At the start of the 20th century, climate change was largely seen as an esoteric study into a theoretical scientific phenomenon

It is now a firm fixture on the political agenda, and in 2019 the House of Commons declared a “climate emergency”. It is also perhaps the most pressing long-term challenge governments around the world are facing.    

This Insight is a short introduction to the history of climate change as an intergovernmental political issue, touching on key international treaties and agreements reached along the way.  

Environmental issues reach the global stage, but not climate change  

In the latter half of the 20th century, environmental issues entered the international and intergovernmental arena for the first time.  

In 1972, the first international environmental summit took place in Stockholm, Sweden. This UN-convened conference marked a turning point in the development of international environmental politics. It led both to the creation of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and to commitments to coordinate global efforts to promote sustainability and safeguard the natural environment. 

Climate change however was just a footnote at the Stockholm Conference. 

The issue was viewed largely as a scientific concern, and not a pressing political “problem”. But between this conference in 1972 and the latter half of the 1980s, some politicians took note as scientists increasingly warned of the risks posed by increased greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs). This was recognised at the First World Climate Conference in 1979, and the Toronto Conference on the Changing Climate in 1988.  

Establishing the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change  

In 1988 there was international agreement for the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) and UNEP to jointly establish an intergovernmental assessment of the science, impacts and response options of climate change.  

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was established to carry out this assessment and has gone on to produce five comprehensive assessments, subject to rigorous review processes. The IPCC is now working on its Sixth Assessment Report, due to be published in 2021.  

The IPCC has had its critics; described as both “too cautious” and “too political and alarmist”. Nevertheless, its reports have been widely accepted as the authoritative source of information on the science and impacts of climate change. In 2007 it was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.  

The first global agreement on climate change: the UNFCCC 

In 1990, the IPCC published its first assessment report . It warned: “emissions resulting from human activities are substantially increasing the atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases.” This led to widespread calls for a global treaty.  

In the UK, then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher addressed the second world climate conference shortly after the IPCC report was published. She praised the IPCC’s work as a “remarkable achievement,” and called for countries around the world to work together to “negotiate a successful framework convention on climate change in 1992.”  

Building on the momentum generated by the IPCC reports, negotiations on what became the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) were launched by the UN General Assembly. The Convention was adopted on 9 May 1992 and opened for signatures a month later at the UN Conference on Environment and Development (the Earth Summit) in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.  

This was the first global agreement on climate change and has near universal membership with 197 Parties. The objective of the Treaty , is to: “stabilize greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system.” 

The Treaty acknowledged the existence of human-induced climate change and divided countries into three main groups according to different commitments. Notably, it gave industrialised countries (known as Annex I Parties) the major responsibility for combating it, without specifying how. 

Since then, a Conference of Parties (COP) has been held annually. This is the decision-making body of the UNFCCC. At COPs, countries (known as Parties), review the Convention (including things like national emission inventories) and take decisions to promote its implementation.  

The Kyoto Protocol 

In 1995, COP 1 negotiations began with proposals to strengthen the UNFCCC’s commitments, which resulted in the adoption of the 1997 Kyoto Protocol  (entering into force in 2005). This was the first time binding GHG reduction targets were set for industrialised countries.  Those countries did reduce their emissions, even if overall global emissions rose

In subsequent years, 192 of the UNFCCC parties ratified the protocol. It was somewhat derailed when some of the world’s biggest polluters, notably the US, did not ratify it in 2001.  

The Doha Amendment extended the Kyoto commitments until 2020, which helped “lay the foundations” for the subsequent Paris Agreement.   

COP 21 Paris Agreement: Commitments for all 

Negotiations on what would follow the Kyoto Protocol from 2020 onwards began at COP 13 in 2007. The failure to reach agreement in Copenhagen at COP 15 in 2009, meant the next major attempt didn’t take place until Paris in 2015 at COP 21.  

The Paris Agreement was cautiously welcomed by governments and activists. It set an ambitious goal to keep temperatures “well below 2 °C” and “pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 °C”.   

What was significant for the Agreement is that all Parties – industrialised and less developed – were required to submit comprehensive nationally determined contributions (NDCs). These were essentially national climate change plans.  

The Paris Agreement set countries a deadline of 2018 to develop and agree guidelines for bringing the agreement fully to life ahead of it coming into effect in 2020.  

At the 2018 COP 24 in Poland, the Paris Rulebook, a set of guidelines implementing the agreement, was accepted. However, some technical aspects were postponed and are yet to be agreed.  

The UK Government will host the next COP (now postponed until 2021) in Glasgow, which includes an aim to finalise the Paris Rulebook. 

Key dates in global climate change negotiations, 1972-2021

1995: IPCC Second Assessment report published 

1995: The first meeting of the UNFCCC Conference of Parties (COP 1) takes place in Berlin, Germany 

1997: After two years of formal negotiations, the Kyoto Protocol agreed is agreed at COP 3 in Kyoto, Japan

2001: IPCC Third Assessment Report (TAR) published 

2005: Kyoto Protocol enters into force  

2007: The IPCC’s fourth assessment report (AR4) published 

2009: Parties fail to reach agreement on a successor to the Kyoto Protocol at COP 15 in Copenhagen, Denmark

2014-15: IPCC Fifth Assessment Report (AR5) published 

2015: A successor agreement to the Kyoto Protocol (the ‘Paris Agreement’) is reached at COP 21 in Paris, France  

2020: Paris Agreement takes legal effect

2021: Postponed COP 26 scheduled to take place in Glasgow with UK Government as hosts 


Further reading 

About the author: David Hirst is a researcher in the House of Commons Library specialising in business and transport.