct infringement on their national sovereignty. Despite these barriers, an agreement that focuses on emissions monitoring might be easier to implement than an arrangement based on binding emissions reductions.

Enforcement, meanwhile, is essentially nonexistent. Countries that fail to meet their Kyoto targets are legally required to subtract that shortfall (plus a 30 percent penalty) from their total allowed emissions in the next phase of the protocol. In practice, though, this is meaningless, given that future allowed emissions have not yet been negotiated. If the Kyoto Protocol penalty rules are observed--something still in question--countries could simply negotiate new caps that are inflated by an amount that offsets the penalty or just formally withdraw from the accord as Canada did in 2011.

Financing emissions cuts

Financing emissions cuts: Needs concrete options

Channeling funds to curb emissions and adapt to global warming is one of the thorniest challenges in the fight against climate change. The Green Climate Fund, set forth in Cancun to be a centralized hub for climate financing, only recently agreed in October 2011 on a draft plan for dispersing funds. While the COP-17 made progress in clarifying the governance structure of the Green Climate Fund, only $50 million was promised as seed funding. And, despite Annex I countries having shown significant leadership COP-16 to the UN climate convention by committing to facilitate private funding and provide $100 billion annually in multilateral assistance by 2020 and reconfirmed their commitment to do so at COP-18. Despite this recommitment, however, no framework was agreed upon for financing in the final outcome document. Furthermore, some critics argue that the $100 billion assistance funding should be a base figure, as it falls short of what developing countries require, which is projected to increase [PDF] to $300 billion per year by 2020.

Total commitments for reaching the $30 billion in short-term funds pledged for 2012 have nearly reached the target amount, but reports indicate that little of this represents money outside of previously existing aid packages [PDF]. In February 2010, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon established the High-Level Advisory Group on Climate Change Financing to explore means of accomplishing Copenhagen funding pledges. The group’s final report was released in November 2010 and calls for taxes on emissions, trading, and international travel. While tangible policy responses concerning the report have been mostly lackluster in the United States, the EU has instituted a controversial emissions tax on airlines flying in and out of its EU territory, which entered into force in January 2012.

Recently, the International Energy Agency (IEA) reported that achieving climate goals by 2020 would require an investment of roughly $5 trillion. The situation becomes particularly vexing when the transfer of money from industrialized countries to developing countries comes into play. At the September 2009 G20 meeting in Pittsburgh, leaders proposed significant increases in funding to poor countries, but differences in how to achieve this goal led to a weak statement [PDF] that merely recognized the need for climate change financing (for which there was no follow-through at the Toronto G20 summit in June 2010). More recent pledges made at the UN climate conference in Cancun are short of the aspirations of some world leaders and lack details regarding their source and disbursement.

Currently, some [PDF] climate change financing comes by way of official development assistance (ODA). Several multilateral funds have been established under the UNFCCC, the World Bank, and the GEF to provide grants and loans targeting specific aspects of climate change, ranging from adaptation to development of clean technology. However, by and large these funds are voluntary and have limited differences.

Many experts have pointed to private investments as a way forward. Private investment has been critical in industrialized countries but much harder to come by in developing countries. The clean development mechanism (CDM), initially set up by the Kyoto Protocol, has been applauded for injecting private-sector funding for clean energy projects into developing countries and helping industrialized countries meet their emissions-cutting targets. However, the CDM has brought little benefit to areas most in need of clean energy, notably sub-Saharan Africa.

Some economists and policymakers have proposed innovative solutions to the financing deficit such as a Tobin tax on financial transactions or a carbon tax on air transportation (the EU instituted the latter in 2012). The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) has reported [PDF] that if all industrialized countries used carbon taxes or auctioned emissions-trading permits to reduce their emissions by 20 percent in 2020 relative to 1990 levels, fiscal revenues could reach 2.5 percent of GDP by 2020.

Utilizing carbon sinks

Utilizing carbon sinks: Achievements in deforestation

Approximately one-fifth of global emissions come from land use, including deforestation. Mitigating the effects of climate change will require looking at a broad set of alternatives, including leveraging tools inherent to our natural ecosystem. Forests provide natural carbon sinks that help mitigate the effects of carbon dioxide emissions. There are currently few initiatives that compensate countries that promote this natural process. Through the CDM, the UNFCCC regime provides carbon credits for afforestation and reforestation projects. Although this is a positive step, critically missing are incentives for forest conservation activities that would help reduce emissions from existing carbon stocks.

In an effort to bridge this gap, numerous [PDF] bilateral and multilateral arrangements outside the UNFCCC framework have been created to provide assistance to developing countries in harnessing their carbon sinks. Negotiations at the fifteenth meeting of states party to the UN climate convention, for instance, secured a pledge for $3.5 billion to combat deforestation in developing countries, which complements an existing UN-REDD program funded by Norway, Denmark, and Spain. Additionally, the World Bank Forest Carbon Partnership Facility provides better forestry management and conservation. At the national level, some governments have established funds, such as Brazil’s Amazon Fund, and Burkina Faso’s cash bonus tree-planting program, which leverage private donations and government resources to provide incentives for the preservation of forests.

Additionally, there has been some attention on promoting oceans as a natural carbon sink. However, scientific skepticism on the ocean’s ability to absorb carbon dioxide emissions remains.

Promoting low-carbon development

Promoting low-carbon development: Needs coherence, financial support, and developing-country buy-in

Low-carbon development must be at the heart of any successful climate change mitigation effort. Yet it faces two distinct challenges. The world is not particularly good at development assistance beyond climate change, and it has no large-scale experience with low-carbon development.

The Kyoto Protocol focused on promoting low-carbon development through the clean development mechanism (CDM). Although the CDM has undoubtedly resulted in some low-carbon investment that would not have otherwise occurred, it has not prompted fundamental shifts in development patterns. Alongside it, traditional development organizations have begun to invest in low-carbon development. The World Bank, for example, has ramped up climate-related spending, and the UNEP has set climate change as a priority in its capacity-building efforts. These efforts are constrained, however, by funding that is not commensurate with the scale of the challenge, as well as by deeper challenges in the development aid model. These international institutions are also not well coordinated, with occasionally weak mechanisms that can fail to complement each other.

Another important path to low-carbon development is new technology, such as carbon capture and storage (CCS), which focuses on securing and storing carbon dioxide emissions before they are released into the atmosphere. Although this technology is still in its early stages, successful pilot projects offer hope of developing and implementing it for large-scale projects. Some countries are committed to implementing variations of it, and both bilateral and multilateral cooperation is under way. This cooperation is particularly important because implementing CCS on a large scale can be expensive and offers few obvious economic benefits. One of the major multilateral efforts in this area is the Carbon Sequestration Leadership Forum (CSLF), which supports joint efforts to develop cost-effective carbon sequestration technology. At the bilateral level, the EU-China Partnership on Climate Change helps to develop Near-Zero Emissions Coal (NZEC) plants in China using CCS technology. The United States and China have also recently agreed to develop joint projects using CCS technology. Additionally, an international initiative, Futuregen, led by the U.S. Department of Energy, harnesses public and private-sector funds and expertise to help build near-zero emissions plants around the world.

Renewable and nuclear energy will be critical in diminishing reliance on fossil fuels and developing low-carbon communities. Expectations for nuclear power as an alternative source of energy are especially high among big emitters such as India, China, and the United States, as well as in a number of developing countries that lack the necessary infrastructure to meet their growing energy needs. After the nuclear incident in the wake of Japan’s March 2011 earthquake and tsunami, some of the support for nuclear power has declined. Currently, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) assists countries in determining whether nuclear energy is a feasible option. When nuclear energy is optimal, the agency assists with energy planning and developing relevant infrastructure, such as drafting nuclear legislation and establishing independent and effective safety regulators. However, given its limited resources, the IAEA will find it increasingly difficult to meet the growing demands for its services as more developing countries seek help in establishing nuclear facilities.

