COP26 – Saving the World or Just a COP Out?

As COPs roll around, it’s become clear to environmental activists that they present an opportunity for having their voices heard. Yet, whilst a yearly COP is an important moment, not many people actually know what it is. I’ve written this to try to provide a clear explanation of what COP is, how it was formed, and my opinions on this.

Image of the Scottish Event Campus (set to host COP26) & the River Clyde

COP stands for Conference of the Parties, and essentially, it involves delegates from across the world coming together to solve the climate crisis, the real-life problems it is causing, and what is needed to provide global climate action. COP is not a be-all end-all solution to the climate crisis, but it does have benefits. It has been instrumental in helping achieve some of the climate solutions that have been implemented thus far, and it has done so by:

  • providing an important space/moment for engaging lot’s of different people;
  • acting as a major arena for discussing and accepting new policy/actions
  • giving an opportunity to engage with and challenge/debunk mainstream climate change issues, and to promote the real climate change solutions
  • helping prevent worse outcomes and achieving wins that can empower and strengthen climate campaigns and uses its engagement to try to change current power imbalances

COP is governed by three different legal bodies: the COP itself; the CMP (COP serving as the meeting of the Parties to the Kyoto Protocol); the CMA (COP serving as the meeting of the Parties to the Paris Agreement). Much of this is explained further in the next section…

A Historic Timeline of Climate Negotiations:

  • 1988 – The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was established by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the World Meteorological Organization (WMO). The IPCC is a scientific body under the United Nations, and it involves a panel of scientists who provide an objective view of climate change and its political and economic impacts. The IPCC do not come up with new information, but simply assess the most recent scientific literature released on climate change, and summarise it into an IPCC report.
  • 1992 – The UNFCCC (United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change) was formed. The UNFCCC is essentially a treaty, as it acts as a legally binding set of agreements between countries.
    • UNFCC objective: “stabilization of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system… within a time frame sufficient to allow ecosystems to adapt naturally to climate change”.
    • A treaty creates obligations on the countries that are signed into it. Countries that have agreed to the terms of the treaty are parties to the treaty. As it’s an agreement between states, these states (or parties) decide on the implementation of the treaties – meetings on such decisions are called the Conference of the Parties (or COP).
  • 1994 –  the Principle of equity & Common But Differentiated Responsibilities (CBDR) was embedded in the UNFCC. The equity principle recognised that developed countries were the biggest contributors to pollution and resource depletion, so developed countries must lead in taking action and must assist developing countries in doing the same. Developing countries were allowed to grow their emissions as necessary to meet their social & developmental needs.
  • 1995 – the 1st COP was held in Berlin, and from there on, these meetings usually took place on a yearly basis. COP1 created a process that allowed the global community to come together in combating climate change. All States that are Parties to the UNFCCC are represented at the COP, at which they review the implementation of the UNFCCC and any other legal instruments that have been adopted, and also make decisions on promoting the effective implementation of the UNFCCC
    • Stated simply, a COP is a set of meetings aiming to decide on how to implement the UNFCCC (climate treaty) to meet its objectives
  • 1997 – Under the UNFCCC, two legally binding frameworks have been adopted, the first of which is the Kyoto Protocol (KP). It works under the UNFCCC, committing developed countries to limit and reduce their greenhouse gas emissions to meet their agreed individual targets. It mainly binds developed countries as it recognizes that they are mostly responsible for the greenhouse gases currently in the atmosphere
  • 2005 – The KP went into effect, with the industrialized nations that signed onto (ratified) the agreement all subject to it’s requirements. Whilst many of the ratified countries would go on to meet their targets, and cut emissions, the progress was offset by continually growing emissions from countries like China and the US.
  • From COP 2007-2009 – there were many issues with a North-South battle (with developing countries rightly arguing that developed countries have a bigger responsibility to do more, whilst developed countries unjustly argued that they should have to act if other countries were not committing as much as they were). COP15 (2009) saw no agreement on legally binding emissions targets, and the event was deemed to be undemocratic and non-inclusive. However, there was a goal set for developed countries to generate $100 billion per year for developing nations.
  • 2013, COP19 – The Warsaw International Mechanism for LAD (Loss and Damage) was established as a main vehicle in UNFCC process to address the climate impacts already happening (broadly understood to mean the negative, unavoidable consequences that cannot be avoided through mitigation or adaptation). This had to be created in response to the realisation that it is unlikely emissions would be successfully lowered in order for climate change impacts to be totally avoided, as proven by intensifying climate disasters. In the 2000’s it was becoming clear that planetary conditions will get far worse, and so those most affected by this need additional support, alongside mitigation and adaptation.
  • 2015, COP21 – The 2nd legally binding framework of the UNFCCC’s is established: The Paris Agreement (PA). Since developed countries never really accepted their (perfectly reasonable) obligations to take the lead, the PA was seen as a solution to the KP, as the PA created obligations for everyone.

