- Last Updated: 01 November 2015 01 November 2015
Source Image UNFCCC
Humanity has an ultimate objective to guide its response to climate change. The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change came into force on March 21, 1994 (UNFCCC). The 195 countries that ratified the UNFCCC are Parties to the Convention. By ratifying the UNFCCC, they each adopted an ultimate objective that is set out in Article 2:
The ultimate objective of this Convention and any related legal instruments that the Conference of the Parties may adopt is to achieve, in accordance with the relevant provisions of the Convention, stabilization of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system. Such a level should be achieved within a time-frame sufficient to allow ecosystems to adapt naturally to climate change, to ensure that food production is not threatened and to enable economic development to proceed in a sustainable manner.
The world has an ultimate objective, but is it clear what is needed? The simple conclusion is that 195 countries have agreed to stabilize the concentration of greenhouse gases at some point. But what is dangerous interference with the climate system?
The International Panel on Climate Change addressed this question in 2007 when it published its 4th Assessment Report. They review the findings of expert groups that asssociate uppper limits of risk at global average temperature increases of between 1ºC and 2ºC, and greehouse gas concentrations as high as 550 parts per million CO2-equivalent. The IPCC's AR4 focusses on key vulnerabilities that relate to Article 2: biological systems, social systems, geophysical systems, extreme events and regional systems. The IPCC article, What is dangerous interference with the climate system?, discusses the compleixities of this question in more detail.
Since 2007, some scientists have identified 350 ppm CO2 as an upper boundary, although increased radiative forcing of 1 watt per square meter of the earth is more comprehensive because it includes other greenhouse gases and all other human-caused factors (Hansen et al., 2008; Rockström et al., 2009; Steffen et al., 2015).
UNFCCC Text of the Convention (English) [PDF]
UNFCCC. First steps to a safer future: Introducing The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. Retrieved October 5, 2015, from http://unfccc.int/essential_background/convention/items/6036.php [link]
Rio 1992 Earth Summit (Context)
Source UN Photo | Michos Tzavaros
The 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED)--commonly known as the Earth Summit--"was a watershed event in the history of international negotiations, laying, as it did, the foundation for a new global partnership to achieve sustainable development for all the world's peoples" (Cicin-Sain, 1996, p. 123). The conference resulted in five major agreements:
- Rio Declaration of Principles
- UN Framework Convention on Climate Change
- Convention on Biological Diversity
- Agenda 21
- A 'Statement on Forest Principles'
These agreements set out a vision for a more sustainable and equitable global society. They also pointed toward a road map for getting there. That is, they combined legal obligations for nations in the two conventions with a variety of 'soft law' principles, guidelines and prescriptions to guide nation-states and others on a wide range of environment and development issues.
In the decades since the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janerio, follow-up actions and agreement have varied. As we look at the current landscape and future actions, it may be helpful to consider earlier perspectives and contexts that led to mechanisms like the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. That is it is within this larger context that countries adopted the ultimate objective articulated in Article 2 of the UNFCCC.
Earth Summit (General)
Rio Declaration on the Environment
UNEP Agenda 21
IISD Agenda 21
Statement of Forest Principles
UN Framework Convention on Climate Change
UN Convention on Biological Diversity
Voice of a Child Delegate
"If you don’t know how to fix it, please stop breaking it!"
~ Severn Cullis-Suzuki (Age 12 at the 1992 Earth Summit)
Source YouTube / We Canada
ssjothiratnam.com Full text of Severn Suzuki's speech to UN Earth Summit
Cicin-Sain, B. (1996). Earth summit implementation: Progress since Rio. Marine Policy, 20(2), 123-143. doi:10.1016/S0308-597X(96)00002-4 [journal]
Sustainable Development Goals
On September 25, 2015, 193 member states of the United Nations unanimously adopted the new Sustainabe Development Agenda (2030 Agenda). At its core, this new agreement has 17 sustainable development goals.
SDG 'Goal 13' lends support for work undertaken through the UNFCCC by agreeing "to take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts.*" SDG13 sets out the following targets:
13.1 Strengthen resilience and adaptive capacity to climate-related hazards and natural disasters in all countries
13.2 Integrate climate change measures into national policies, strategies and planning
13.3 Improve education, awareness-raising and human and institutional capacity on climate change mitigation, adaptation, impact reduction and early warning
13.a Implement the commitment undertaken by developed-country parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change to a goal of mobilizing jointly $100 billion annually by 2020 from all sources to address the needs of developing countries in the context of meaningful mitigation actions and transparency on implementation and fully operationalize the Green Climate Fund through its capitalization as soon as possible
13.b Promote mechanisms for raising capacity for effective climate change-related planning and management in least developed countries and small island developing States, including focusing on women, youth and local and marginalized communities
* Acknowledging that the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change is the primary international, intergovernmental forum for negotiating the global response to climate change.
This and the other 16 SDGs extend and expand the 8 Millenium Development Goals (MDGs) that established a global partnership to reduce extreme poverty between 2000 and 2015.
UN UN General Assembly resolution adopted 25 September 2015 [.pdf]
Source graphic Stockholm Reslience Centre
Planetary boundaries research includes greenhouse gas concentrations and their temperature effects. And, it adds 8 other boundaries to offer a more holistic set of suggested environmental markers for humankind to develop within or risk disasterous consequences and irriversible environmental change that may be detrimental for human development.