There has also been significant international action on renewable energy. The International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), founded in January 2009, is the first international forum for specifically promoting the use of renewable energy. The UNEP has launched several initiatives, including the Global Bioenergy Partnership (GBEP), to support the deployment of biomass and biofuels, and the Solar and Wind Energy Resource Assessment (SWERA), which seeks to make renewable energy data widely available. Despite these promising international efforts, only about 25 percent [PDF] of the world’s energy is produced through renewable and alternative sources (including hydroelectric, biomass, and nuclear). However, investment in these areas continues to increase [PDF] (rising seventeen percent to a total of $257 billion in 2011) and more and more countries are setting policy targets for using renewable energy.

Another dimension of the solution is often ignored but is likely, in the long term, to be the most prominent: domestic policy reform in developing countries that encourages low-carbon investment. This might include steps like energy market reform or reduction of tariff barriers to low-carbon technology transfer. International institutions have begun to promote domestic policy shifts through measures like technical assistance provided by organizations like the UNEP and UNDP, discussions [PDF] on tariff reductions for environmentally friendly technologies through the WTO, and processes aimed at phasing out fossil fuel subsidies spurred through the G20. Some existing institutions, though, may incidentally work against positive developments in this area. The Kyoto Protocol’s CDM, for example, may discourage countries from making climate-friendly policy changes by rewarding countries only for activities that go beyond existing national policy. Complicating matters, efforts to promote policy shifts and efforts aimed at providing assistance with clean development are rarely coordinated with each other.

Adapting to climate change

Adapting to climate change: Addressed weakly and incidentally

Adapting to climate change is currently being addressed incidentally through traditional development aid. Organizations like the World Bank and USAID are working to “climate-proof” their investments. Moreover, most traditional development aid (often aimed at areas like health and agriculture) will help countries become more resilient in a changing climate. Yet the perennial shortfalls in development assistance--both financially and in having the desired policy impact--mean that adaptation assistance invariably falls short as well.

There have been targeted efforts to address adaptation in particular. The Kyoto Protocol’s Adaptation Fund, supported by a small tax on CDM credit sales, currently yields funds that are supposed to be spent on adaptation. The fund, however, is severely underfinanced and hobbled by its own bureaucratic governance. The GEF also administers several funds that target adaptation efforts. The Least Developed Countries Climate Fund (LDCF) and the Special Climate Change Fund (SCCF) aim to address long-term efforts for the most vulnerable developing countries. Additionally, the World Bank Pilot Program for Climate Resilience (PPCR) works to integrate adaptation measures into development aid. National Adaptation Programs of Action under PPCR are underway in eighteen countries in the Caribbean, the Pacific, Africa, the Middle East, and Asia. While the World Bank facilitates this and other Climate Investment Funds, it has also provided loans for coal power plants and other projects not friendly to the climate change agenda. Most of these efforts are not distinguishable from other development support, however, making it difficult for a separate adaptation fund to make a big difference in any case.

The sixteenth conference of parties in Cancun developed a Cancun Adapation Framework (CAF) to raise the prominence of adaptation measures in the UNFCCC’s efforts. The CAF also represented the first formal agreement to establish guidelines concerning capacity building in communities vulnerable to the effects of cliamte change. Adaptation financing, even after the COP-17 in Durban remains an ad-hoc enterprise.

Adaptation efforts are also hurt by the failure of the international community to generate precise predictions on the effects of climate change. The IPCC focuses on long-term projections and on regional or global analyses. Organizations like the UNDP help countries use broader projections in national adaptation planning, and national governments sometimes assist others in such efforts. Whether having governments and international institutions handle these projections offers any benefits is, however, still unclear.

U.S. and International Climate Change Policy Issues


The United States and the international community face a host of challenges on the domestic and international fronts as it attempts to build a more robust international climate regime. At home, progress has come to a virtual standstill after the failure of national cap-and-trade legislation. Abroad, the ultimate fare of the Kyoto protocol looms large. The United States will need to decide whether rely on state-by-state targets, participate in minilateral forums, or engage in multilateral negotiations for reducing emissions, among other questions. It must also decide whether it intends to pursue a legally binding climate agreement. Other policy issues straddle the domestic-international divide.

Future of Kyoto Protocol

Should the international community pursue a legally binding treaty to replace the Kyoto Protocol?

Yes: Proponents of legally binding commitments, like the Kyoto Protocol, argue that they are the only way to guarantee that countries will cut their emissions. Proponents also argue that by ensuring that others meet their obligations, legally binding commitments help promote stronger action by all parties. Moreover, they note that in some cases, legal commitments are needed to serve as the basis for schemes involving large financial flows, such as carbon trading. They also point to the heritage of the Kyoto Protocol, which included legally binding commitments for developed countries, and argue that it would be a step backward to take a different route in the future.

Moreover, withdrawing from efforts toward a binding accord would likely signal a retreat from the Durban Platform agreed to by 194 state parties in December 2011. Specifically, the COP-17 outcome document calls on states to develop a successor to the Kyoto Protocol with "legal force" by 2020.

No: On the other hand, detractors of the Kyoto Protocol claim the emissions reduction model inherent to the accord is not tenable, and the outcome of the COP-17 meeting in Durban may prove the international community is trying to move away from using legally binding emissions targets. Objections to including legally binding commitments at the center of an international climate deal take at least four forms. Some argue that enforcing climate commitments is extremely difficult and that, as a result, the legal nature of commitments may not be meaningful. They, thus, counsel against investing the extra effort normally required to devise a legally binding arrangement.Others argue that because climate commitments may turn out to be difficult or impossible, they should not be made legally binding, thus avoiding the risk of noncompliance. A frequent counterpart to this argument is the claim that because countries are concerned about noncompliance, they will tend to focus on making weak commitments in the first place; freeing them from concerns about being legally bound might also free them to do more.

While some accept the prospect of legally binding commitments for Annex-I countries like the United States in principle, they argue that all major economies or all countries should make similar commitments. If those same analysts also believe that major developing countries will not make legally binding commitments--a widely shared view--then they conclude that major greenhouse gas emitters like the United States should not make such commitments either. Canada’s December 2011 decision to withdraw from the Kyoto Protocol reflects this line of thinking.

Minilateral forums

Should the United States focus its resources on minilateral forums rather than the UN climate framework?

Yes: Some say that progress on global climate change requires a joint strategy among the small number of actors responsible for the lion’s share of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions, including China (25.3 percent), the United States (17.8 percent), the European Union (14.2 percent), and a handful of other developed and emerging economies. The United States and other major economies have already begun to turn to smaller, less formal frameworks, including the Group of Twenty (G20), the Major Economies Forum (MEF), and the Climate Change Forum--which some analysts point to as alternatives to the United Nations.

These arenas allow large emitters to confront tricky issues and hammer out viable strategies without having to engage all 193 members of the United Nations. If the United States focuses its attention on minilateral forums with important players, it may achieve meaningful emissions control targets, as well as financial commitments for mitigation and technological development. Moreover, the United States can use the MEF and similar minilateral forums to complement the UNFCC process by negotiating realistic multilateral agreements that can subsequently be legitimated at the UN level.

No: Others argue that the breadth of its membership and depth of its history makes the UN climate framework the bedrock of the international climate regime. Climate change is a global threat that requires input from the world’s most vulnerable nations--not just the world’s largest emitters. Experience suggests that major emitting nations may use minilateral forums not to drive concrete action but to avoid binding emissions reductions and other sacrifices to address climate change. By focusing on minilateral forums, the United States diverts its limited resources from the UN climate negotiations, which are the most legitimate basis for global action. Any climate negotiations that exclude the majority of the world’s countries would be difficult to implement and inherently flawed. Still, others note that focusing on the minilateral versus broader UN forums may obscure focus on adequate levels of political will to address climate change.

Domestic policy

Should the United States focus on state-by-state targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions?

Yes: Proponents of this idea note that climate change action at the federal level is no longer a politically feasible goal within the United States. Efforts to enact cap-and-trade systems in the United States, such as the McCain-Lieberman and Lieberman-Warner legislation, have failed. The House ultimately passed the Waxman-Markey bill in June 2009, which would have capped greenhouse emissions at 17 percent of 2005 levels and provided increased investment for clean energy technology, but the U.S. Senate failed to agree on a matching cap-and-trade bill. Furthermore even relatively minor climate change mitigation regulations have faced bipartisan resistance, with issues like cap-and-trade and a carbon tax basically disappearing from political debate. In October 2011, the House passed a measure through a bipartisan voice vote, which would order U.S. airliners to not pay fees associated with a new EU emissions tax on air travel scheduled to take effect in January 2012.

