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Government Action Update

Update: 10 Years of International Negotiations About Climate Change

The following text, articles, and activities can be used to supplement Climate Change Chapter 8 ("What Are Governments Doing About Climate Change?").

Cancun2010 3Participants at COP 16 in Cancun, Mexico, 2010. Source: UN Climate Talks [CC-BY-2.0], via Wikimedia Commons
The United Nations Conference of the Parties for the UNFCCC (COP) is an annual meeting of representatives from the nations who are signatories to the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).  In its 1997 meeting in Kyoto, Japan, the conference drafted the Kyoto Protocol, an agreement by the 37 of the world's developed nations to commit to reductions averaging five per cent against 1990 levels over the five-year period 2008-2012.  

In the United States, reactions to the Kyoto Protocol were mixed.  Although President Bill Clinton signed the treaty in 1999, it lacked the support for ratification by 2/3 of the members of the U.S. senate necessary to make it legally binding in the United States.  Critics at the time voiced objections to the Kyoto Protocol's lack of mandatory emissions targets for developing nations, such as China and India, and to the potential harm that a emissions reduction commitment might have on the U.S. economy.  Some also expressed skepticism about the scientific underpinnings of the climate change argument.

After taking office in 2001, President George W. Bush officially presented his administration's opposition to the Kyoto Protocol in a letter to senators.  The United States continues to be party to negotiations but is not an active member of the protocol.  The protocol achieved sufficient ratification to go into force among ratifying members in February 2005.

GHG emissions by country, comparisons of 1990 and 2008 levelsComparisons of annual greenhouse gas emissions by country in 1990 and 2008.  From

Between 2001 and 2011, UN COP negotiations continued to stall over the difficulty of coming to  agreements about mandatory emissions targets and about which countries should and should not be held to those targets.  For developing nations, combating extreme poverty and achieving social and economic development are pressing concerns.  China, India, and other nations argue that their time-frame for reducing emissions should be different from that of developed nations, who have already had centuries to improve quality of life for their people through heavy industrial activities that have increased the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.  Some policymakers and lobbyists in the United States, however, point out that China and India will soon surpass other major polluters in total and per capita GHG emissions.  It would be unfair, they argue, to hinder U.S. industries with additional regulations and the burden of investing in clean technology while giving China and India the freedom to continue emitting at their current pace.  Additionally, there are some disagreements among UNFCCC parties about how emissions reductions will be monitored and verified.

In December 2007, the United Nations Conference on Climate Change (UNCCC) met in Bali, Indonesia, for COP13. The resulting Bali Road Map plan reaffirmed the need to create emissions targets, but did not include any legally binding targets.  Instead, it created a time-table for further negotiations over the next two years, to preceded along two tracks.  One track would be for nations who wanted to pursue a Kyoto-style system of mandatory emissions targets.  The other track would be for nations, such as the United States, who were opposed to setting mandatory emissions targets without participation by all major polluters.

Leaders meeting at COP15 in Copenhagen, Denmark
World leaders confer at the UNFCCC Copenhagen conferece in 2009.  Source: MRL via Wikimedia Commons

After two years, the UNCCC convened again in Copenhagen, Denmark, for COP15.  Again, this meeting resulted in no concrete emissions targets, and the negotiations nearly dissolved.  Direct negotiations between heads of state, including President Barack Obama and Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao resulted in a last-minute, non-binding accord, pledging:

  • Participants' commitment to take actions to stall the warming of the planet at 2 degrees Celsius above the average temperature at the time of the industrial revolution [See Temperature Scales.]
  • Plans to create a multi-billion dollar global fund for developing nations who are especially vulnerable to climate change.
  • Plans to implement REDD (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation), a controversial scheme to pay developing countries to preserve forests.

Only a few countries have agreed to adopt or associate themselves with this accord, although the details of REDD and for a global fund for technology transfer and aid to developing nations have been discussed at subsequent meetings.   After this conference, some observers felt pessimistic about the ability of the United Nations and the Kyoto framework to address the issue of climate change.