This is a research framework, not a policy framework that has been adopted by UN member states. The use of this framework implies an objective that human activities minimize pressure on the earth system in order for human development to be sustainable at the planetary level for the long term.
Researchers acknowledge that signficant uncertainty exists for quantifying boundaries and identifying the implact of one transgressed boundary on other earth system boundaries. The research appraoch is cautionary in its methods and offers advance warnings where human pressures put human development at risk.
The framework is introduced as a way of broadening the focus on climate system issues to include the broader context of earth system change.
Scientists created the "planetary boundaries" concept as a research framework to help identify and quantify a safe zone or operating space in which humanity can thrive for generation after generation. Johan Rockström and other leading academics (2009) first proposed nine tightly-interlinked biophysical thresholds that, if crossed, "could see human activities push the earth system beyond the stable environmental state of the Holocene, with consequences that are detrimental or even catastrophic for large parts of the world" (p. 472). Tentatively, they suggested quantified markers for seven of the boundaries as "best first guesses."
For one of the boundaries, climate change, they propose an alternative to the 2°C guardrail approach and propose boundaries consisent with an earlier finding by James Hansen and colleagues (2008). That is, they suggest, atmospheric CO2 concentrations should not exceed 350 parts per million and radiative forcing should not exceed 1 watt per square metre above pre-industrial levels (in 1750). They warn that most climate models do not include long-term feedback processes that can push temperatures far higher than projected (i.e. to 6°C where 3°C was projected). "This," they wrote, "would threaten the eological life-support systems that have developed in the late Quaternary environment ad would severely challenge the viability of contemporary human societies" (Rockström et al., 2009, p. 473).
By proposing nine boundaries, the framework offers a more comprehensive perspective for learning about and responding to global environmental challenges. The 2009 paper acknowledges greenhouse gases other than carbon by proposing 'radiative forcing' as a quantified threshold--a measure affected by all greenhouse gases.
Signficantly, it broadens the perspective to include critical environmental threshold that related directly to the global carbon cycle (atmospheric CO2 and ocean acidification) and those that have less of an overlap. For those latter type of thresholds, examples include nitrogen and phosphorus cycles affected by agriculture, unprecedented rates of extinction, changes in freshwater use, and the accumulation of persistent chemical pollutants.
Researchers highlighted three planetary boundaries--climate change, biodiversity loss and enhanced nitrogen cycles--where the rapid changes "cannot continue without significantly eroding the resilience of major components of earth-system functionning" (p. 473).
In 2015, Will Steffen and many of the original researchers (2015) published an update to the planetary boundaries framework. The update responded to input from relevant scientific communities and general scientific advances. They introduced a two-tier approach that identifies the signficance of particular boundaries. That is, climate change and biosphere integrity were identified as the "two core boundaries...each of which has the potential on its own to drive the earth system into a new state should they be substantially and persistently transgressed" (p. 1).
The researchers responded to accumulated evidence that has narrowed the "zone of uncertainty" for CO2 as a climate change marker. As a result, they narrowed the range for atmospheric CO2 from 350-550 ppm to 350-450 ppm. They retained the range of uncertainy for radiative forcing of between +1.0 and +1.5 W/m2, noting that radiative forcing was +2.3 W/m2 in 2011 relative to 1750.
Planetary boundaries research responds to a common assumption that "world development within the biophysical limits of a stable earth system has always been a necessity" (p. 7). The researchers claim to take a precautionary approach that takes uncertainty into account and "also allows society time to react to early warning signs that it may be approaching a threshold and consequent abrupt or riskky change" (p. 2). Emphasis is placed on the need to account for inertia of slow earth system processes, for example, in climate change.
SRC Planetary boundaries research [This page has many additional links]
Hansen, J., Kharecha, P., Sato, M., Masson-Delmotte, V., Ackerman, F., Beerling, D. J., . . . Parmesan, C. (2013). Assessing “dangerous climate change”: Required reduction of carbon emissions to protect young people, future generations and nature. PloS one, 8(12), 1-26. [link]
Hansen, J., Sato, M., Kharecha, P., Beerling, D., Berner, R., Masson-Delmotte, V., . . . Zachos, J. C. (2008). Target atmospheric CO2: Where should humanity aim? arXiv preprint arXiv:0804.1126. [link]
IPCC. Climate Change 2007. Working Group III: Mitigation of Climate Change. Section 1.2.2: What is dangerous interference with the climate system? Retrieved October 5, 2015, from https://www.ipcc.ch/publications_and_data/ar4/wg3/en/ch1s1-2-2.html [link]
Rockström, J., Steffen, W., Noone, K., Persson, A., Chapin, F. S., Lambin, E. F., . . . Foley, J. A. (2009). A safe operating space for humanity. Nature, 461(7263), 472-475. [link via NASA Goddard]
Steffen, W., Richardson, K., Rockström, J., Cornell, S. E., Fetzer, I., Bennett, E. M., . . . Sörlin, S. (2015). Planetary boundaries: Guiding human development on a changing planet. Science. doi:10.1126/science.1259855 [purchase]