The nine-state Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) and the Western Climate Initiative (WCI) also provide evidence that the fifty states are capable of crafting their own climate change plans molded to the particularities of their geography, resources, and region. The WCI, launched in 2007 by six U.S. states and four Canadian provinces along the western rim of North America, illustrates an effort to tackle climate change at the regional level. According to its design, the WCI forms working committees, which recommend policies aimed at collectively reducing greenhouse gas emissions among member states and provinces. Relying on a cap-and-trade system, WCI members aim to reduce regional greenhouse gas emissions by 15 percent from 2005 levels by 2020.

No: Opponents argue that the rest of the world is looking to the United States to act on climate change, and that pursuing national level reform—even if during the global financial crisis—could give the United States credibility and leverage in this area. Since the failure of cap-and-trade, no significant climate change legislation has passed the House or Senate, calling U.S. global leadership in this area into question. Many climate change analysts also point to criticism regarding the inaction of the United States during the COP-17 as evidence that the climate change issue may be negatively affecting perceptions of U.S. global leadership. Furthermore, some would also suggest that the December 2011 decision by Canada to withdraw from the Kyoto Protocol has placed the entire global climate change regime in jeopardy.

Opponents of a state-by-state strategy also point to New Jersey’s decision in 2011 to unilaterally pull out of the RGGI and Arizona’s move in 2010 to leave the Western Climate Initiative as evidence that a state-by-state approach to reducing emissions in the United States is too risky of a strategy to rely on. In short, a top-down approach is likely to be more effective, and more enforceable rather than a bottom-up.

Finally, those calling for a national level reprioritization of the issue of climate change in the United States point to the recent passage of carbon tax legislation in another Annex 1 country, Australia, as evidence to support their position.

International carbon trading

Should international carbon trading be a central part of U.S. climate change strategy?

Yes: Proponents of using international carbon trading argue that it lowers [PDF] compliance costs for U.S. companies by allowing them to buy cheap emissions-reduction credits from abroad in lieu of cutting their own emissions. In addition, trading based on either project-based offsets or broader schemes with relatively high baselines could also channel large amounts of money to developing countries. Many believe that such transfers are the only way to induce deep cuts in developing countries’ emissions. Some also make a political argument for trading: integrating countries’ emissions-cutting programs into a global market would make it more difficult for any country to back away from its obligations.

Supporters of international carbon trading differ on the forms of trading they support. Some support all options--project-based offsets, program-based offsets, sectoral trading, and economy-wide trading. Others support only certain variations, most commonly ones with wider scope such as sectoral or economy-wide options.

No: Opponents of international carbon trading make a variety of arguments. Some object to any efforts to transfer significant sums of money to developing countries, and hence oppose carbon trading. Others support such efforts but argue that they could often be done more effectively through large public funds rather than through carbon markets.

Some support carbon trading in principle, but object on the basis that many such systems are unworkable in practice. They point to the experience of the CDM, a part of the Kyoto Protocol that allows developed countries to pay for emissions-cutting projects in developing countries in lieu of reducing their emissions. The CDM has been widely criticized as inefficient and as including many projects that would have occurred anyhow. Some who criticize it believe that its problems can be fixed by moving to other schemes for carbon trading; others disagree.

A final group opposes international carbon trading on ethical grounds, arguing that developed countries have a moral obligation to reduce their emissions and that avoiding that obligation by paying others is wrong.

Country-by-country emissions targets

Should the world agree to country-by-country targets for cutting greenhouse gas emissions?

Yes: Agreeing on country-by-country targets has become the primary goal of recent climate change negotiations. Proponents of assigning greenhouse gas emissions targets to all countries maintain that they are needed to ensure that aggregate global emissions do not exceed dangerous thresholds. They take their cue from the Kyoto Protocol and its recent extension until 2017 or 2020, which focuses on a “targets and timetables” approach for developed countries. Some experts argue that it would be helpful to develop emissions-reduction goals for major emitters by setting short-term timetables and by targeting specific sectors. Limiting emissions intensity based on a production process instead of setting absolute targets could also prove beneficial. Beyond these points, many note that country-by-country targets are essential to enabling full-blown global carbon trading schemes (which could reduce the cost of cutting global emissions) and argue that it is only fair for all countries to adopt targets if some do so.

No: Following the failure of the Copenhagen Accord, as well as a lack of agreement on a new legally binding emisssions treaty at the COP-17, some argue that it may be impossible to garner international consensus on country-specific emissions cuts. Capacity and verification also remain issues in developing countries, making it difficult to implement policies that control ultimate emissions (such as cap-and-trade systems). Others support global emissions cuts--often strongly--but argue that adopting targets is not necessary to achieving that end. They contend that international discussions should be focused on suites of emissions-cutting policies and measures (policy inputs) rather than on emissions (policy outcomes).

Trade sanctions

Should trade sanctions be used to enforce climate change rules?

Yes: Climate change agreements are notoriously weak on enforcement. The Kyoto Protocol technically included penalties for noncompliance; in practice, though, those penalties have not been enforced. Some have turned to trade sanctions as an enforcement tool, arguing that border adjustment tariffs are the appropriate sanction for noncompliance. These would, ostensibly, impose costs on imports from countries with weak climate regulation equal to the costs those countries avoid through lax regulation.

Some also argue that implementing a cap-and-trade system in the United States would politically require border adjustment provisions to compensate for productivity losses stemming from rising energy costs. Domestic legislation taking this factor into account passed in the House, but failed to get through the Senate. It is yet to be seen, however, how to implement these provisions without violating rules of the World Trade Organization (WTO). Others argue such a system would be too weak to prompt appropriate behavior, and push for more punitive sanctions.

Proponents of using sanctions for enforcement are also split over whether such sanctions must be part of an international agreement or might be imposed unilaterally. Those in the first school argue that internationally approved sanctions are more credible as a threat and less likely to disrupt the broader global trading system. They also contend that unilateral sanctions would be too weak. Those in the latter camp doubt that appropriate sanctions could be built into an international agreement and think that sanctions are worth pursuing unilaterally.

No: Opponents of using sanctions argue that they are ineffective and that they could create problems for broader trade and climate efforts. They assert that border adjustment tariffs would target only a limited part of a country’s economy (energy-intensive exports) and would impose a penalty smaller than the value of noncompliance.

Regardless of their efficacy, many object to unilateral sanctions on legal grounds. They argue that punitive sanctions would violate global trade rules. More controversially, some also argue that border adjustment tariffs, done unilaterally, would violate WTO rules. Either of these options, they contend, would not only cause harm to global trade, but also poison the political environment for international climate negotiations and cooperation. Most agree, though, that multilateral sanctions, if made part of an international climate agreement, could be designed to withstand WTO scrutiny.

Recent Developments

GCF Opens in Korea

December 2013

In December 2013, the Green Climate Fund (GCF) opened its headquarters in Songdo, South Korea. The GCF was originally established as a result of the C0P-16 negotiations in Cancun, Mexico. It is designed to manage annual commitments that will escalate to a combined $100 billion by 2020 for adaptation. Developed countries have pledged to provide this assistance to developing countries to help them adapt to the impacts of climate change and achieve their own emissions reduction targets. Though the opening of a physical headquarters was a welcome first step, it remained difficult to determine whether contributions to date by developed countries were genuinely “additional” allocations to this effort, or simply reapportionment of previously allocated financial resources. 

COP-19 in Warsaw

November 2013

In November 2013, the nineteenth session of the Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change convened in Warsaw, Poland. Longstanding disagreements between industrialized and developing countries continued to obstruct efforts to reach consensus on international emissions reduction targets. Still,  the establishment of the Warsaw Mechanism for Loss and Damage was a sign of progress. This mechanism may mobilize support for overcoming these disagreements between industrialized and developing countries by providing a substantive means for the former to render assistance to the latter for adaptation to the impacts of climate change. This momentum could prove critical to realizing the full potential of the 2014 COP in Lima, Peru and ultimately the 2015 COP in Paris, France.

