United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change

New Zealand is a Party to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.  This page outlines the purpose of this international treaty and its background.

About the UNFCCC

The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) enables countries to collectively consider how to mitigate climate change and cope with its impacts.

The UNFCCC was adopted by over 185 developed and developing countries including New Zealand at the Rio Earth Summit in 1992.  It entered into force on 21 March 1994 and now has near-universal membership with 192 parties to the Convention.

The UNFCCC did a number of important things.

  1. It recognised that there was a problem.
  2. It set a specific goal. The ultimate objective of the UNFCCC is preventing dangerous anthropogenic (human) interference with the climate system.  It states that “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”.
  3. It put the onus on developed countries to lead the way.
  4. It directed new funds to climate change activities in developing countries.
  5. It set up a process to monitor the problem and action being taken to deal with it.
  6. It charted the beginning of a path to strike a balance between economic development and mitigating climate change.
  7. It began formal consideration of adaptation to climate change. 

Kyoto Protocol

The international community recognised that more urgent action, with more powerful and legally binding measures than what was required under the UNFCCC, was needed. Negotiations on a subsidiary agreement under the UNFCCC, now known as the Kyoto Protocol, began in 1995.  The Kyoto Protocol came into force in 2005 after 55 countries ratified it (including those responsible for 55 per cent of global emissions).

The Kyoto Protocol committed developed countries to greenhouse gas emissions reduction targets for the first commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol (2008-2012).  Only countries who ratified the Protocol are bound to it.      

New Zealand’s obligations under the Kyoto Protocol

New Zealand ratified the Kyoto Protocol in December 2002.  New Zealand’s obligations under the Kyoto Protocol include:

  • a responsibility emissions reduction target for the first commitment period to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to their 1990 levels. New Zealand has met this target see Report upon expiration of the additional period for fulfilling commitments by New Zealand and related spreadsheets. 
  • submitting an annual inventory of greenhouse gas emissions to the UNFCCC (Article 7)
  • formulating, implementing and publishing regular updates to national and regional programmes that contain measures to mitigate climate change and facilitate adequate adaptation to climate change (Article 10)
  • cooperating internationally in relation to policies and measures (including scientific and technical research and development) and facilitating public awareness and access to information on climate change.

The Doha Amendment to the Kyoto Protocol

On 30 November 2015, New Zealand accepted the Doha Amendment to the Kyoto Protocol. The amendment was created at the 18th Conference of the Parties under the UNFCCC which was held in Doha, Qatar.  The amendment creates a second commitment period under the Kyoto Protocol which runs from 2013 until 2020. By accepting the Doha Amendment, New Zealand has signalled its support for the second commitment period and for the ongoing climate change negotiations. 

A number of parties to the UNFCCC have tabled emissions reductions targets for this period. New Zealand also has a 2020 emissions target, however as explained below this has been taken under the UNFCCC rather than the Kyoto Protocol. 

The amendment will only come into force when 144 parties under the UNFCCC have accepted it. As of 20 November 2015, 57 parties have accepted the Doha Amendment.  

For more information see National interest analysis - Doha Amendment to the Kyoto Protocol [PDF, 74.6 KB] [New Zealand Parliament website].

New Zealand’s 2013-2020 commitment

In 2009 the Government decided that New Zealand would take an emissions reduction commitment for the period 2013-2020 under the UNFCCC (the Kyoto Protocol parent body) rather than under the Kyoto Protocol itself. This positions New Zealand well for the new climate change agreement due to come into force after 2020. The new agreement is to apply to all countries (developed and developing) with equal legal force.

For more information on New Zealand’s climate change targets see NZ's greenhouse gas emission reduction targets.

New Zealand’s post-2020 commitment (the Paris Agreement) 

The Paris Agreement (the Agreement) is the new global agreement on climate change and was adopted by Parties under the UNFCCC on 12 December 2015. It commits all countries to take action on climate change and will take effect from 2020. 

Its purpose is to:

  • keep the increase in global average temperature to well below 2° C above pre-industrial levels, while pursuing efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5° C, with an aim to reach peaking of global greenhouse gas emissions as soon as possible and to reach net-zero emissions by the second half of the century.
  • enhance the ability of countries to adapt and reduce vulnerability to the adverse impacts of climate change, and 
  • make sure that financial flows support the development of low-carbon and climate-resilient economies.

The Agreement provides a framework for the global response to climate change. Detailed rules, including those rules about the use of markets and the accounting for the land sector, will be negotiated from now until 2020. 

Prior to the Paris Agreement, New Zealand submitted an Intended Nationally Determined Contribution (INDC) and announced a target to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 30 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030. For more information on the 2030 target see New Zealand's 2030 climate change target.

The agreement is expected to come into force by 2020 and will be triggered once at least 55 countries representing a minimum of 55 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions have ratified the Agreement.

Signing the Paris Agreement

New Zealand signed the Paris Agreement on 22 April 2016 at a ceremony in New York. See the media release: Minister Bennett signs Paris Agreement [Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade website].

The Agreement will come into force for New Zealand once it has ratified and at least 55 countries representing at least an estimated 55 per cent of global emissions have also ratified. 

Cabinet paper:  Paris Climate Change Agreement - Report back to Cabinet and Approval for Signature 

See the text of the Paris Agreement [PDF, 183 KB] on the UNFCCC website.

Other decisions under the UNFCCC

Key milestones from negotiations are documented on the web page:

Find out more