Delegates met the following year in Cancun, Mexico.  This meeting also failed to produce binding emissions targets or a framework for collecting and distributing funds.

The next UN COP meeting will take place in Durban, South Africa, from November 28 to December 3, 2011.  


  1. Who are some of the stakeholders in the UN COP conferences? What does each group hope to gain from the meeting?
  2. View/read these two of  the following articles/videos.  For each, determine the speaker's argument.  What do they want you to believe about climate change and government action?  What tools or tactics do they use to get their message across?  Are they convincing?

Although policy-making has been slow at the federal level in the United States, some actions have been undertaken at the state and local level to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and prepare communities for the effects of climate change. On the day that the Kyoto Protocol went into force, Seattle mayor Greg Nickels expressed his commitment to pursuing the emissions target goals of the protocol for his own city.  Ultimately, Nickels created a coalition of over 130 mayors representing other U.S. cities who agreed to meet the emissions reduction target of the Kyoto Protocol by 2012.

Other examples of local actions include: California's AB 32 (2006), a law which imposes mandatory emissions caps across state industries to bring emissions to 1990 levels by the year 2020; Massachusetts' lawsuit again the Environmental Protection Agency for failing to adequately regulate vehicle tailpipe emissions; and the City of Chicago's efforts to prepare itself for future extreme changes in weather patterns.


  1. What actions, if any, has your city or state taken to address greenhouse gas emissions and the consequences of climate change?


- Text of the Kyoto Protocol (1997) -
- Text of the Bali Road Map (2007) -
- Text of the Copenhagen Accord (2009) -
- Text of Cancun Agreements (2010) -
- Bush Statement on Kyoto Protocol (2001) -
- Nickels Announcement to meet Kyoto Protocol goals (2005) -


- 2011 Dec 14.  U.S. Envoy Relieved by Climate Talks' Outcome.  By John M. Broder, The NY Times Green Blog.  Excerpt: 
…The senior American climate change envoy, Todd D. Stern, is back in Washington from the double-overtime United Nations negotiations in Durban, South Africa, and has declared himself pretty well satisfied with the result, although closing the deal wasn’t easy….
…He said the United States team arrived in Durban with two goals. The first was to deepen the agreements reached at the two previous United Nations climate conferences, in Copenhagen  and Cancún, Mexico…The Americans’ second goal was to find some solution to what could be called the Kyoto conundrum — that is, what sort of treaty or agreement should replace the Kyoto Protocol… Resolving that problem proved to be a huge challenge, and the reason that a conference that was supposed to end Friday evening did not conclude until sunrise on Sunday…. The standoff boiled down to a dispute over what most observers would consider arcane legal language but that meant a lot to the parties involved….
…Of course there is a lot of work ahead. The delegates agreed only to begin negotiations with a deadline of 2015 to produce a new agreement to take effect in 2020. There is no certainty about what will be in such an agreement, and no confidence that the United States Senate will ratify it. But those are problems for another day….
- 2011 July 18.  On Nauru, A Sinking Feeling.  By Marcus Stephen, New York Times.
-2010 December 13.  U.N. Climate Talks End.  By Jeffrey Ball, Cassandra Sweet, Wall Street Journal.  [Access available for subscribing schools through Proquest]
- 2010 February.  Companies fund projects to preserve Amazon rain forest.  The Los Angeles Times
- 2009 December 21.  Summit Leaves Key Questions Unresolved.  By Jeffrey Ball, Wall Street Journal.  [Access available for subscribing schools through Proquest]
-2009 December 18.  Many Goals Remain Unmet in 5 Nations' Climate Deal.  By John M. Broder, New York Times. 
- 2009 August 13.  When money grows on trees.  By Mark Shrope, Nature Reports climate Change.
- 2007 December.  Climate plan looks beyond Bush's tenure.  New York Times.

Additional Resources

World Carbon Emissions by Country (2009). The Guardian.  An infographic displaying world carbon emissions by country

Gapminder.  Create your own visual representations of the relationship between CO2 emissions and other human development indicators.