IPCCC Publishes Carbon Budget

September 2013

In September 2013, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a draft of its working group report that will ultimately be released as part of the IPCC 5th Assessment Report. The report articulated a target threshold of one million metric tons for the planet’s human population in order to impede global warming in excess of 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit from a preindustrial baseline. If warming exceeds that temperature, the panel warned of perilous consequences across the entirety of the climate system. Remarkably, the IPCC estimates the remainder of this “carbon budget” will be completely expended by the year 2045. Indeed, the National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration of the United States earlier the same year logged measurements that indicated atmospheric carbon dioxide had reached an average daily level in excess of 400 parts per million—a level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere that is not believed to have been reached in the preceding three million years

Human Causes of Climate Change

May 2013

A survey has found that 97 percent of scientific studies on climate change conclude human activity, due to the consumption of fossil fuels, is causing global warming. The survey, published in Environmental Research Letters, examined the work of nearly 12,000 peer-reviewed research papers published over the last two decades. Of these, over 4,000 papers took a position on the causes of climate change, of which 0.7 percent disputed the consensus of anthropogenic-induced warming. A further 2.2 percent argued that the science is unclear one way or another. "Our findings prove that there is a strong scientific agreement about the cause of climate change," says survey director John Cook, "despite public perceptions to the contrary." Indeed, a public opinion survey conducted by the Pew Research Center in October 2012 reported that only 45 percent of Americans were under the belief that "scientists agree Earth is getting warmer because of human activity."

China to cut HCFCs

April 2013

The Multilateral Fund of the Montreal Protocol struck an agreement with the Chinese government on the elimination of the industrial production of ozone-depleting substances (ODS). In exchange for $385 million over a seventeen-year period, China committed to retiring all production capacity of hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs) by 2030. Beijing also agreed to retire any surplus capacity of HCFCs that is not currently in use. China is the world’s largest producer and consumer of HCFCs. Since ratification of the Montreal Protocol in 1987, state parties have eliminated ninety-seven percent of ODS, and HCFCs represent one of the last remaining sources of ozone pollution that the Protocol aims to curb.

California-Canadian initiative

April 2013

On April 22, the State of California officially linked its cap-and-trade program with a similar scheme in Quebec province. Established in 2006 under a landmark global warming law (AB 32), California’s program places a price on carbon emissions and allows companies to buy and sell carbon credits issued at state auctions. Under the merger, which formally begins on January 1, 2014, California businesses will be able to use Quebec’s permits and California’s permits will be valid in Quebec.

Options for Strengthening the Climate Change Regime


The multi-faceted threats posed by climate change demand policies that address both mitigation and adaptation. Operationally, this will require a variety of flexible partnerships among national, bilateral, and multilateral actors, and a combination of short-term and long-term strategies.

These recommendations reflect the views of Stewart M. Patrick, director of the program on international institutions and global governance.

Post-Kyoto framework

Adopt a 2020 vision toward the future

While the Durban Platform, approved by nearly two hundred countries in December 2011, may have provided a small window of breathing room concerning the development of a successor accord to the Kyoto Protocol, much work remains to be done. In moving towards a post-Kyoto agreement due to come into force in 2020, the international community should remain cognizant of certain trends that emerged during and immediately after the COP-17.

This, for one, includes acknowledging growing cracks among countries in the developing world regarding accepting binding emissions targets—an issue of critical concern to small island developing states in the Pacific and other areas. These fissures should be explored as much as possible to both create a global consensus regarding the creation of major greenhouse gas emissions targets and isolating intransigent countries. Second, the global financial crisis cannot become a catch-all excuse to avoid meeting pledges for global climate change finance mechanisms like the Green Climate Fund. While the $50 million in seed money promised during the COP-17 is an excellent start, more—much more—is needed as the environmental effects of climate change become increasingly apparent around the world. Importantly, the narrative among developed economies must change because waiting to act will be substantially more costly than action now. Third, the international community must not let its existing accomplishments on climate change—such as the Kyoto Protocol itself—fall by the wayside as it struggles to develop new alternatives for a comprehensive climate change accord. Canada’s December 2011 decision to withdraw from the Kyoto Protocol should be interpreted as a crystal clear warning that the agreement is increasingly at risk of unraveling. As a result, countries such as the United States, China, and India need to place a fresh emphasis on their commitments to combat climate change, including providing clear, reasonable, and practical indications as to their expectations for a post-Kyoto accord. Even though the Durban Platform’s call for a 2020 accord—which would apply both to developed and developing states—with "legal force" does not necessarily imply "legally binding," the time for big emitters like the United States to simply stay the course on climate change has expired.

Clean Development Mechanism

Reform, refresh, and renew the Clean Development Mechanism

The Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) has come under fire on many fronts. Some have argued that too many nonadditional projects (those that would have reduced emissions even without the CDM) have been approved; others argue that the project approval process is too stringent. And others have argued that because it has no legal life beyond Kyoto, it will fail to bring about lasting results. These criticisms have on various occasions been right.

Scrapping the CDM entirely is likely to be not politically feasible, especially considering the COP-17 decision to extend the Kyoto Protocol for at least another five years. Reforming the CDM will thus be necessary to ensure that money is not wasted and that large volumes of offset credits remain available. The international community should reform CDM to focus on the least developed countries and on activities that are unquestionably additional. It should focus on sector-based trading for other countries. This could allow crediting for sectors that beat aggressive preset baselines, without penalizing them for exceeding those baselines. At the same time, the UNFCCC will need to work on streamlining the CDM approval process. Ideally, the CDM bureaucracy could be substantially reduced if CDM governance were shifted more to the countries providing funds.

The recent announcement of a year-long CDM reform consultation process process as well as the decision during the COP-17 in Durban to formally include carbon capture storage projects under the CDM are significant first steps. However, both must be followed by firm policy action to keep the CDM relevant and economically sustainable.

U.S domestic policy

Force progress in U.S. domestic climate change policy

The failure to pass comprehensive U.S. climate legislation, with a sweeping carbon cap-and-trade at its base, is a significant setback to U.S. mitigation efforts. Cutting U.S. emissions remains an essential step toward a climate-change solution at home and abroad, providing not only an environmentally sound solution to the problem, but giving the United States leverage in international bargaining as well. The increasingly intractable position of the United States became more apparent during the COP-17 meeting in Durban. There, the United States faced nearly universal criticism for not showing the leadership necessary for addressing climate change.

While a cap-and-trade system remains ideal, deep cuts in U.S. emissions can be pursued in a variety of ways, including energy-efficiency regulations, subsidies for renewable energy, and tax incentives for low-carbon technologies. Effort to reach consensus on these solutions should be pursued in the short term, keeping in mind that a broad-based and economy-wide price on carbon is essential to driving the very deep emissions cuts that will be needed through 2050 and beyond at a reasonable economic cost.

Facing a divided Congress and significant pressure to reduce the federal deficit, President Obama seems to have limited options with regard to advancing an effective domestic climate change policy; nonetheless the picture is far from hopeless. One way for Obama to force progress is to issue more executive orders and administrative rulemakings to partially substitute for Congressional opposition to his climate and energy agenda. Working through the EPA and the Clean Air Act, he could enact tougher rules that would cut carbon pollution from power plants and mitigate the potential effects of the failure to enact a national cap-and-trade program. An agreement reached with the auto industry in July 2011 to double fuel standards to fifty-four miles per gallon by 2025 is also a step in the right direction, provided that its stipulations are enforced. Other significant measures the administration can take include government procurement of renewable energy and energy-efficient products and services and reductions in subsidies for fossil fuel-related research and extraction. Perhaps one of the most significant steps President Obama can take towards realizing its climate change policy is to strike a deal with China to reduce global emissions of CO2. The two nations combined account for 40 percent of the world’s carbon pollution, so a bilateral agreement can mollify Obama’s opponents in Congress and encourage other nations to follow suit.

In the longer term, the United States and its international partners should consider the following steps:

Measuring and monitoring emissions reductions

Build a credible institution or institutions for measuring, reporting, and verifying global emissions and emissions-cutting efforts

Countries will not take on strong efforts to reduce emissions unless they are confident that others are playing their part. Nor will wealthier countries provide financial or technological assistance to poorer counterparts unless they are confident that the efforts they support are actually implemented.

