- COP stands for Conference to the Parties to the United Nations Framework on Climate Change (UNFCCC), which aims to stabilize atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations to prevent dangerous global warming.
- A total of 198 nations have ratified the UNFCCC.
- The U.S. was the fourth overall nation and the first industrialized nation to ratify the UNFCCC.
- The Kyoto Protocol, passed in 1997, called on 37 industrialized nations to reduce emissions by five percent of 1990 levels by 2012.
- The Paris agreement marked the first time both developed and developing nations committed to reducing emissions in a legally binding treaty.
- Under the Paris Agreement, nations submit nationally determined contributions (NDC) to reduce greenhouse gas emissions every five years.
- NDCs strengthened after COP26 marked the world on track to 2.4 to 2.6 degrees Celsius of warming by 2100.
- There were more delegates from the fossil fuel industry at COP26 than from any one nation.
- In 2009, wealthy countries pledged $100 billion a year by 2020 to help developing nations respond to the climate crisis but they never delivered.
- Around 100,000 people joined protests calling for more ambitious action during COP26.
What Is the ‘COP’ Process and Why Is It Important?
For around two weeks every fall, climate reporting will center on a large international gathering referred to as a COP. But what exactly does this mean? COP stands for Conference of the Parties. A party is one of the 198 nations that have ratified the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). The goal of the UNFCCC is to maintain the concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere “at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic (human induced) interference with the climate system.”
The ultimate purpose of the yearly COPs is to track collective progress towards this goal. This includes reviewing the emissions and emissions reduction plans of each country, determining whether or not existing plans are sufficiently effective and negotiating additional plans to reduce emissions. The COPs are important because they are the main forum for the world’s nations to come together and make concrete decisions about how to mitigate and adapt to the climate crisis.
What Is the History of the COP Process?
1992 – UNFCCC Adopted: This groundbreaking agreement was adopted at the UN Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, also known as the Rio Earth Summit. It was an important development because, at the time, there was less scientific consensus around the reality and causes of climate change, even though certain scientists had raised the alarm about the atmospheric buildup of greenhouse gases since at least the 1970s. The U.S. was the fourth nation overall and first industrialized nation to sign. The convention also aimed to raise awareness of climate change and convene yearly meetings with world leaders, experts and non-governmental organizations. However, it wasn’t legally binding because it set no actual limits on greenhouse gas emissions but instead postponed determining those limits for future meetings. It entered into force in 1994 once 50 nations had ratified it.
1995 – COP1: The first-ever COP was held in Berlin after enough nations had ratified the convention to justify a meeting. It established the Berlin Mandate, which allowed countries to pick and choose from a list of commitments and initiatives to reduce emissions. The UNFCCC had put the burden to act on so-called Annex 1 countries, industrialized nations belonging to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). The argument was that these nations had contributed the most to the climate crisis both historically and currently. The Berlin Mandate assured that non-Annex 1 countries did not have to make commitments.
1997 – COP3 / Kyoto Protocol: Passed at a COP in Kyoto, Japan, the Kyoto Protocol mandated that 37 industrialized nations reduce their emissions of the six main greenhouse gases: carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, hydrofluorocarbons, perfluorocarbons and sulfur hexafluoride. The countries were supposed to reduce their emissions by five percent of 1990 levels by 2012. However, there were two main weaknesses to the agreement. The first was that major developing economies including India and China only had to reduce emissions voluntarily. The second was that major emitters China and the U.S. never ratified the agreement. While the U.S. did sign the agreement under then-President Bill Clinton, both the Senate and following President George W. Bush opposed it.
2007 – COP13 / Bali Action Plan: By the time of the 13th COP in Bali, Indonesia, it was clear the Kyoto Protocol had not lived up to expectations. Parties agreed to the Bali Action Plan to set the stage for a post-Kyoto legally binding climate agreement. This was supposed to be decided at COP15 in Copenhagen, Denmark, in 2009.
2009 – COP15 / Failure in Copenhagen: Despite high hopes, the COP in Copenhagen was seen as a failure by both negotiators and environmental activists. The initial goal for the conference was “The conclusion of a legally-binding climate agreement, valid for the whole world, which will be implemented as of 2012.” Specifically, the aim was for nations to agree to reduce emissions to less than 50 percent of 1990 levels by 2050. Leading emitters China and the U.S. dashed these hopes only three weeks before the summit at a meeting in Thailand, at which they declared that any agreement reached at Copenhagen would not be binding. It was also at COP15 that wealthy nations first pledged $100 billion a year by 2020 to help developing nations both adapt to the climate crisis and transition away from fossil fuels, a promise that has yet to materialize.
