The Likelihood of a 2015 U.N. Global Climate Change Agreement

Francesca Rufin, Associate Editor, Michigan Journal of International Law

The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) is an international environmental treaty aimed at “[stabilizing] greenhouse gas emissions in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system.” [i] It was signed and ratified by a majority of countries around the globe in the early to mid 1990s and entered into force on March 21, 1994. However, since then, U.N. negotiations have failed to produce effective action.[ii] Current efforts are being directed towards the 2015 conference in Paris. At the Paris conference, the 196 parties to the Convention will convene with the objective of achieving “a legally binding and universal agreement on climate change involving all the nations of the world.”[iii] In light of continuously failed U.N. negotiations, what is the likelihood of achieving this ambitious agreement? Unfortunately, unless developed nations are willing to provide significant support to developing nations, there will likely be no consensus borne out of the Paris conference.

The UNFCCC was established, in part, on the principle that governments should protect the climate system “on the basis of equity and in accordance with their common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities.”[iv] However, the principle of equity has not been honored. Disagreement between developed and developing nations as to this very concept of “common but differentiated responsibilities” is a major reason why climate negotiations have continued to fail.[v] The poorer nations argue that the industrialized world—those countries responsible for most of the emissions historically—should bear most of the burden in mitigating climate change via emission reduction, as well as offer support to developing countries to help them adapt to and address global climate change. Meanwhile, the wealthier countries point towards future emissions, insisting fast-growing nations like China and India bear a greater burden, while largely ignoring the request for support in adaptation.[vi]

Unfortunately, another round of United Nations’ climate talks just concluded on October 25th in Bonn, Germany, and once again, negotiators failed to make progress. The records of the Bonn meeting indicate that significant differences in opinion persist regarding the appropriate contributions individual countries should make.[vii] The draft text of the agreement must be ready by the beginning of April 2015 so that there is enough time for it to be translated and circulated to governments well before the December 2015 Paris conference, where it is due to be agreed.[viii] Needless to say, if a universal agreement is to be met in 2015, concessions must be made at the upcoming climate conference in Lima, Peru this December.

Logic indicates that if the proposed global agreement is to be universally supported by the 196 potential country signatories, it must be perceived as fair for all. To garner universal support, the proposed agreement will most likely need to honor the core principle of equity on which the UNFCCC was originally established. In fact, according to chair of the Least Developed Countries Group charged with representing the forty-eight least developed countries, an ambitious outcome at the 2015 Paris conference can only be reached if the “voices, needs and priorities of the world’s most vulnerable people are heard and addressed.”[ix] While climate change affects all nations, the negative impacts are “felt the hardest by the poorest, because they typically live in more dangerous locations, have fewer assets, skills and access to basic services to cope with impacts caused by climate change.”[x] For this reason, many climate-vulnerable nations are adamant that the text of the agreement include a global goal to assist with adaptation efforts.

While it is still unclear what form a global goal on adaptation would take, “some [nations] have called for [the agreement] to include details on the level of financial and technical assistance richer nations should provide to poorer nations.”[xi] According to a joint submission by a group of Latin American and Caribbean countries known as AILAC and Mexico, “[a]daptation must be a central component of the 2015 Agreement and it should be addressed with the same level of priority as mitigation.”[xii] Further, these nations collectively “appeal for an agreement on a global adaptation goal by which all Parties, according to their respective capabilities, commit to increase efforts to adapt to climate change impacts, reduce people’s situations of vulnerability, and move towards resilient societies, economies and ecosystems.”[xiii] Upon the lack of progress in Bonn, China’s chief negotiator, Su Wei, unambiguously expressed that “[their] stance is very clear  [ . . . ] the 2015 agreement must include all the elements of the Convention, and shall be guided by the principles and provisions of the Convention.”[xiv] It is evident that developing nations expect developed nations to honor the principle of equity, upon which the Convention was established, and offer support—financial, technology, and capacity-building—to help developing nations adapt to and address climate change. [xv]

In alignment with the desire for a global adaptation goal, the United Nations established the Green Climate Fund in 2011 as the main mechanism to transfer money to developing nations in order to assist them in adapting to climate change, with the aim of raising climate finance of $100 billion per year by 2020.[xvi] From its inception, “the fund [was] hamstrung by a lack of practical details of where the money should come from, and by competing visions for how it should achieve its aims.”[xvii] Earlier this year, the Fund finally began to mobilize, calling for no less than $10 billion in initial capitalization, and totaling $2.3 billion as of the September 2014 summit.[xviii] Per a joint statement following the 19th BASIC Ministerial Meeting on Climate Change on October 10, meaningful contributions to the Fund, and thus delivery on existing commitments, will create the “trust and confidence indispensable for the successful conclusion of the 2015 agreement.”[xix]

Ultimately, the success of the 2015 conference in Paris will likely depend on the actions of developed nations over the next months. First, developed nations must substantially contribute to the Global Climate Fund no later than the pledging session scheduled for November of 2014.[xx] Today, the fund is still over $7 billion dollars short of meeting its $10 billion dollar initial capitalization goal, and a failure to mobilize could very well hinder the “trust and confidence” necessary for successful 2015 agreement. Further, the pressure is on at the U.N. climate conference in Lima this December. To meet the stated demands of many developing nations, the Lima conference must provide clarity on how developing countries will be supported in the implementation of their contributions under the 2015 agreement. [xxi] It is hard to imagine that developing nations would sign onto a legally binding and universal climate agreement in 2015 if their clearly expressed needs have not been met.

[i] Article 2: Objectives, Full Text of the Convention, United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, available at


[ii] Karl Ritter, Rich-Poor Divide Reopens at UN Climate Talks, Associated Press (May 12, 2009), available at


[iii] Mark Golden, Domestic Actions on Climate Change Will Bolster International Negotiations, Says Obama Environmental Policy Leader, Precourt Energy Efficiency Center: Stanford University (June 28, 2014),


[iv] Article 3: Principles, Full Text of the Convention, United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, available at


[v] Ritter, supra note 2.


[vi] Ritter, supra note 2.


[vii] No Concrete Result Reached in UN Climate Talks in Bonn, Daily Times: Pakistan (Oct. 27, 2014),


[viii] Megan Rowling, UN Climate Negotiators Urged to Lay Foundations for New Global Deal, Thomson Reuters Foundation (Oct. 21, 2014),


[ix] Prakash Mathema: Poorest Countries Have the Most to Lose at UN Climate Talks, (Oct. 23, 2014),


[x] Id.


[xi] Rowling, supra note 8.


[xii] Joint Submission of AILAC and Mexico, United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, available at


[xiii] Id.


[xiv] No Concrete Result, supra note 7.


[xv] See Joint Submission of AILAC and Mexico, supra note 11.

[xvi] John M. Broder, Climate Talks in Durban Yield Limited Agreement, N.Y. Times (Dec. 11, 2011), available at


[xvii] James Kantor, A Pledge That Didn’t Meet Its Potential, N.Y. Times (Nov. 27, 2011), available at


[xviii] Pledges Made Towards GCF at the United Nations Climate Summit 2014, Green Climate Fund (last accessed Oct. 26, 2014),


[xix] Joint Statement Issued at the Conclusion of the 19th BASIC Ministerial Meeting on Climate Change, Department of Environmental Affairs: Republic of South Africa (Oct. 10, 2014), available at


[xx] Developed Countries Urged to Meet Commitment on Climate Change, Shanghai Daily (Oct. 11, 2014),


[xxi] Id.