This demands robust institutional capacity to verify that countries are making the cuts and investing in the emissions-cutting actions that they claim to be. The precise approach to this could take multiple forms, with the task falling primarily to the international level at one extreme, and domestic institutions at the other. At a minimum, an international institution will need to aggregate national-level reporting; this might usefully happen under the aegis of the UNFCCC. Other lessons in monitoring and verification might be learned from experience with the WTO, IMF, and OECD.

Climate strategies in development institutions

Reform Bretton Woods and UN institutions

Institutions that support global economic development have a large potential role in promoting low-carbon growth and adaptation to climate change. The World Bank, along with the regional development banks, has unique capacity to mobilize large amounts of capital for the sorts of investments that will be needed in low-carbon infrastructure. Several UN organizations, such as the United Nations Development Program and United Nations Environment Program, lack the ability to handle such large infrastructure projects but can play a major role in building relevant capacity in developing countries. All these organizations would benefit from both clear strategies for supporting climate action and increased related funding.

They might also, more controversially, consider promoting policy shifts through conditionality on their assistance. For example, the World Bank might condition assistance in increasing energy supply on efforts to moderate demand through subsidy reform. Such steps would be difficult politically but would not be unprecedented.

Redirect money from offsets

Set up substantial international funds for low-carbon technology finance

International financial transfers in support of low-carbon development have occurred principally through carbon finance (i.e., offsets). Yet offsets are often an inefficient way of financially supporting low-carbon development. Many countries lack the capacity to administer robust offset systems yet could benefit from financial support for emissions-cutting activities. Offset schemes also often overpay, sometimes massively, for reductions; dedicated funds could remove that waste. Funds can also be targeted at eliminating specific problems that stand in the way of private financial flows, by offering tailored products like risk guarantees and concessional loans. Funds can also target opportunities that are difficult to quantify for the purposes of offsets, such as investments in public transportation and long-distance grid infrastructure, or avoided deforestation, where measuring emissions changes is difficult.

Climate on G20 agenda

Make climate change a regular Group of Twenty agenda item

Dealing with climate change will require high-level political leadership and deal-making of a sort that is difficult to achieve through formal negotiations with 194 parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change by dedicated climate diplomats alone. Smaller gatherings that include heads of state and powerful cabinet ministers have the potential to unlock less rigid forms of cooperation and to find opportunities to trade across issue areas.

Such meetings also provide a regular spotlight that can help hold leaders accountable for past promises in the absence of strong formal compliance mechanisms. The Group of Twenty (G20) has effectively replaced the Group of Eight (G8) as the main multilateral consultative forum for economic decision-making. Climate issues will largely be transferred there, though in the short term the G20 will remain primarily focused on finance as it was during its most recent summit in November 2011. The United States and other big emitters should likewise continue regular meetings of the Major Economies Forum, as a minilateral negotiating framework parallel--and complementary--to the ongoing UNFCCC process.

Core Agreements



For more information, including membership; mandate; gaps and weaknesses; implementation, compliance and enforcement; and U.S. policy stance, download the full report. 

United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) (1992, in force 1994)

Legal framework requiring stabilization of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, except those covered by Montreal Protocol, to 1990 levels by 2000 to minimize consequences of human activity on climate. First global admission that climate change is a problem and that multilateral cooperation is needed. Annual meetings to negotiate climate change regime, such as Kyoto Protocol, and a successor accord with legal force agreed upon in 2011.

Berlin Mandate (1995)

Result (PDF) of first meeting of UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) parties. Launched negotiations for the Kyoto Protocol. Reaffirmed "common but differentiated responsibilities" (CBDR), between developed and developing countries’ contribution to climate change and ability to address it. Recognized that meeting UNFCCC obligations by 2000 was unrealistic. Established negotiations process for binding targets after 2000.

Protocol to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (Kyoto Protocol) (1997, entered into force 2005)

Requires developed countries to reduce emissions of six greenhouse gases by roughly 5 percent below 1990 levels by 2012. In 2011, second commitment period added for 2013-2017. Countries can use flexibility mechanisms such as emissions trading of reduction credits to offset between developed countries or the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM), which gives developed countries credits for investing in environmental projects in developing countries.

Buenos Aires Plan of Action (2003)

Established deadlines for finalizing details including compliance, funding, and trading mechanisms of Kyoto Protocol so that it could be operational when it entered into force in 2000. Made Global Environment Facility the financial mechanism of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change to assist developing countries combat climate. Encouraged capacity building and technology sharing between developed and developing countries.

Bonn Agreements on the Implementation of the Buenos Aires Plan of Action (1996) and the Oil Pollution Compensation Fund Convention (Fund Convention) (1996)

Outlined flexible mechanisms, emissions trading, Joint Implementation Initiative (JI), and Clean Development Mechanism (CDM). Approved credit for carbon sinks and created new funds to support climate change action. Highlighted importance of concessions on carbon sinks to integrate countries such as Japan, Canada, and Russia. Created broad consequences for failing to adhere to emissions targets.

Marrakech Accords (SUA) (1992)

Finalized remaining operational details of Kyoto Protocol, setting stage for ratification. These details included rules for emissions trading, a complete compliance regime, and decision to begin discussing future developing country commitments. Accommodated Russia’s request [PDF] for additional credits for its forest management activities to ensure its ratification.

Montreal Action Plan (2005)

Extended Kyoto Protocol beyond 2012, giving parties seven years to ratify accords when first phase ends in 2012. Calls for a working group of parties to Kyoto Protocol to report to annual UN Framework Convention on Climate Change session. Strengthens Clean Development Mechanism by identifying funding sources and specific rules.

Bali Action Plan (Bali Road Map) (2008)

Established Ad Hoc Working Group on Long-term Cooperative Action to facilitate negotiations for new post-2012 commitments. Called for a binding agreement to be completed by 2009. Called on developing countries to reduce emissions through Nationally Appropriate Mitigation Actions that are measurable, reportable, and verifiable. Placed trusteeship of Adaptation Fund created by Kyoto Protocol with World Bank.

Copenhagen Accord (2009)

Acknowledged need for global action to keep temperatures from rising more than 2 degrees Celsius. Includes funding for climate change initiatives, including $30 billion from developed countries and a "goal" of raising $100 billion a year by 2020. Establishes more oversight and transparency mechanisms, requiring emissions reductions by both developed countries.

Cancun Agreement (2010)

Acknowledges need for global action on climate change. Brings developed and developing countries’ emission reduction pledges under the auspices of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). Establishes framework for the the Green Climate Fund, a financial mechanism to assist developing countries. Establishes the Climate Adaptation Framework, which identifies adaptation priorities within the UNFCCC.

Durban Platform for Enhanced Action (2011)

Agreed that that second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol shall begin on January 1, 2013 and end on December 31 of 2017 or 2020, based on decision of Ad Hoc Working Group on Further Commitments for Annex I Parties under the Kyoto Protocol. Calls upon UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) parties to draft accord with "legal force" to replace Kyoto Protocol by 2015 and come into force by 2020.

First Assessment Report (FAR) (1990)

First major international report to conclude that human activities emit greenhouse gases (GHG) and that these gases will result in global warming, though uncertainties abounded. Calculated that CO2 accounts for over half of the increased greenhouse effect and that immediate human action to reduce emissions by 60 percent would be required to stabilize GHG concentrations to current levels. Predicted 20 cm rise in sea levels by 2030.

Second Assessment Report (SAR) (1995)

Summarized (PDF) climate science progress since 1990. Looked at socioeconomic costs of climate change and how policymakers could address vulnerabilities. Found that greenhouse gases (GHG) continued to increase and that evidence suggested human influence on global climate. Emphasized need for a combination of technology, international, and national cooperation, information exchange, and financing to combat climate change.

Third Assessment Report (TAR) (2001)

Concluded that global temperatures continue to increase, as evidenced by melting glaciers, changing seasonality, and other indicators. Found that greenhouse gas (GHG) concentrations have continued to increase, to a level unseen in the past 420,000 years, possibly longer. Definitively linked human use of fossil fuels to global warming. Predicts that global temperature could rise over its 1990 level by 1.4 to 5.8 degrees Celsius by 2100.

