The UNFCCC seeks for the stabilization of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic human-induced interference with the earth's climate system. Such a level should be achieved within a timeframe sufficient to allow ecosystems to adapt naturally to climate change, to ensure that food production is not threatened and to enable economic development to proceed in a sustainable manner. The treaty established differential responsibilities for three categories of signatory states. These categories are developed countries, developed countries with special financial responsibilities, and developing countries.

The developed countries, also called Annex 1 countries, originally consisted of 38 states, 13 of which were Eastern European states in transition to democracy and market economies, and the European Union. All belong to the Organization (OECD). Annex 1 countries are called upon to adopt national policies and take corresponding measures on the mitigation of climate change by limiting their anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases as well as to report on steps adopted with the aim of returning individually or jointly to their 1990 emissions levels. The developed countries with special financial responsibilities are also called Annex II countries. They include all the Annex I countries except for those in transition to democracy and market economies. Annex II countries are called upon to provide new and additional financial resources to meet the costs incurred by developing countries in complying with their obligation to produce national inventories of their emissions by sources and their removals by sinks for all greenhouse gases not controlled by the Montreal Protocol. The developing countries are then required to submit their inventories to the UNFCCC Secretariat. Because key signatory states are not adhering to their individual commitments, the UNFCCC has been criticized as being unsuccessful in reducing the emission of carbon dioxide since its adoption.

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