What does “legally binding” mean?

The treaty is not an international law, and there is no court that could be used by a country to hold another country accountable. As all Parties are sovereign states, countries cannot dictate what other countries do, as this would infringe upon national sovereignty (which is vital in maintaining security and equity, though large powers do still attempt to exert their authority either through economic sanctions or invasions, for example). So, the PA is legally binding in theory, but in practice, it is just a voluntary guideline.

  • 2016 – The PA came into effect. Its main aim is to keep increasing global temperatures to “well below” 2˚C whilst “pursuing efforts” to keep it below 1.5˚C, above pre-industrial levels. This would be achieved through Nationally Determined Contributions (or NDCs) – a country’s efforts in reducing its national emissions and adapting to climate change impacts. The PA requires each Party to develop and maintain NDCs, and to submit these NDCs every 5 years.
  • 2018 – the IPCC’s latest report warned us that humanity has just 12 years (until 2030) in which to make the changes required to limit global warming to a maximum of 1.5°C (as per the PA). This report emphasized the urgency of achieving climate action, in order to avert a climate and humanitarian disaster
  • 2020 – COP26 (the 26th Conference of The Parties) was to be held in Glasgow, but it was delayed due to COVID-19. It is now scheduled to take place from the 1st-12th November 2021, however this is not without controversy of it’s own.
  • 2021 – The year COP26 is set to be held (a month after the release of this post). This comes a few months after the August 2021 IPCC report, which concluded that at this point, 1. 5˚C of warming is certain ad “locked in”, regardless of what we do now. However, every fraction of a degree of warming will bring about more and more disaster, and we can still act to maintain warming below 2˚C.

One thing that strikes me about this timeline is that the first COP took place in 1995 – which happens to be the year in which I was born.

As I was learning to walk and talk, the first few conferences were taking place. These meetings to tackle climate change continued as I started and finished Primary School, and as I entered Secondary School. They were still discussing how to solve the problems as I finished 13 years of education, and started University. And since then’ I’ve spent a total of 7 years at university, and then forging a career in Environmental Science, whilst these climate change conferences are continuously repeated every year.

Yet, whilst I’ve become a fully-fledged tax-paying, degree-holding, independently-living adult, the globe’s carbon emissions have only increased. I’ve done the job of bettering myself and becoming a “contributing member of society” (whatever that even means), whilst the world’s leaders have continued to fuck up the society that I’m supposed to contribute to.

COP has had a lot of issues to contest. But to me, it’s main issue is how slow any action or achievements has been – COP needs to do a lot more, and a lot faster. Currently, any decisions that Parties make during the two weeks of a COP need to be made by consensus – all groups need to be in agreement. As such, COPs can be all politics and talk, and very few results.

Clearly, there is a major problem with how the COPs are held, and the practices they adhere to; they have not been achieving their aims, despite having had a quarter-century to get things right. Sure, lot’s of meetings & targets and goals have been announced and celebrated, but where is the meaningful, effective action. Where are the graphs showing humanity’s emissions reductions?

Unfortunately, it’s mostly been bad news – more species extinction, more melting ice, and more suffering. For anything to change, mass direct action is needed. And whilst COP currently present one of the best opportunities to act on climate change, its track record is not very promising. This raises an important question on what we can expect from any future COPs, and whether it really presents any solutions to the climate crisis at all.

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