Fourth Assessment Report (AR4) (2007)

Concluded that climate warming was "unequivocal" and "very likely" due to human action. Found that global atmospheric concentration of CO2 up more than 35 percent over preindustrial levels and that main causes are fossil fuel use and changes in land use. United States found to emit more than 18 percent of global GHG, but China the largest emitter.

Stern Review: The Economics of Climate Change (2006)

Landmark report by Sir Nicholas Stern, commissioned by then-Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown. Assesses economic impact of climate change inaction. Determines that overall costs would be equal or greater than 5 percent of global gross domestic product per year.

Group of Eight (G8) Gleneagles Plan of Action on Climate Change, Clean Energy, and Sustainable Development (2005)

Recognized [PDF] climate change as a problem that requires global cooperation. Reaffirmed UN Framework Convention on Climate Change and pledged to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and work with developing countries. Started dialogue with the International Energy Agency to advise on energy strategies, and with the World Bank to advise on financing and development, and address issues like clean energy, climate science, and illegal logging.

Energy Charter Treaty (ECT) and Protocol on Energy Efficiency and Related Environmental Aspects (PEEREA) (1994, entered into force 1998)

Promotes cooperation on energy with a focus on five areas, including reducing negative environmental impacts through energy efficiency. Protocol provides guidelines for the design and implementation of energy efficient policies and programs.

Convention on Environmental Impact Assessment in a Transboundary Context (1991, entered into force 1997)

UN Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) Convention. Provides framework for requiring countries to assess environmental impact of projects early on and notify each other of all major projects likely to have a transboundary environmental impact.

Protocol to the Convention on Environmental Impact Assessment in a Transboundary Context on Strategic Environmental Assessment (Kiev Protocol) (2010)

Requires both an Environmental Impact Assessment and a Strategic Environmental Assessment, which takes place much earlier in the planning process. Provides for more public participation in government decision-making on development, giving public the right to comment on impact of plans and programs before they are implemented.

Vienna Convention for the Protection of the Ozone Layer (1985, entered into force 1988)

First international convention to deal with ozone layer depletion. Provides general obligations for parties to protect ozone layer and coordinate policies and regulations to limit harm to ozone layer. Creates mechanism for international cooperation on research, monitoring, and information exchange.

Montreal Protocol to the Vienna Convention for the Protection of the Ozone Layer (1987, entered into force 1989) with amendments.

Binding agreement on specific reductions in use and production of ozone depleting chemicals, specifically chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs) at different paces for developed and developing countries. Widely regarded as one of the most successful international agreements. Atmospheric CFC levels dramatically reduced.

Convention on Long-Range Transboundary Air Pollution (CLRTAP) and Protocols (1979, entered into force 1983)

Calls on parties to curb air pollution and develop policies for information exchange, research, and monitoring. Initially established to combat acid rain. Extended by eight protocols to also cut emissions of several pollutants (e.g. organic pollutants, volatile organic compounds, and nitrogen oxides). Has contributed [PDF] to decreasing level of pollutants in Europe.

Report of the Secretary-General’s High-level Advisory Group on Climate Change Financing (2010)

Identifies potential sources for meeting the $100 billion in climate change financing pledged at the Copenhagen conference. Sources include: domestic carbon taxes and emissions auctions in developed countries, taxes on international transportation, and taxes on financial transactions. The report also highlighted the important role of multilateral development banks, and direct contributions from governments.

Hyogo Framework for Action (2005)

Recognizes link between climate change and natural disasters. Provides framework for global action to reduce risk of natural disasters and substantially reduce disaster losses by 2015. Identifies five priorities for action: strong local and national institutions for implementing disaster risk reduction strategies, monitoring and early warning systems, education and innovation to build a "culture of resilience," inherent risk factors, and disaster preparedness.

Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) (1994, entered into force 1996)

Aims to combat desertification and effects of drought, especially in African and developing countries, through international "cooperation and partnerships." Focuses on greater integration of efforts to combat desertification with other sustainable development and poverty eradication efforts, as well as more inclusion of local and regional organizations.

Rio Declaration on Environment and Development (1992)

Document produced at 1992 UN Conference on Environment and Development. Lays out twenty-seven principles to guide future sustainable development. Focused on sources of pollution and emissions, alternative sources of energy, and raising awareness of environmental impacts of development.

Agenda 21 (1992)

Establishes comprehensive action plan for organizations, governments, and major groups for sustainable development in twenty-first century. Provides recommendations in three main areas: "social and economic dimensions," "conservation and management of resources," and "strengthening role of major groups".

Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) (1992, entered into force 1993)

Provides framework to preserve biodiversity and use natural resources sustainably. Helps governments create and implement national biodiversity plans by providing scientific and technical information relating to biological diversity. Linked politically to climate change regime (both brought forth at 1992 Earth Summit).

Convention on Migratory Species of Wild Animals (CMS) (1979, entered into force 1983)

Protects migratory species by prohibiting activities that have adverse effect on threatened and endangered species and encouraging agreements on protection of all such migratory species. Provides general principles and institutions to create regional agreements or species-specific agreements.

Finance Mechanisms



For more information, including membership; mandate; gaps and weaknesses; implementation, compliance and enforcement; and U.S. policy stance, download the full report. 

Green Climate Fund (2009)

Created at Conference of the Parties-15 in order to help poor countries adapt to and mitigate effects of climate change. Mandate reaffirmed at the sixteenth conference of the parties to the UN climate change convention in Cancun, Mexico, 2010.

World Bank Clean Technology Fund (CTF) (2008)

Mitigation fund dedicated to developing and implementing clean technology to help developing countries confront climate change.

World Bank Strategic Climate Fund (SCF) (2008)

Overarching World Bank fund [PDF] supporting pilot climate change related programs. It includes three programs: Pilot Program for Climate Resilience provides incentives for considering climate change in national development planning. Forest Investment Program combats deforestation and forest degradation. Program for Scaling-Up Renewable Energy in Low Income Countries invests in renewable energy and sustainable energy in low income countries.

United Nations Reducing Emissions from Deforestation in Developing Countries Program (REDD) (2008)

UN interagency partnership helps poor countries prepare to take part in future REDD activities. Supports REDD+ initiatives in countries that are designed to supplement traditional REDD programming with a focus on conservation, sustainable forest management, and improving forest carbon stocks.

Forest Carbon Partnership Facility (FCPF) (2007)

World Bank fund to help developing countries reduce emissions from deforestation. The Readiness Mechanism helps developing countries measure emissions and develop national strategies to monitor and reduce emissions due to deforestation. The Carbon Finance Mechanism (Carbon Fund) funds countries that have reached "UN Reducing Emissions from Deforestation in Developing Countries Program Fund (REDD) readiness."

Adaptation Fund (2007)

Assists in financing adaptation projects and programs in developing countries party to the Kyoto Protocol and particularly vulnerable to adverse effects of climate change.

Global Facility for Disaster Reduction and Recovery (GFDRR) (2005)

Supports implementation of the Hyogo Framework of Action. Assists high-risk developing countries create national strategies for disaster prevention and recovery. Promotes technology sharing and cooperation between low-income countries.

Multilateral Fund for the Implementation of the Montreal Protocol (1990)

Helps poor countries that consume or generate less than 0.3 kg ozone depleting substances annually, to comply with protocol measures.

Least Developed Countries Climate Fund (LDCF) (2001)

Established at Conference of the Parties-7. Supports adaptation projects in developing countries particularly vulnerable to climate change.

Special Climate Change Fund (SCCF) (2001)

Established at Conference of the Parties-7. Grants money for projects with long-term focus, rather than short-term initiatives. Priority given to adaptation measures.

European Union Emissions Trading System (EU ETS) (2005)

Largest cap and trade emissions trading scheme in the world. Helps EU member states comply with Kyoto Protocol. Assigns credits from: power/heat, oil, metals, paper, and "Energy Intensive Industry." Phase I, completed in 2007, allocated emissions credits of 12,000 "installations." Phase II (2008 to 2012) included Clean Development Mechanism and Joint Implementation Initiative credits and non-EU members. Will be revised after 2012.

