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Developing Countries in the Pitfall of Climate Change – The UNFCCC under Examination

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Source: University of Oxford

ANALYSIS Torben Keetz 05 March 2021

In 2019, there were 308 natural disasters, 77% of which were climate related, and they affected almost 100 million people and as a result, 24,396 people lost their lives.[1] Almost 30 years ago, on May 9, 1992 the UNFCCC was adopted. It forms the central component of global climate policy. Even though climate change is a global problem, the UNFCCC was faced with having to reconcile two conflicting objectives, one being the main goal of stabilizing greenhouse gas (GHG) concentrations and the other being the special needs and problems of developing countries.

Climate change neither affects all countries equally nor are all equally well-prepared. The poorest countries are hit hardest. Most of them are located in low latitudes, where most of the damage will be focused. Of the 410,000 people who have died from natural disasters in the last 10 years, most of them lived in developing countries. This is where the special challenges of developing countries come into play. The severe effects are partly due to missing or inadequate defence measures against climate change since adaptation is a very costly affair. It is reinforced by knowledge deficits related to aspects of adaptation policy.  Moreover, industrialization has led to different living standards and economic capacities and therefore, the majority of global poverty is found in developing countries. But, climate change makes it more difficult to develop. Natural disasters compromise development efforts because developing countries need to relocate their already scarce resources to emergency funds. Amongst other things, this causes setbacks to long-term economic and social development.[2]


To achieve both objectives the UNFCCC clearly separates between developing and developed countries. This is accompanied by different obligations and benefits. This is due to a massive discrepancy in the development of the countries and their different responsibilities for the current situation. Today´s developed countries have grown much faster than others during the industrialization, which is reflected in the fact that they are responsible for 79% of the emissions between 1850 and 2011 and thereby achieved a much higher level of living and prosperity.[3] Their activities are the main driving force behind the climate change problems. But still, as shown above, developing countries are the ones who suffer the most, even though they have contributed far less. Moreover, the preamble notes social and economic development as priority needs of developing countries and concedes that their emissions may therefore continue to rise. This is to give developing countries the same opportunity to grow.

Art. 3 of the UNFCCC contains five principles that are intended to influence the actions of the parties towards the overall goal. The most important principle is common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capability (CBDR-RC), which allows parties to adopt and implement only those commitments that fit their different circumstances and preconditions. This leads to different emission limitation and reduction rules. In addition, the parties are urged to give full consideration to the specific needs and special circumstances of developing countries. The commitments contain specific sections that are exclusively addressed to developed countries. These specific commitments are about providing financial and technological support for developing countries.


Mitigating the effects of climate change is often no longer possible, adaptation has become more important. Adaptation measures are of particular significance for developing countries, because they are hit hardest and require new coping mechanisms to foster climate resilience.  However, under the UNFCCC, adaptation was for a long time only secondary to mitigation. Meanwhile, various funds have been set up to provide financial support, and in 2009 the developed countries agreed to a mobilization goal of $100 billion per year from 2020 onwards. Huge progress has also been made in the fight against poverty. For example, between 1981 and 2011 in East Asia and the Pacific region, the number of people living in absolute poverty fell from 1.1 billion to 161 million.[4] Of course, this was associated with a sharp increase in GHG emissions, which further aggravate the problems. On this issue, the Convention lacks effective countermeasures. With programs introduced, such as the New Delhi work program, under the Convention, the remaining knowledge gaps are being addressed and the effort is paying off. More countries are improving their early warning and disaster response systems.

The UNFCCC is promising. The rigid division benefits the developing countries greatly, and it is also very fair, as it, e.g., recognizes the need to grow and excludes them from quantitative emissions limitations.  This is also reflected in the Notre Dame Gain Index, which shows progress in most countries, even if it is not always by much. The Convention has even more potential. For example, the $100 billion goal has not yet been reached, and the bigger problem is that it is not being used effectively to meet the needs of those hit hardest. Once again, not everyone has benefited equally, with poverty rates rising in the Sub-Saharan region.

However, the success of the UNFCCC depends not only on the Convention, but also on how it is implemented. Two subsidiary agreements were adopted to operationalize the framework.

The first was the Kyoto Protocol. It was not up to the task. It followed the UNFCCC´s rigid division between developing and developed countries without any adjustments over the years. This led to a sharp decline in effectiveness, and it has brought little in the improvement of resilience. However, the Clean Development Mechanism, which was a great success, should be highlighted. The nearly 8.000 projects in developing countries have saved 2 billion tons of GHGs to date and contributed to the strengthening of technology transfer.

The Kyoto Protocol was effectively replaced by the Paris Agreement, which entered into force in 2016. This no longer contains a clear distinction between Annex I and non-Annex I parties and also avoids the problem of the Kyoto Protocol by allowing shifts to the commitments, which means that it is no longer focused on developing countries, but they are still given some leeway.[5] Overall, it has much more potential. It has finally made climate change “a top concern of all countries” and sets clear targets. Further, it strengthened adaptation and financing.[6] The projections for long-term temperature rise are falling, but we are remaining behind the goal of limiting the temperature increase to 1.5 °C. This is where the Paris Agreement is now being hurt by its choice of approach. Many of the Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) aren´t effective, and furthermore, the NDCs of developed and developing countries differ greatly when it comes to providing needed resources to developing countries.


Overall, the UNFCCC can be helpful for developing countries regarding adaptation to climate change. It does not seem to have a negative impact on their development, which was a goal of the Convention concerning developing countries. It therefore always considered their needs. A framework agreement that includes all interests is especially important in a process as complex as climate change, so that nobody and nothing is forgotten. So far, some problems have been addressed better than others, just like some countries have benefited more and others less. The challenge now is to draw on the full potential of the Paris Agreement and thus also to get the maximum out of the UNFCCC, because the preconditions are already in position. 

Torben Keetz studies Law and Law & Business at the University of Bayreuth

[1]     Alison Freebairn, ´Executive summary´ in IFRC (ed), World Disaster Report 2020 Come Heat or High Water (2020).  

[2]     Keith Wade, ´Climate change and the global economy: regional effects´ (Schroders, 26 July 2015) <> accessed 17 Dec. 2020. 

[3]     Center for Global Development, ´Developed Countries Are Responsible for 79 Percent of Historical Carbon Emissions´ (Center for Global Development, 18 Aug. 2015) <> accessed 25 Nov. 2020.

[4]     Adam Goldstein, ´What is the link between carbon emissions and poverty?´ (World Economic Forum, 15 Dec. 2015) <> accessed 4 Mar. 2021.

[5]     Lavanya Rajamani, ´Ambition and Differentiation in the 2015 Paris Agreement: Interpretative Possibilities and Underlying Principles´ (2016) Cambridge University Press. 

[6]     Pradeep S. Mehta, Rashid Kaukab, ´Paris Agreement: A pact of solidarity for developing countries?´ (2016) 5:03 GREAT Insights Magazine.  

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