November 30th, 2011 by

Credit: ALEXANDER JOE/AFP/Getty Images

Up until now, I’ve only talked about environmental policy within the U.S. But there’s a lot happening at the international level as well. The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) has been working on climate change issues since 1995.

Under the UNFCCC’s Kyoto Protocol, industrialized countries have committed to address climate change by reducing greenhouse gas emissions. As part of the agreement, these countries are also required to submit an annual report of their emissions.

So far, 191 nations have signed and ratified the protocol. The U.S. is the only country to have signed the protocol, but not ratify it. Why is this distinction important? Signing is a symbolic gesture of support, while ratifying signifies a nation’s formal agreement to cap emissions. This has put the U.S. in a controversial position in the climate change conversation. But, as President Obama recently stated during a press conference, the U.S. has shown support for addressing climate change:

We all have a responsibility to find ways to reduce our carbon emissions [but] advanced economies can’t do this alone … so, ultimately, what we want is a mechanism whereby all countries are making an effort. And it’s going to be a tough slog, particularly at a time when … a lot of economies are still struggling. But I think it’s actually one that, over the long term, can be beneficial.

But the U.S. makes up just a fraction of the UNFCCC. This year’s COP17 conference (that’s the 17th meeting session of the Conference of the Parties) has representatives from 194 countries! That’s one from every single UN member. A COP conference is held every year to discuss international climate change policy and develop strategies for the upcoming year.

This year’s meeting is taking place in Durban, South Africa, which draws attention to the climate change issues that many African countries and other developing nations are facing. Over the past few years, greenhouse gas emission levels have been heading in the right direction, but we’ve still got a ways to go. That’s why South Africa’s Environmental Affairs Minister, Edna Molewa, is urging industrialized and developed countries to agree to a second term of the Kyoto Protocol — first term ends in 2012. COP17  attendees will discuss prospects of a second term, and if not, what the next steps should be.

This meeting will also focus on agreements made during last year’s meeting in Cancun to transfer funds from richer countries to poorer countries. Funding remains a huge barrier for many developing countries. They lack the funding needed to build infrastructure and capacity to work on climate change strategies. To help prioritize funding efforts, the UNFCCC has developed the National Adaptation Programmes of Action (NAPAs), a database of climate change projects in developing countries. These projects help educate children about climate change, improve watershed management, better prepare communities for natural disasters and incorporate clean technology for farmers.

How will 194 countries come to an agreement on international climate change policy? It will be interesting to see, since I have a hard time just getting friends to agree on a restaurant for dinner! For the latest on the conference, be sure to follow COP17 online at the UNFCCC website and the host country’s website. You can also follow #COP17 on Twitter.