2015 – COP 21 / Paris Agreement: After years of stagnant international negotiations, COP15 in Paris, France, was a major breakthrough. Under the so-called Paris Agreement, both developed and developing countries came to a legally binding agreement to take action with a goal of limiting global warming to “well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and pursuing efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, recognizing that this would significantly reduce the risks and impacts of climate change.” It opened for signatures on Earth Day, 2016 and entered into force in November of that same year. Currently, 194 of the 198 Parties to the UNFCCC have ratified the agreement. While the U.S. was instrumental in negotiating the Paris Agreement under then-President Barack Obama, the next President Donald Trump withdrew the country from the accord. President Joe Biden then rejoined as soon as he took office.
2021 – COP26 / Glasgow Climate Pact: COP26 in Glasgow, Scotland was considered the next most important COP after COP21. This was the first COP in the Paris Agreement’s five-year cycle of submitting emissions-reduction plans. It was supposed to take place in 2020 but was delayed by one year because of the coronavirus pandemic. Ahead of the conference, the UN Emissions Gap Report said that national plans put the world on track for 2.7 degrees Celsius of warming by 2100. At the conference, nations agreed to the Glasgow Climate Pact to resubmit their emissions-reduction plans in line with limiting warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming. They also finalized the so-called Paris Rulebook outlining how the agreement would be implemented.
2022 – COP27: COP27 began Sunday, November 6 in the Red Sea resort town of Sharm el Sheikh, Egypt and is expected to last until November 18. More than 35,000 delegates and more than 100 heads of state are scheduled to attend, including Biden.
How Does the Paris Agreement Work?
Fulfilling and refining the Paris Agreement has dominated every COP since it passed. The main goal of the Paris Agreement is to limit global warming to “well below” two degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, with an aim of limiting it to 1.5 degrees. To this end, signatories are supposed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions as soon as possible with an ultimate aim of reaching net-zero emissions by 2050.
To make sure this happens, the agreement puts both short and long term mechanisms in place. The short term mechanisms are referred to as nationally determined contributions (NDCs). Countries are required to state every five years how they plan to reduce emissions. The idea is that these NDCs will become more ambitious each cycle. In addition, countries are invited to submit voluntary long-term low greenhouse gas emission development strategies (LT-LEDS) to set their NDCs within a broader strategic plan to reach net-zero.
While the Paris Agreement involves every country promising to reduce emissions regardless of economic status, it still acknowledges that wealthy, industrialized nations have contributed more to the climate crisis than poorer, developing ones that are nevertheless suffering the brunt of its impacts. To this end, it makes allowances for developing countries to reduce emissions more slowly. It also provides mechanisms for wealthy countries to offer financial and technological assistance to help developing nations both transition away from fossil fuels and adapt to impacts like sea level rise and extreme weather events.
Progress in both adapting to and mitigating the climate crisis will be tracked through something called the enhanced transparency framework (ETF), to which nations will submit any actions taken and any aid either given or received. This framework will launch in 2024. The information posted to the ETF will be used for a Global Stocktake of collective progress that will then inform future plans. The first Global Stocktake will take place in 2023 and then every five years thereafter. While the treaty is legally binding, because there is no international judicial system, there is nothing the UNFCCC can actually do to a country that does not set or fulfill NDCs. That said, the country in question could face consequences both in the form of protest at home and either economic or political conflict with other parties.
COPs and the IPCC
What scientific information do the COPs use to determine the extent and consequences of human-generated climate change? The UNFCCC has an important relationship with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). This is the UN body tasked with studying and reporting on the climate crisis in order to help policy makers determine their response. It was founded in 1988 by the UN’s World Meteorological Organization and the UN Environment Programme. Its regular reports on the causes of, risks of and potential solutions to climate change help inform international climate negotiations.
COPs both work with and support the IPCC. Perhaps the most important example of the relationship between the two groups is the IPCC Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C. The COP invited the IPCC to compile this report in conjunction with the passage of the Paris Agreement, and the IPCC chose to accept the invitation. This influential report revealed that there would be a great divide between 1.5 and two degrees Celsius of warming, and that limiting warming to 1.5 degrees was essential to prevent the worst impacts of the climate crisis including the death of 99 percent of coral reefs and the impoverishment of hundreds of millions of people by 2050.