European Climate Exchange (ECX) (2005)

An exchange for trading carbon reduction credits issued under the EU’s mandatory emissions trading scheme, European Union Allowances (EUA), and the UN Kyoto Protocol scheme, Certified Emission Reductions (CER).

Chicago Climate Exchange (CCX) (2002)

Voluntary cap and trade exchange for GHG in the United States. Allows trading in six GHGs, including carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide. Provides a forum for entities offsetting GHG emissions to sell allowances.

Gold Standard (2001)

Nonprofit organization that certifies and issues carbon credits (or carbon offsets) for registered projects that reduce greenhouse gas emissions in ways that contribute to sustainable development. Founded by more than fifty NGOs led by World Wildlife Fund, Helio International, and SouthSouthNorth. Currently 139 Clean Development Mechanism/Joint Implementation Initiative projects and 143 other projects that have been verified by Gold Standard.

Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) (1997)

Enables industrialized countries to reach their emissions reduction targets by investing in carbon emission reduction (CER) projects in developing countries. Enables projects that reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in developing countries to earn CERs that are each equivalent to one ton of CO2. CERs can be used by industrialized countries to adhere to emission reduction targets.

Joint Implementation (JI) (1997)

Allows Annex I countries to meet emissions reduction targets by investing in projects with other Annex I economies in transition. Emissions Reduction Units (ERUs) awarded for each project based on host country’s pool of emissions credit. In 2010-2011 issued [PDF] emission reduction units (ERUs) to reduce the equivalent of 10 million tons of CO2 in the atmosphere.




For more information, including membership; mandate; gaps and weaknesses; implementation, compliance and enforcement; and U.S. policy stance, download the full report. 

Global Environment Facility (GEF) (1991)

Principal funding mechanism for major environmental conventions. Provides grants to developing countries for environmental and sustainable development projects in six areas: climate change, ozone depletion, biodiversity, land degradation, persistent organic pollutants, and international waters. Administers several adaptation funds, including the Least Developed Countries Fund and Special Climate Change Fund.

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) (1989)

Scientific body of experts that summarizes peer reviewed literature and reports on climate change and its consequences. Led by governments, provides rigorous and balanced scientific information to policymakers but maintains policy-neutral stance. The 2007 IPCC report, AR4, determines that average temperature is rising and that a large majority of CO2 in the atmosphere can be attributed to anthropogenic CO2 emissions.

United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) (1972)

Lead UN body for environmental issues. Coordinates UN and regional environmental activities. Implements World Bank and Global Environment Facility-funded climate-related projects with an emphasis on environment. Parent institution of International Panel on Climate Change and one of the implementing agencies of GEF. Provides services to UN Framework Convention on Climate Change by way of "education and public awareness."

United Nations Development Program (UNDP) (1965)

Principal development arm of the United Nations. Provides developing countries with funding and support for economic growth and development. Growing climate change agenda [PDF] for sustainable development and poverty alleviation. Focus on advancing adaptation frameworks. Some projects based on developing low-carbon and alternative energy resources for developing countries. Implementing agency of Global Environment Facility.

International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) (1957)

Authoritative agency on nuclear issues. Helps members develop national capacity to carry out energy and environmental analysis, and create energy plans. Has been strengthening its activities to respond to the climate crisis. Facilitates the transfer of peaceful nuclear technology under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) and monitors civilian nuclear programs to ensure compliance with safeguards.

World Meteorological Organization (WMO) (1950)

International body for climate science. Provides expertise on earth’s meteorological trends, including the interaction of the atmosphere with greenhouse gas emissions. Coordinates activities related to weather, climate, hydrology, and water resources. Parent institution of International Panel on Climate Change.

International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) (1948)

First global environmental organization that promotes preservation and sustainable development. While core mission is not climate related, the organization works to protect biodiversity, particularly through curbing climate change, promoting renewable energy, greening the world economy, and encouraging sustainable development.

International Maritime Organization (IMO) (1948)

Develops and maintains a global regulatory framework for shipping that includes setting environmental, technical, and safety norms and standards. Responsible for addressing emissions from shipping under Kyoto Protocol. Has developed some sixty legally binding agreements and conventions that address maritime safety, prevention of marine pollution, and liability and compensation issues.

International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) (1945)

Flagship organization for promoting safe, secure, and sustainable development of industry. Responsible for reducing aviation emissions under Kyoto Protocol. In 2009, developed a plan of action [PDF] to address climate change in aviation. Recommends annual increase of 2 percent in fuel efficiency.

World Health Organization (WHO) (1945)

UN’s leading health body that provides guidance on global health issues. Recognizes linkage between climate change and public health. Has launched research agenda that promotes and supports evidence-based research on the impacts of climate-related risks on human health.

Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) (1945)

UN agency for food security. Works to address climate change in agriculture, livestock, forestry, and fisheries. Program on climate change mitigation for agriculture establishes a database of greenhouse gases. Emphasizes that climate change exacerbates food crisis and needs a joint solution. Urged leaders to improve agriculturae, for example through farming practices [PDF] that capture and store carbon in soil.

United Nations (UN) (1945)

Spearheaded multilateral collaboration on climate change including sponsoring the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change and creating the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. UN General Assembly reviews issue of climate change each year. In 2007, Security Council held its first debate on climate change’s effect on energy, peace, and security.

Group of Twenty (G20) (1999)

Provides a forum for consultation and cooperation among large industrialized countries and major emerging economies. Aims to make progress on climate change issues. Leaders at the Pittsburgh Summit supported increased public and private funding to support mitigation and adaptation in developing countries. No specific targets proposed.

World Trade Organization (WTO) (1995)

Governs international trade. Resolves disputes on border adjustments due to climate change and intellectual property of green technology. Has reported [PDF] on the connection between trade and climate change. Argues that liberalizing trade barriers and tackling climate change can help develop a low carbon economy. Suggests that border tax adjustments could be applied in a nondiscriminatory way to contribute to climate protection.

Group of Eight (G8) (1975)

Provides a forum for consultation and cooperation among G8 countries. Climate change came on the agenda at 2005 Gleneagles Summit, when an initiative [PDF] focusing on climate change, clean energy, and sustainable development was launched. At 2009 L’Aquila Summit, leaders agreed to limit global warming to just 2 degrees Celsius and cut emissions by 80 percent by 2050.

World Bank (1944)

Promotes economic development in world’s poorer countries through advice, lending, and concessional grants. Has formally integrated climate change agenda with growth and development strategies. In 2008, created two funds for climate change, the Strategic Climate Fund and the Clean Technology Fund. Helps countries participate in reducing emissions from deforestation and land degradation through the Forest Carbon Partnership Facility.

International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) (2009)

Newly founded agency created to support renewable energy development and use by providing an international coordinating body for data collection and analysis, policy advising, and information sharing.

International Energy Agency (IEA) (1973)

Created (PDF) by OECD to support energy policy and action. Provides research, particularly on emissions trading and Clean Development Mechanism, energy security and climate change, and sectoral approaches to emissions reductions. Maintains database of members’ policies on energy efficiency, renewable energy, and emissions reduction measures. Group of Eight (G8) formally mandated IEA to advise on various energy policy issues in 2005.

Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) (1960)

Coordinates policies of members by setting oil production quotas. Provides technical and economic aid. Members coordinate positions on climate change policies. Supported clean technology as it relates to carbon capture and storage. Argue that greenhouse gas reduction measures have negative [PDF] impact on oil producing economies. Have asked for financial compensation to offset any adverse impacts.

International Strategy for Disaster Reduction (ISDR) (1999)

UN forum provides information and advice on reducing disaster risk, including in context of climate change. Offers guidance on climate change adaptation measures. Assists countries mitigate climate change risks per Hyogo Framework (HFA).

Nongovernmental Organizations and Initiatives



For more information, including membership; mandate; gaps and weaknesses; implementation, compliance and enforcement; and U.S. policy stance, download the full report. 

Climate and Clean Air Coalition (CCAC) (2012)

Addresses both climate change and public health risks associated with short-lived pollutants including black carbon (soot), methane, and hydrofluorocarbons. Directs funds to developing countries to implement mitigation efforts targeting short-lived pollutants.

