For three decades, the United Nations has demonstrated its commitment to climate change action in the form of an annual meeting called the Conference of Parties, or COP. This November 6-18, almost 200 countries are convening in Sharm el Sheikh, Egypt to negotiate consequential decisions on climate commitments. Since the first UN COP in 1992, the issue of climate change and its harmful effects have become increasingly daunting and urgent. With past conferences being a rollercoaster of successes, failures, and postponements, we’ve reached a critical point for action. As the world anxiously awaits, some of us are still asking what is COP and its place in the UN’s fight against climate change? What are its goals? What are its successes and short-comings? Answering these questions will help us better understand what may follow COP27.
COP: Why do we have it and how does it work?
COPs, also referred to as global climate summits, are made up of 197 countries and are also represented by an assortment of climate experts, government officials, and heads of state alongside non-governmental, public and private stakeholders engaged in environmental and civil society. The purpose of COP is to bolster effective climate change action on an international level, done mainly through commitments or agreements made nationally that aid other countries. At its core, COP reflects the level at which the international community prioritizes efforts to combat climate change.
These efforts began in 1992 as a response to the end of the Cold War. Without the threat of communism from the Soviet Union, allied countries wanted to redefine global priorities and improve relationships across nations within the context of a more connected world. UN member states began to take a second look at how the world was organized. Primarily, they were concerned with economic development and poverty among developing nations. The Stockholm Conference of 1972 made clear that rapid human development was linked to environmental degradation and eventual depletion. This led the UN to focus on environment and sustainability in the context of global development. As a result, the ‘Earth Summit’ of 1992 was held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, with representatives from 179 countries focused on addressing varied social, economic, and environmental interests towards a newly cooperative world. One of the summit’s many achievements was the adoption of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), an internationally established treaty that recognizes the issue of climate change due to human activity and places the responsibilities to combat climate change on industrialized countries. A COP was then created to be the ‘final say’ on any decisions made regarding UNFCCC. The parties consist of UN nations who voluntarily participate in the conference and are tasked with reviewing and implementing any decisions adopted by the COP at-large to address global climate concerns.
The meetings that take place during the conference are based on months of preparation in which UN staff and other experts provide context for any possible meeting topics through research, discussion papers, and policy proposals. The research and background provided informs countries on how to best negotiate over new and existing agreements. At the end, a joint statement is produced that all the parties agree on, detailing the outcomes of the conference.
Is COP working?
Since the first COP in 1995, the international community has made several commitments to improve international climate change action. The most important agreements to date have been the Kyoto Protocol in 1997, the Paris Agreement in 2015, and the Doha Amendment (an additional provision to the Kyoto Protocol). Under the Kyoto Protocol, countries acknowledged the responsibility industrialized nations and economies have in limiting and reducing greenhouse gasses (GHGs), and asked countries to adopt and report on their mitigation policies. COP21 produced the monumental Paris Agreement, a legally binding international treaty in which all parties agreed to limit global warming to 2 degrees and pursue efforts to limit even further to 1.5 degrees. To achieve this goal, countries were instructed to develop Nationally Determined Contributions, which essentially act as national emission reduction plans. In addition to their individual commitments, the parties also agreed to meet every five years with an updated plan to reassess goals and priorities that were previously agreed upon. The Doha Agreement, amended the Kyoto Protocol, seeked to ramp up the previously set goals for emissions reduction. In the amendment, countries agreed to an 18% reduction in GHG emissions, compared to the goal of 5% reduction set in 1990. Other COPs have seen successes like increases in formalized commitments, financial support from rich countries, and recognition of women and other marginalized groups.
It is also important to acknowledge the shortcomings of these climate meetings. Almost three decades of COPs have convened, and only a handful of moments constitute real action and commitment. Many outcomes of COPs are limited by agreements that end up being postponed, reduced, or at a standstill. For example, at COP26, we saw developing and developed countries struggle to come to a decision on climate finance, the concept of providing financial aid to address negative effects of climate change. We also saw climate experts urging nations to commit to a coal reduction, met with refusal by coal-reliant nations who instead, agreed to wait until 2040.
Additionally, there are fundamental reasons why COP has struggled to keep its promise of collective action. First is the issue of responsibility vs. capacity. Before the Paris Climate Agreement in 2015, there was a widely held belief that countries who emit the most GHGs should have to contribute most to fixing the problem because they are the most responsible. However, upon realizing there were smaller countries who although were not historically-large emitters of GHGs, were rich and able, UN nations agreed to shift responsibility to capacity. In other words, countries who have the most capacity or “can” afford to contribute the most to climate finance, simply should. This shift does not guarantee that the countries who need to lower their emissions will, especially without an incentive.
Second is the issue of political promises taking importance over scientific reality. A recent report, State of Climate Action 2021, looks at the current commitments set from the Paris agreement, namely the collective decision to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees. In looking at our progress, as recently as 2021, we are ‘on track’ with zero goals on or above the pace to meet our 2030 benchmarks. This is disappointing and dangerous. It is clear that the commitments our governments are making do little to enact necessary change. However, politicians are still meeting at COP every year and reinforcing their commitment to a goal that every scientific predictor says is currently out of reach.
COP27: What to look out for
Looking ahead to the upcoming COP27, we can expect a theme of urgency. This year, we have seen extreme impacts of climate change, felt disproportionately by developing countries. Record-breaking heatwaves in India, catastrophic floods in Pakistan, and wild forest fires in Europe and the Mediterranean, have all demonstrated the devastating effects of climate change. As a result, vulnerable nations are calling for stronger mitigation and adaptation measures from the richer, powerful and more resourceful neighboring states. Priorities include: discussing the implementation of a new financial institution, one that would be used to help address loss and damages from extreme weather events, which has proven to be a growing hardship for developing nations; delegating the annual $100 billion given to developing countries to help deal with negative effects of climate change; and assessing the convention’s long-term goals and past national commitments made by parties in COP26. While COP27 remains ambitious, the urgency needs to be felt by all nations involved, which with hope, will stir up agreements necessary to meet our goals of a more climate resilient world.