A History of Climate Action Agreements

A History of Climate Action Agreements - From the 1970s through to the 2020s and beyond.

A History of Climate Action Agreements
A look at climate action agreement through the years. 

From the 1970s through to the 2020s...

In an increasingly warming world, international cooperation has become essential in combating this global challenge. Over the years, numerous international climate action agreements have been negotiated and implemented, aiming to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, limit global warming, and protect the environment. This article serves as a brief history lesson, emphasizing significant milestones, notable achievements, and the ongoing quest for a sustainable future through international cooperation.

The Stockholm Declaration (1972)

In 1972, the UN met in Stockholm and drafted the Stockholm Declaration, establishing 26 principles, including Principle 25 which declares ‘States shall ensure that international organizations play a co-ordinated, efficient, and dynamic role for the protection and improvement of the environment.’ While the Declaration addressed several topics, it is especially notable for establishing the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).

The Kyoto Protocol (1997)

The Kyoto Protocol marked a major turning point in global climate action. Adopted in 1997, it was the first binding international agreement to address climate change. This agreement required developed countries to reduce their emissions by an average of 5.2% from 1990 levels by the target year 2012. However, the protocol was not without criticism, as it did not impose greenhouse gas reduction commitments on developing nations, leading to a limited impact on overall emissions reduction. Below are the key tenets adopted by the Kyoto Protocol:

Greenhouse Gas Reduction Targets

The central feature was the commitment by developed countries to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions by specified percentages compared to their 1990 levels. These reduction targets varied for each country depending on their historical emissions and economic status.

Emissions Trading

A market-based approach was introduced under the Kyoto Protocol, known as emissions trading, or cap and trade. This mechanism allowed countries that exceeded their emissions reduction targets to sell their unused allowances to countries that struggled to meet their targets. This trading system aimed to create flexibility and cost-effectiveness in achieving overall emission reductions.

Clean Development Mechanism (CDM)

The CDM was designed to promote sustainable development in developing countries while assisting developed countries in meeting their emission reduction targets. Under the CDM, developed countries could invest in emission reduction projects in developing nations and receive Certified Emission Reduction (CER) credits for the achieved reduction.

Joint Implementation (JI)

Joint Implementation was a policy allowing developed countries to earn Emission Reduction Units (ERUs) by investing in emission reduction projects in other developed countries.

Adaptation Fund

The Kyoto Protocol established the Adaptation Fund to provide financial support to developing countries. The fund was primarily financed through sharing proceeds from clean development projects, in addition to voluntary contributions from developed countries.

Compliance Mechanism

The Protocol established a Compliance Committee to ensure that countries comply with their emission reduction targets and fulfill other obligations outlined in the agreement. The Committee can impose penalties on non-compliant countries or recommend ways to assist them in meeting their commitments.

The Copenhagen Accord (2009)

The Copenhagen Accord emerged during the 2009 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen. Although not a legally binding agreement, it aimed to limit global warming to a maximum of 2 °C and pledged $100 billion annually from developed countries to assist developing nations in mitigating climate change impacts. The Copenhagen Accord marked the first time that both developed and developing countries voluntarily submitted specific mitigation targets. Below are the key tenets adopted by the Copenhagen Accord:

Limiting global warming

The accord acknowledged the scientific consensus to limit global temperature rise to below 2 °C above pre-industrial levels, as well as the need for additional efforts to limit the increase to 1.5 °C.

Setting emission reduction targets

The accord encouraged developed countries, and developing countries with the capability to do so, to set voluntary emission reduction targets for the year 2020. These targets were expected to be quantifiable, measurable, and verifiable.

Providing financial assistance

Recognizing the need for financial resources to support climate change mitigation and adaptation efforts in developing countries, the accord established the goal of mobilizing $100 billion per year by 2020. This financial assistance would be provided by developed countries to developing countries to help them transition towards low-carbon and climate-resilient development.

Sharing and transferring technology

The accord emphasized the importance of technology transfer to enable developing countries to adopt cleaner and more sustainable development practices. It called for the removal of barriers to technology transfer, as well as the establishment of a technological mechanism to enhance cooperation on research, development, and deployment of climate-friendly technologies.

Promoting transparency and accountability

Enhanced transparency of emission reduction efforts was also promoted. It established a system for measuring, reporting, and verifying emissions, which aimed to improve the accuracy and consistency of data submitted by countries.

Recognizing forest conservation

The accord acknowledged the importance of reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation. It emphasized the role of forests in mitigating climate change and called for the provision of financial incentives to support developing countries in preserving their forests.

The Copenhagen Accord has been criticized for its lack of an ambitious legally binding framework and for not achieving the expected emissions reductions. However, it laid the groundwork for subsequent international climate negotiations, including the Paris Agreement in 2015.

The Paris Agreement (2015)

Considered a landmark achievement in climate action, the Paris Agreement built upon previous agreements' successes while acknowledging their limitations. Signed in 2015, the agreement brought together 196 countries, setting the global goal of keeping the global temperature increase well below 2 °C above pre-industrial levels, and pursuing efforts to limit it to 1.5 °C. Each country was required to present a nationally determined contribution (NDC) outlining their efforts towards emissions reduction and adaptation strategies. Additionally, the agreement emphasized financial and technological support for developing countries. The Paris Agreement not only demonstrated unprecedented global consensus but also underscored the urgent need for immediate and collective action.

Mitigation Targets

The Paris Agreement emphasized the importance of limiting global warming to well below 2 °C above pre-industrial levels, with an ambitious goal to strive for a limit of 1.5 °C. Countries are expected to regularly update and communicate their efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions through nationally determined contributions, which should become more ambitious over time.

Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs)

Each participating country submits its own NDC, outlining their specific plans and actions to mitigate climate change. These contributions may include emission reduction targets, renewable energy deployment goals, and policies to improve energy efficiency and sustainable land use. The agreement encourages countries to review and enhance their NDCs every five years to ensure continuous progress.

Transparency and Accountability

The Paris Agreement promotes transparency and establishes a system for regularly reporting and reviewing countries' progress in implementing their commitments. There is an expectation that countries will accurately measure and monitor their greenhouse gas emissions, as well as develop standardized methods for reporting and verification. This transparency framework ensures that countries are accountable for their actions and take the necessary steps towards meeting their targets.


Adapting to the impacts of climate change is a major tenet of the Paris Agreement. It recognizes the urgent need to help vulnerable countries and communities adapt to changing conditions and encourages comprehensive adaptation plans, risk assessments, and the integration of climate resilience measures into national strategies. It also calls for increased support to developing nations for capacity-building, technology transfer, and adaptation projects.

Recent Developments (2020+)

Since the Paris Agreement, countries have continued their efforts to tackle climate change. Several countries, including China, Japan, and those in the European Union, have announced ambitious plans to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050 or sooner. Such commitments have driven renewed momentum for international cooperation and inspired global climate action.

Climate action agreements have evolved significantly over the years, from the initial, pioneering steps undertaken by the Kyoto Protocol to the ambitious and collaborative goals set by the Paris Agreement. These agreements have fostered international cooperation, raised awareness about the urgency of addressing climate change, and inspired nations to set emissions reduction targets. While significant progress has been made, challenges persist, including the urgent need to accelerate efforts, secure financial support, and forge an inclusive, equitable response.

As the world faces an escalating climate crisis, it remains crucial for nations to work together, transcend political differences, and forge alliances to secure a sustainable future for generations to come.


The Copenhagen Accord.

The Kyoto Protocol

The Paris Agreement.

The Stockholm Declaration.