What Is at Stake at COP27?
COP27 comes at a time when the impacts of the climate crisis are more apparent than ever, from a spring and summer of record-breaking heat waves to flooding in Pakistan that left a third of the country underwater. At the same time, only 29 countries have submitted updated NDCs in the wake of Glasgow. The 2022 UN Emissions Gap Report found that revitalized NDCs submitted after COP26 still put the world on track for 2.4 to 2.6 degrees Celsius of warming by 2100. To keep the 1.5 goal alive, nations would have to reduce emissions by 45 percent by 2030 compared with current policies, which would require a “system-wide transformation.”
Implementation: Given the urgency of the climate crisis, COP27 is a test to see if world leaders can increase their ambitions and rise to the challenge. Specifically, the focus of this conference is on concrete implementation of countries’ emissions-reduction pledges, as well as on whether or not a majority of countries can come forward with revamped pledges as promised.
Loss and Damage: One major climate justice issue on the agenda at COP27 is loss and damage. Loss and damage refers to the impacts that countries are already experiencing due to climate change. Poorer, vulnerable nations want wealthier nations to set up a fund helping them respond to these impacts, but developed nations like the U.S. and the EU have dragged their feet on the issue. It was tabled at COP26 and was added to the official agenda for the first time at COP27 and is expected to be a major source of friction at the talks. Another point of contention between developed and developing countries is the still-missing $100 billion in climate finance that was supposed to be paid once a year from 2020 to 2025. Ahead of negotiations, India called on wealthy nations to meet their commitment and to increase the yearly amount going forward.
What Are Some Criticisms of the COP Process?
It’s Moving Too Slowly: One major criticism of the COP process to date is that it simply has not yet delivered the emissions reductions needed to avoid the worst impacts of climate change. Its history is full of false starts like the Kyoto Protocol, and it’s unsure in this context if the Paris Agreement can deliver. Climate scientist and activist James Hansen, who testified before Congress about the greenhouse effect in 1988, said he thought the agreement was a “fraud” because it was all promises and no action and said the only way to meaningfully reduce fossil fuel emissions would be to place an extra fee or tax on burning them. Climate activist Greta Thunberg recently called the process a “scam” and said that it was designed to make gradual changes, but we have run out of time.
It’s Greenwashing: Another criticism Thunberg made of the COP process was that it allowed corporations and nations to attend and make big promises, thereby greenwashing their images. Polluting industries including finance, agribusiness, transportation and fossil fuels are present. Indeed, at COP26 the delegation from the fossil fuel industry was larger than any one nation’s, with 503 lobbyists. Activists have called for fossil fuel representatives to be banned from these talks since they have a vested interest in their failure. The issue of greenwashing came to a head with COP27 when Coca-Cola was named as a sponsor. Coca-Cola is one of the world’s biggest users of plastic and sources of plastic pollution, and plastic is typically made from fossil fuels. A petition with nearly 240,000 signatures is calling on UNFCCC to stop accepting corporate sponsorship beginning with ejecting Coca-Cola from COP27.
Human Rights Concerns with COP27: COP27 has faced added criticism because of the human rights record of the Egyptian government, which has essentially made public protest illegal and arbitrarily detained thousands of people. It further arrested nearly 70 in the runup to the conference and is only allowing protests in a designated space separated from the main conference center. This is concerning because protests have historically played a major role at past COPs. At COP26, around 100,000 people took to the streets. Environmental and human rights groups and advocates have launched a petition calling on Egypt to allow space for civil society and release anyone arbitrarily detained.
While the COP process has so far been an exercise in too little, too late, it is also the chief mechanism through which most of the key stakeholders discuss a potential solution for the climate crisis. So far, it has recognized that there is a problem and reached an agreement that, if effectively implemented, could avoid the worst impacts of climate change. COPs are also a chance for the media to inform the public about the climate crisis and for civil society to mobilize for more ambitious plans. What’s at stake at COP27 — and every COP hereafter — is whether or not world leaders can make the commitments necessary to both reduce emissions to avoid the worst impacts of climate change and deliver climate justice by making sure developing nations have the means to adapt to a problem they had a much smaller hand in causing.