International Climate Change Treaties

[Originally published on the website of the Citizens’ Climate Assembly].

Climate change is one of the main global challenges we face, it knows no borders and requires coordinated solutions at the international level.

The role of international organizations is essential in the fight against climate change because they set the rules of the game through international treaties by which both countries and their organizations must abide. One of the most important international organizations is the United Nations, whose main mission is to facilitate international cooperation. This cooperation concerns economic, social, cultural, and of course, environmental matters.

In line with environmental issues, in 1988 the UN decided to create the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, whose mission is to assess the situation periodically and pass its conclusions to political decision-makers. This group of experts published its first report in 1990 and served to promote the first treaty on climate change, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, which was signed at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992.

The objective of the convention, which is now fully in force, is to achieve the reduction of greenhouse gases concentrated in the atmosphere to a level that will prevent devastating consequences to the globe. This level should be achieved within a timeframe sufficient to allow ecosystems to adapt naturally to climate change, to ensure that food production is not threatened, and allow economic development to proceed in a sustainable manner.

One of the guiding principles of this convention is the need to protect the climate for the benefit of present and future generations, on the basis of equity and in accordance with their common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities.

The countries and organizations that signed it are called parties and it is important to note that this treaty leave the development of initiative to protect the climate in their hands.

However, these are only general obligations. For this reason, the Convention of Climate Change needed an agreement that would help to make it truly operational. Thus, the Kyoto Protocol was born in 1997 and entered into force in 2005.

The initial commitment of this protocol was to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions by at least 5% while the European Union committed itself to reducing its emissions by 8% between 2006 and 2012.

The delay in taking effective measures soon became evident and the need to establish a new agreement to succeed the Kyoto Protocol was unquestionable. Developing the new treaty was the objective of the Climate Summit held in 2009 in Copenhagen, which unfortunately failed.

For this reason, the Kyoto Protocol was extended until 2020, with the objective of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 18% compared to levels from 1990.

In the same period, the European Union had to reduce its emissions by 20%.

The new agreement that succeeded the Kyoto Protocol did not come until 2015 when within the framework of the COP2021 Conference of the Parties held in Paris, the so-called Paris Agreement was adopted.

What are the specific objectives of the Paris Agreement?

First, the Paris Agreement aims to curb the rise in global temperature and keep it below 2°C, preferably at 1.5°C, relative to pre-industrial levels.

Second, the agreement must promote sustainable development that drastically limits greenhouse gas emissions.

Third, it must position financial resources to a level compatible with the first two objectives.

All this is to be achieved through so-called Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs), which should contain measures on mitigation, adaptation, financial support, and technology transfer from developed to developing countries in a fully transparent manner.

For its part, the European Union as an organization part of the Convention, the Kyoto Protocol and the Paris Agreement , is also obligated to implement measures to comply with them. In fact, the European Union has been the leader in the fight against climate change since the signing of the Convention.

For example, to comply with the Kyoto Protocol, the European Union adopted legislation on emissions trading and a series of energy measures. In the European Union, the principle of shared but differentiated responsibilities applies, so in order to meet the greenhouse gas emission reduction targets, the burdens of reduction are distributed among the different member states according to their historical emissions, i.e., the member states do not have the same reduction responsibilities.

On the other hand, to comply with the Paris Agreement, the European Union initially committed to reduce its emissions by 40% by 2030, as part of the Nationally Determined Contribution. To achieve this goal, a series of adjustments were made to existing legislation in areas such as the promotion of renewable energies and energy efficiencies.

However, in light of the evolving climate situation, the European Union has increased its goal in 2020, setting its emission reduction commitment for 2030 at a minimum of 55%. In addition to this, it committed itself to achieving net zero emissions by 2050.

For its part, Spain as a signatory to the Kyoto Protocol Convention, the Paris Agreement, and also as a member state of the European Union, has adopted a series of measures to comply with its international obligations. Its rules are part of our country’s legal system. This means that the public authorities, agencies, and organizations of the State must respect the obligations of the treaties and ensure that they are properly complied with.

Not only that, but the rules of these treaties, like those of any other international agreement, prevail over any other rule of the legal system. There would only be one exception and that is if they conflict with the Spanish Constitution.

Finally, it should be remembered that in the fight against climate change, not only are these treaties important, but so are the many others on the protection of biodiversity and the protection of species and natural habitats.

Our country is part of these agreements, but we must not forget that the responsibility for this fight lies not only with public authorities, but that all of us as responsible citizens must join this challenge and take action.

Ana Barreira

Ana Barreira is a lawyer and founding Director of the International Institute for Law and Environment (IIDMA). LL.M in International Legal Studies (New York University) and in Environmental Law (London University).