The European Union, all EU Member States and virtually every other country in the world are Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the main international treaty for fighting climate change. Agreed in 1992, the Convention sets the goal of preventing dangerous man-made interference with the global climate system. The international community has agreed that global warming should be held below 2°C compared to the temperature in pre-industrial times.
In 1997 Parties to the UNFCCC took the next step by agreeing the Kyoto Protocol, the world's only legally binding instrument for cutting greenhouse gas emissions. Kyoto has established international emissions trading and other market-based mechanisms to help reduce the cost of reducing emissions.
Under Kyoto's first commitment period, industrialised nations agreed to cut their emissions of six greenhouse gases by an average of 5% below 1990 levels over the period 2008-2012. The 15 countries that were EU Member States at the time Kyoto was agreed committed to an 8% cut and are on track to achieve this by a comfortable margin.
Kyoto's impact is limited, however, because it requires emissions action only from developed countries. Moreover, it was never ratified by the United States, and Canada has since pulled out.
Emissions from the developing world now exceed those from developed countries, and this share will continue to rise. By 2020 nearly two-thirds of global emissions will come from developing countries, it is projected. To be effective, action to combat climate change needs to become global.
UN negotiations aimed at drawing up a global climate agreement by 2009 which would replace the Kyoto Protocol at the end of its first commitment period failed. Instead, under the voluntary Copenhagen Accord, countries were invited to make pledges to limit or reduce their emissions by 2020.
More than 90 countries in the developed and developing worlds alike - covering some 80% of global emissions – have done so. Developed countries also committed to provide nearly $30 billion in 'fast start' finance for developing countries over 2010-2012 – a pledge the EU has fulfilled for its share – and to mobilise $100 billion a year by 2020 from public, private and alternative sources in the context of meaningful and transparent action by developing countries to reduce their emissions.
Collectively, however, these voluntary emission pledges fall well short of reducing global emissions in 2020 by the amount necessary to keep the 2°C warming limit within reach.
At the initiative of the EU and the most vulnerable developing countries, agreement was reached at the Durban climate change conference in December 2011 to launch UN negotiations on a new global climate regime covering all countries. The new agreement is to be adopted by 2015 and to enter into force in 2020.
The EU wants the new regime to take the form of a legally binding protocol. Developed countries must continue to take the lead but the major emerging economies in the developing world will also have to reduce their emissions.
To bridge the gap between the end of the first Kyoto period in 2012 and the start of the new global agreement in 2020, the EU and a small number of other developed countries have agreed to participate in a second Kyoto period running from 2013 to 2020. The necessary amendments to the Kyoto Protocol were adopted at the Doha climate change conference in December 2012.
The EU and its Member States have committed to reduce their collective emissions in the second Kyoto period to 20% below 1990 levels. This target will be fulfilled jointly with Croatia and Iceland. All parties taking part in the second period are required to revisit their emissions target by 2014 with a view to considering making it more ambitious. The EU has left the door open to stepping up its reduction to 30% if the conditions are right.
Having a second period safeguards Kyoto's rules-based regime for use as an important building block of the new global agreement for 2020. But the fact that only developed countries must take action, and that the United States, Russia, Canada, Japan and New Zealand are not participating, means that Kyoto now applies to only around 14% of the world's emissions. This underscores the urgent need for a global agreement requiring action by all countries.
Recognising that countries' collective emission pledges for 2020 are insufficient, the Durban conference also launched work to enhance emission reductions by the end of this decade by identifying further actions that can close the 'ambition gap' between what is currently planned and what is needed to stay below 2°C.
The Doha conference agreed a detailed plan to take this work forward in 2013-14. The EU has set out several ways in which global ambition can be raised.
As well as the global climate negotiations held under the UNFCCC, the EU and Member States also participate actively in international policy and research fora whose decisions or recommendations feed directly or indirectly into the UN climate change process.
These include the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the G8 and G20, the Major Economies Forum on Energy and Climate (MEF), the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and the International Energy Agency (IEA).