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UNFCCC organization chart (UNFCCC)
UNFCCC organization chart (UNFCCC)

Climate Change

Alphabet Soup: Understanding The COP20 Climate Organization

We’ve been giving you a blow-by-blow here of the UN COP20 climate change meetings in Lima. If you haven’t been watching yet, access the stories at that link above. The conference has already had some success and also a few red-face moments. High-level talks among environment officials and heads of state start next week.

LEGO characters fight over the alphabet (’s an intrinsic problem with the whole process. It’s a language thing. Many of the names of UNFCCC functions—created in a painstaking polyglot English that meets the complete needs of almost nobody—are unwieldy even when spelled out. The UNFCCC tries to help by issuing brief acronym lists that provide a universal shortcut language for its multinational participants, but at a cost.

The problem is that when you use acronyms, you limit the conversation to those who understand them. Okay for Ms. Figueras and Mr. Pachauri, who have been meeting on climate change for years—but for observers, including new members of the press and recently highlighted interest groups (like youth, Thursday’s main focus), the alphabet soup can actually obscure understanding.

Naturally, armchair participants at home have even greater trouble getting a quick picture of what’s going on at COP20. So, for everyone’s edification, here’s a short explanation of the major components of the UNFCCC process, which follow the traditional UN designations. You can find out more at the “Bodies”section of the UNFCCC site and at Jargon Busting, Matthew Fellar’s excellent article from RTCC (ahem, Responding to Climate Change).

UNFCCC organization chart (UNFCCC)


United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. The COP20 meeting now proceeding in Peru has its roots in a convention already more than one generation old. In other words, world governments have been jointly concerned about climate change for 22 years–although you’d never know it from much of the US coverage.

The UN framework convention was signed in 1992 in order to stabilize the world’s greenhouse gas concentrations fairly “at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic [human-induced] interference with the climate system.” Its constituent parties first convened in 1995. When the UNFCCC gathers once a year to try to push along a world climate change agenda, not one but five conventions take place simultaneously.


Conference of the Parties. The overarching framework is that of the conference of the parties to the UNFCCC—the “COP” meetings, for short. The COP is the main decision-making body of the Convention. All states party to the UNFCCC meet at the COP. This overarching body reviews the implementation of the Convention and the legal instruments. It also monitors national communications and emission inventories submitted by the parties and handles institutional and administrative arrangements.

The first COP meeting was held in Berlin, Germany, in March 1995. The venue of the COP usually also shifts among these groups. The COP can also meet in Bonn, the seat of the secretariat. The COP Presidency rotates among the five recognized and traditional UN regions:

  • Africa,
  • Asia,
  • Latin America and the Caribbean,
  • Central and Eastern Europe, and
  • Western Europe and Others

More confusion here: where the heck are North America and Australia? Who are the mysterious “others”? Answer: Australia, Canada, Iceland, New Zealand, Norway, Switzerland, and the US also inhabit the fifth group.


Conference of the Parties to the Kyoto Protocol. The CMP is the official meeting of the countries who are parties to the Kyoto Protocol (KP), the UNFCCC’s only legally binding agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Thanks to political confusion at home, the United States never signed the protocol; Russia, New Zealand, Canada, and Japan have limited their participation.

Note that this CMP group is actually a subset of the COP, and almost all of their functions overlap. The CMP reviews the implementation of the worldwide climate agreement and takes decisions to promote its implementation. The first CMP meeting was held in Montreal, Canada, in December 2005, in conjunction with the 11th session of the Conference of the Parties.

Below the COP and CMP are two permanent subsidiaries, which the UN refers to as “Subsidiary Bodies,” meaning that they’re lower down on the totem pole—but still extremely important:

  • Subsidiary Body for Implementation
  • Subsidiary Body for Scientific and Technological Advice

SBI and SBSTA work together on issues of mutual expertise:

  • Capacity building,
  • Vulnerability of developing countries to climate change,
  • Response measures,
  • Kyoto Protocol mechanisms,
  • Key political issues like the 2013–2015 review, Technology Mechanism discussions, and
  • Coordination of support for REDD+, the international emissions/forest trading arrangement.

The two groups traditionally meet in parallel, twice a year, at the seat of the secretariat in Bonn as well as with the COP/CMP.

The SBI has a very detailed agenda planned for its 41st session (1 to 8 December 2014) in COP20/CMP10. Link here for the adopted agenda (129 kB). The SBI’s multilateral assessment for developed countries is coming up.

The SBSTA provides COP/CMP with timely information and advice on scientific and technological matters. Among them:

  • Impacts, vulnerability and adaptation to climate change,
  • Emissions from deforestation and forest degradation in developing countries,
  • Promoting development and transfer of environmentally sound technologies,
  • Conducting technical work to improve guidelines for preparing and reviewing greenhouse gas emission inventories from Annex I Parties, and
  • Linking the scientific information provided by expert sources like IPCC and the policy needs of the COP.


Ad Hoc Working Group on the Durban Platform for Advanced Action. ADP, which gets its name from the COP held in Durban, South Africa, is one of the most important areas of the climate talks. It started up on Tuesday and will be critical in the Peru negotiations. Two main areas comprise the ADP: Workstream 1 and Workstream 2. WS1 covers the much-anticipated Paris 2015 “protocol, legal instrument, or agreed outcome with legal force” that will go into effect in 2020. WS2 covers climate action in the intervening years.

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covers environmental, health, renewable and conventional energy, and climate change news. She's currently on the climate beat for Important Media, having attended last year's COP20 in Lima Peru. Sandy has also worked for groundbreaking environmental consultants and a Fortune 100 health care firm. She writes for several weblogs and attributes her modest success to an "indelible habit of poking around to satisfy my own curiosity."


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