Major Economies Forum on Energy and Climate (MEF) (2009)

Aims to facilitate dialogue on energy and climate issues among economic heavyweights in developed and developing countries. Serves as a platform to launch major initiatives that will have greater impact on climate reductions than if solely undertaken by smaller economies. Since the failure of Copenhagen, has been used as an alternative track for garnering international consensus on climate issues.

International Partnership for Energy Efficiency Cooperation (IPEEC) (2008)

Proposed by the European Union and launched by G8 and China, India, and South Korea. Goal is to increase cooperation on energy efficiency initiatives. Enables discussion, consultation, and exchange of information.

Major Economies Meeting on Energy Security and Climate Change (MEM) (2007)

Established to assist climate negotiations by providing a setting for major industrialized and developing countries to discuss climate and energy initiatives. Met three times in 2007 and 2008. Continued under Obama administration with different name.

Asia-Pacific Partnership on Clean Development and Climate (2005)

Launched to encourage bilateral public-private engagement on climate and energy to meet climate change and energy security objectives. Convened task forces on eight major industrial sectors—aluminum, buildings and appliances, cement, fossil fuels, coal, power, renewable energy, and steel—that spearhead projects to reduce emissions and encourage cleaner energy production. Twenty flagship projects as of February 2010.

Gleneagles Dialogue on Climate Change, Energy, and Sustainable Development (PDF) (1995)

Created (PDF) at the G8 Summit in Gleneagles in 2005 to share information and best practices in mitigating climate change, transforming energy usage, and promoting sustainable development. Charged to oversee implementation of the agreements reached at Gleneagles and promote cooperation on future agreements. Replaced by Group of Twenty dialogues.

EU-China Partnership on Climate Change (2005)

Aims to enhance cooperation between the European Union and China on climate change, specifically on developing clean energy sector. Aims to develop a zero emissions coal technology and to reduce cost of key clean energy technologies and encourage their deployment in both countries by 2020. Also focused on setting building codes, labeling, and standards for energy emissions.

U.S.-China Energy Policy Dialogue (2004)

Facilitates coordination of Chinese and U.S. energy policies. Operates primarily between the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) and China’s National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC).

Global Methane Initiative [Formerly U.S. "Methane to Markets" Partnership (2004)]

Creates a global partnership to promote methane-recovery for power generation. Uses methane from landfills, agriculture, land mines, and oil and gas systems.

Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency Partnership (REEEP) (2002)

Works to promote renewable energy and energy-efficient technology with an emphasis on emerging markets and developing countries.

United Nations Global Compact (UNGC) (2000)

Works to align the objectives of the business community the international community by committing businesses to uphold ten "universally accepted" principles on human rights, labor, environment, and anticorruption. Aims to increase support in business community for broader UN goals.

International Network for Environmental Compliance and Enforcement (INECE) (1989)

International network of environmental compliance and enforcement experts. Aims to foster cooperation on enforcement of environmental requirements through regulatory and non-regulatory approaches. Began as an exchange between U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Dutch Environment Ministry. Now includes government and nongovernmental actors, international organizations such as UN Environment Program.

Brundtland Commission(1987)

Officially called the World Commission on Environment and Development; established to address the degradation of the environment and its effect on development. Tasked with writing a report on long-term sustainable development strategies, methods for creating greater cooperation among developing countries, and ways to more effectively tackle environmental matters.

Global Campaign for Climate Action (2009)

International campaign to mobilize grassroots constituency and advocate for climate change issues.

Climate Action Network (CAN) (2002)

Worldwide network that works to limit anthropogenic climate change through information exchange and develop a coordinated strategy among NGOs.

International Network for Sustainable Energy (1992)

Promotes sustainable energy to preserve the environment and reduce poverty. Seeks to phase out fossil fuel and nuclear energy use.

Global Legislators Organization for a Balanced Environment (GLOBE International) (1989)

Facilitates high-level negotiations between legislators from G8+5 countries on an international level, through the International Legislators Forum, a regional level, through the Regional Globes and Dialogues program, and a national level, through the National Globes and Dialogues program. Aims to promote leadership on climate change among G8+5 countries and cooperation outside formal negotiations.

Friends of the Earth (1971)

Campaigns for "environmentally sustainable and socially just societies." Major focus is climate change and clean energy alternatives.

Greenpeace (1971)

Raises awareness of environmental issues by organizing major campaign to promote education and bear witness to major events.

National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) (1970)

Promotes conservation, global warming prevention, and the use of alternative energy. Work on climate change focuses on promoting cap and trade legislation, investment in clean energy and energy efficient technology, and effects of global warming on weather and human health.

Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) (1967)

Aims to tackle pressing environmental issues through scientific research, economic incentives, corporate partnerships, and policy recommendations.

World Wildlife Fund (1961)

Protects wildlife. Promotes use of environmentally sustainable resources and advocates for pollution reduction.

Western Climate Initiative (WCI) (2007)

Initial cap-and-trade system to begin January 1, 2012 with the goal of reducing emissions by 15 percent below 2005 levels by 2020.

Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) (2003)

First cap-and-trade system for CO2 in the United States that will reduce emissions by 10 percent by 2018.

World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD) (1992)

Promotes sustainable development by sharing information, best practices, and developing business positions on relevant issues. Interfaces with government, nongovernmental organizations, and multilateral organizations to promote its agenda. Influences national and global debates on energy and environmental policy through reports, press releases, and speeches.




Daniel P. Ahn, Adjunct Senior Fellow for Energy

Elizabeth C. Economy, C.V. Starr Senior Fellow and Director for Asia Studies

Michael A. Levi, David M. Rubenstein Senior Fellow and Director of the Program on Energy and the Environment

Sebastian Mallaby, Director of the Maurice R. Greenberg Center for Geoeconomic Studies and Paul A. Volcker Senior Fellow for International Economics

A. Michael Spence, Distinguished Visiting Fellow


CFR Working Paper: Harnessing International Institutions to Address Climate Change

CFR Working Paper: After Copenhagen

CFR Expert Brief: The Coming Conflicts of Climate Change

CFR Independent Task Force Report: Confronting Climate Change: A Strategy for U.S. Foreign Policy

CFR Blog: Energy, Security, and Climate Change

Foreign Affairs: "The Crisis in Clean Energy"

AP: "The American ’Allergy’ to Global Warming: Why?"

Der Spiegel: "The Death of the Kyoto Process"

National Research Council: "America’s Climate Choices"

The Economist "Climate Change: The Heat is On"

International Energy Agency: World Energy Outlook 2011 (PDF)

McKinsey & Company: Impact of the Financial Crisis on Carbon Economics (PDF)

Stern Review: The Economics of Climate Change (PDF)

David Adam, "Q&A Climate Change"

New York Times Blog: Dot Earth


CFR Climate Crisis Guide

National Geographic: Global Warming 101 (Video)

CFR Meeting: The Diplomacy of Climate Change (Video)

CFR Meeting: A Future Vision for Energy (Video)


David Victor, Global Warming Gridlock: Creating More Effective Strategies for Protecting the Planet (Cambridge University Press, 2011)

Joseph E. Aldy and Robert N. Stavins, Architectures for Agreement: Addressing Climate Change in the Post-Kyoto World (Cambridge University Press, 2007)

Joseph E. Aldy and Robert N. Stavins, Post-Kyoto International Climate Policy: Implementing Architectures for Agreement (Cambridge University Press, 2010 )

Nicholas Stern, The Global Deal (Public Affairs, 2009)

David Victor, The Collapse of the Kyoto Protocol and the Struggle to Slow Global Warming (Council on Foreign Relations, 2001)

Michael Grubb, Christiaan Vrolijk, et al.The Kyoto Protocol: A Guide and Assessment (Royal Institute of International Affairs, 1999)

Farhana Yamin and Joanna Depledge, The International Climate Change Regime (Cambridge University Press, 2004)

Spencer Weart, The Discovery of Global Warming (Harvard University Press, 2008)


Pew Center on Climate Change

World Resources Institute

Resources for the Future


Harvard Project on International Climate Agreements, Harvard University

Institute for 21st Century Energy, Chamber of Commerce