Pathway to below 2 degrees


Information on this page is under review and may no longer be current.

The Australian Government’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade is responsible for leading our international negotiations on climate change through the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).


International cooperation has grown substantially in a relatively short time–reflected in the increased ambition of major emitters. The negotiations are live and continue to develop a stronger global response.

The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (the Convention) is comparatively young in global diplomacy terms. The Convention was agreed in 1992 and has 195 signatories.

Since its establishment, steady gains have been made towards the overall objective of the Convention– to stabilise atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases at a level to prevent dangerous climate change.

Solid achievements on five key fronts have been made in this time:

  • The world defined a global goal to guide emission reduction efforts. At Copenhagen (2009), it was agreed that holding any temperature increase to below 2 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels was needed to prevent dangerous climate change.
  • Substantially more countries have put emission reduction pledges on the table–there are 90 countries with pledges after Cancun (2010) that account for over 80 per cent of global emissions– this is up from 37 countries with targets under the first commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol that account for just 27 per cent of global emissions (figure 3.3).

Figure 3.3 Growth in the number of countries pledging action and the portion of global emissions covered under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change

  • The infrastructure to deliver action has built continuously–billions of dollars have been mobilised to support clean technology and deliver a low carbon future including through the formation of specialised funds and market mechanisms to reduce emissions across borders, along with substantial investments and policy efforts at the individual country level (figure 3.4).
  • The science of climate change has been settled alongside improvements in the way we gather, share and communicate the latest findings.
  • Significant improvements have been made to how we measure and track emissions–the world agreed in Cancun to develop an even more robust system to measure and report on individual country emissions. This helps build confidence that countries are doing what they said they would do and that global efforts are on track to avoid dangerous climate change.

Figure 3.4 The infrastructure for climate change action, 1990 to 2015

Text description of diagram

As efforts to reduce emissions have grown substantially the live and continuous negotiations continue to press for a stronger, more holistic response. This is important for two key reasons:

  • The time window is closing for global emissions to peak and decline. The science indicates that global emissions need to peak in this decade if the world is to limit global warming to below 2 degrees and avoid the most significant climate impacts.
  • While the pledges put forward by countries are a good start, more is needed. A range of leading analysts3 have looked at what the pledges taken together deliver. They find that, even with the highest set of pledges, global emissions in 2020 would be too high to give a reasonable chance of meeting the below two degree goal.

Figure 3.5 Predicted global emissions in 2020 (low and high end pledges) against the below two degree goal

The global decisions made in this decade will determine whether the world can avoid the worst impacts of climate change. The Cancun Agreements started the decade positively but many challenges lie ahead. A future point of significance set out in Cancun was the commitment by the world to conduct a detailed review of global progress in 2015. This review will assess how the world is tracking, taking into account the actions of all countries as well as the latest science, including the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's (IPCC) Fifth Assessment Report. This focus on assessing what the world has achieved and what is needed to keep the globe on a path to avoid the worst impacts of climate change will be an important milestone to target the next chapter of climate change cooperation.


3 See for example Nicholas Stern and Christopher Taylor (2010), 'What Do the Appendices to the Copenhagen Accord Tell Us About Global Greenhouse Gas Emissions and the Prospects for Avoiding a Rise in Global Average Temperature of More Than 2 Degrees C?', Centre for Climate Change Economics and Policy and the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and Environment Policy Paper; Joeri Rogelj and Malte Meinshausen (2010), 'Copenhagen Accord pledges are Paltry', Nature (464) pp.1126-1128; Chief Scientists Office, United Nations Environment Program (2010), 'How Close Are We to the Two Degree Limit?', UNEP Information Note; Project Catalyst (2010), 'Taking Stock—the Emission Levels Implied by the Pledges to the Copenhagen Accord', Project Catalyst Briefing Paper; Trevor Houser (2010), 'Copenhagen, the Accord, and the Way Forward', Peterson Institute for International Economics Policy Brief.