Pre-Kyoto: The rise of Climate Change onto the International Political Agenda

Climate change entered the political discourse only in the 1980s, despite science confirming the greenhouse effect dating back to before the 18th century.  Conferences in the late 1980s and early 1990s highlighted, with remarkable unanimity, the seriousness of climate change. The Brundtland Commission’s Report, Our Common Future (1987), framed climate change as an important component of the broader issue of sustainable development. The Toronto Conference (1988) dubbed climate change as ‘almost as serious as nuclear war’.

With the Cold War winding down, optimism in the air over tackling the climate problem was palpable. Finally, military expenditures and resources could be diverted to tackling social issues, particularly climate change. Leaders widely agreed on the truly global negative impacts of unabated climate change, and OECD countries were quick to take the ‘precautionary principle’ seriously. By 1990, all OECD countries with the exception of the United States and Turkey adopted political targets to reduce or stabilise their C02 emissions. Even before the landmark UN Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) at Rio de Janeiro in 1992, leaders had articulated the fundamental ideas and problems of climate change, with discussions already underway on key areas for mitigation, adaptation, and international cooperation.

The role of developing countries in emissions-reducing agreements has always been a sensitive issue. From the onset of discussions on climate it was agreed by member states, in principle, that developed nations would need to make the most significant emission reductions initially and that resources would be allocated to aid developing countries. This distinction of ‘common but differentiated responsibilities’ between developed (Annex I) and developing countries (non-Annex I) was embodied as one of the key principles of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), which was adopted following the UNCED in Rio de Janeiro (1992).

The UNFCCC was launched following several years of sustained dialogue on climate change and represented the first extensive step towards reaching a global climate deal. It went much further than existing treaties to create a comprehensive organizational framework, and served as the fundamental building block of future negotiations. All developed countries, excluding Turkey, were quick to ratify the Convention; in fact, parties even pressed to hasten the implementation process of the treaty while at Rio.  The shortcomings of the UNFCCC – ambiguous and weakly worded targets, open-ended statements on assistance to developing countries – reflect the core disputes which have troubled climate negotiations since their inception.  

Rifts between the willingness of developed countries to accept binding emissions reduction targets soon emerged as climate talks intensified. The United States, then under President George H.W. Bush, pressured the Convention to avoid the adoption of explicit targets, favoring more ambiguous terms. Turkey, unhappy with its classification as an Annex I (developed) country, withheld its ratification of the UNFCCC. Though not yet as apparent, domestic economic concerns over GHG emission reductions started to dominate policy objectives in international climate negotiations.


Tim Dobermann is the Project Lead for Research & Policy at SDSN Youth. He is a Country Economist for the International Growth Centre and has participated widely in both research and in policy dialogues pertaining to economic development and climate change. He holds a postgraduate degree in economics from the London School of Economics (LSE). All opinions expressed on the blog are the opinions of the author and not of SDSN Youth.