Use of the term ‘capabilities’ and ‘capacities’

Legal assistance paper

All reasonable efforts have been made to ensure the accuracy of this information at the time the advice was produced (please refer to the date produced below). However, the materials have been prepared for informational purposes only and may have been superseded by more recent developments. They do not constitute formal legal advice or create a lawyer-client relationship. You should seek legal advice to take account of your own interests. To the extent permitted any liability is excluded. Those consulting the database may wish to contact LRI for clarifications and an updated analysis.

Date produced: 02/12/2015

Can you please explain the difference between “capability” and “capacity” in the context of qualifying potential obligations.

In particular, can you find out how the two words have been previously used in UNFCCC context.


In contemporary English “capacity” describes the ability or power to do or understand something. In general, “capability” is used interchangeably and has the same meaning. If you have a capability, it means you have the power to do something. Eg Buying uranium gives a country the capability of making nuclear weapons, but first they need scientists with the ability to do the work.

We  have also seen some references to temporal considerations to distinguish the two, meaning that  ‘capacity’ has tended to imply current, factual abilities while ‘capability’ could refer to future, potential abilities, aptitudes that could be developed/realised through nurturing/improvement. Arguably, the word “capabilities”  includes a slightly stronger reference to the scope and extent of somebody’s or something’s ability. Capability might be considered more of a ceiling on ability. E.g. while a country may have the ability to reduce emissions it may not have the capabilities to do so by tomorrow. “Capacity”, in comparison, carries in some contexts a stronger notion of position and entitlement.

To some extent this is reflected in the use of the term “capabilities” in connection with common but differentiated responsibilities. As a result, it may be argued that countries should make a serious effort and fully exhaust their abilities. However, the distinctions between these words are very blurry.

In the UNFCCC context, the term ‘capabilities’ is used on six occasions in the Convention and three times in the KP whilst the term ‘capacities’ is used on five occasions in the Convention and two in the KP.  ‘Capabilities’ is mostly used in the context of CBDR, eg in the Preamble, UNFCCC:

“Acknowledging that the global nature of climate change calls for the widest possible cooperation by all countries and their participation in an effective and appropriate international response, in accordance with their common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities and their social and economic conditions,(…)”

See also Article 3(1) UNFCCC:

“1. The Parties should protect the climate system for the benefit of present and future generations of humankind, on the basis of equity and in accordance with their common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities. Accordingly, the developed country Parties should take the lead in combating climate change and the adverse effects thereof.”

And Article 7(2) (b) and (c) UNFCCC (and its equivalent in the KP, Article 13(4)):

“(b) Promote and facilitate the exchange of information on measures adopted by the Parties to address climate change and its effects, taking into account the differing circumstances, responsibilities and capabilities of the Parties and their respective commitments under the Convention;

(c) Facilitate, at the request of two or more Parties, the coordination of measures adopted by them to address climate change and its effects, taking into account the differing circumstances, responsibilities and capabilities of the Parties and their respective commitments under the Convention;”

On other occasions, however, the terms seem to be used interchangeably:

See Article 5 (b) UNFCCC:

“(b) Support international and intergovernmental efforts to strengthen systematic observation and national scientific and technical research capacities and capabilities, particularly in developing countries, and to promote access to, and the exchange of, data and analyses thereof obtained from areas beyond national jurisdiction; and

(c) Take into account the particular concerns and needs of developing countries and cooperate in improving their endogenous capacities and capabilities to participate in the efforts referred to in subparagraphs (a) and (b) above.”

And Article 10 (d) KP:

“(d) Cooperate in scientific and technical research and promote the maintenance and the development of systematic observation systems and development of data archives to reduce uncertainties related to the climate system, the adverse impacts of climate change and the economic and social consequences of various response strategies, and promote the development and strengthening of endogenous capacities and capabilities to participate in international and intergovernmental efforts, programmes and networks on research and systematic observation, taking into account Article 5 of the Convention;”

Article 4(5) UNFCCC:

“5. The developed country Parties and other developed Parties included in Annex II shall take all practicable steps to promote, facilitate and finance, as appropriate, the transfer of, or access to, environmentally sound technologies and knowhow to other Parties, particularly developing country Parties, to enable them to implement the provisions of the Convention. In this process, the developed country Parties shall support the development and enhancement of endogenous capacities and technologies of developing country Parties. Other Parties and organizations in a position to do so may also assist in facilitating the transfer of such technologies.”

Article 6 UNFCCC:

“In carrying out their commitments under Article 4, paragraph 1(i), the Parties shall:

(a) Promote and facilitate at the national and, as appropriate, subregional and regional levels, and in accordance with national laws and regulations, and within their respective capacities:”