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November 14, 2022updated 15 Nov 2022 10:21am

Explainer: A brief history of the Cop summits

A potted history of the near 30-year history of the COP summits and UN's attempt to bring nations together to solve climate change.

By Silvia Pellegrino

COP, COp26, COP27, Kyoto Protocol, Paris Agreement

In the palm of our hands. The Cop summits have had a mixed history of success. (Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images)
  • Adopted in 1997, the Kyoto Protocol was the first global accord of its sort, with a focus on balancing greenhouse gas emissions and preventing global warming.
  • Donald Trump pulled out of the Paris Agreement in 2017, only for Joe Biden to reinstate the US in 2021.
  •  The Glasgow Climate Pact, Cop26, resulted in a historic conclusion, but agreement only exists because the Paris Agreement failed to produce the desired results.

With the present Cop (Cop27) ongoing, there have been some steps forward in tackling some of the most pressing issues, even if many still remain unsolved. The Sharm el Sheikh UN climate summit has seen plenty of heated debate about climate finance.

During Cop26, Scotland contributed $2.2m for loss and damage arising from climate change, while other wealthier nations, such as the United States, have so far declined to assist impoverished countries with funding for weather disasters. However, further progress has been made during this year’s Cop summit. For example, Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon pledged an additional $5.7m to the cause.

Ireland has also offered $10m, and as the Guardian observed, help from affluent countries to disadvantaged countries is vital to making any progress at Cop27.

Other objectives, such as restricting temperature rises to 1.5 degrees, will, however, fall short. After Cop26, countries pledged to return with new plans to reach this goal. However, only 24 new plans were presented to the United Nations (UN) in sight of Cop27, and they will not be enough to prevent the 2.5-degree temperature rise from happening. More must be done.

Over the near 30-year history of Cop conferences, there have been various agreements made between the world’s wealthiest and poorest nations. Some have had a positive impact, while others less so. The below provides a potted history of them.

The Kyoto Protocol

After the first two Cop conferences, which were held in 1995 and 1996, in Berlin and Geneva, respectively, the Kyoto Protocol was adopted in 1997.

The Kyoto Protocol included the first set of legally enforceable climate targets known as Quantified Emission Limitation and Reduction Objectives (QELROs) to place a limit on the major greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from Annex I nations, which are industrialised nations or nations that are in the process of industrialisation.

The six GHGs are carbon dioxide (CO2), methane, nitrous oxide, hydrofluorocarbons, perfluorocarbons, and sulphur hexafluoride. 

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Two flexibility requirements were also put in place to ensure that the Kyoto Protocol was adhered to, including a Joint Implementation Project (JIP) that let developed nations participate in an emission reduction programme in another Annex I country. A Clean Development Mechanism (CDM), which allowed wealthier countries to finance environmental projects in underdeveloped nations, was the second need.

Furthermore, the International Emissions Trading Mechanism, which allowed countries with extra emission units – emissions that are within the country’s allowance but are not used, for instance, carbon – to sell them to other nations that exceeded their goal, was the third flexibility mechanism.

The Kyoto Protocol was accepted at Cop3, but it wasn’t until Russia’s signing in 2004 that it received the initial 55 signatures needed to become official.

What impact has the Kyoto Protocol had?

The Kyoto Protocol was the first global accord of its sort, with a focus on balancing greenhouse gas emissions and preventing global warming. Each of the member nations had a separate goal to reach by 2012; for example, European Union countries wanted to reduce emissions by 8%, and the US and Canada by 7% and 6%, respectively.

The original Kyoto Protocol participants lowered their CO2 emissions by 12.5% between 1990 and 2012, exceeding the stated goal of 4.7% – of only CO2, and before Canada pulled out in 2011 – by 7.8%. The Kyoto Protocol was successful in this aspect.

However, without the actions of Russia and Ukraine, the 4.7% objective would not have been met in those years. Russia and Ukraine lowered their carbon emissions by a total of 32.4%, which brought the average reduction for the other nations to 12.5%.

After the deadline passed at the end of 2012, parties from the Kyoto Protocol gathered in Doha, Qatar, to discuss the findings and revise the original agreement. The Doha Climate Gateway, the fruit of Cop18, aimed to reshape the commitment period for the Kyoto Protocol, adding a new deadline in 2020. However, it did not come into force until 2019 when 124 accepted the amendments to Doha. 

But the Doha Amendment was just temporary, as the Paris Climate Agreement quickly took its place in 2015.

The Paris Agreement

The Paris Agreement was formally unveiled as the Kyoto Protocol’s replacement in 2015 during Cop21. The Kyoto Protocol was entirely replaced by this accord.

It was signed by 195 countries and it also established the Ad Hoc Working Group on the Paris Agreement, whose responsibility was to supervise the agreement’s development. 

The Paris Agreement’s major objective was for the parties to contribute to keeping global warming as far below 2 degrees Celsius as possible. All of the main GHG-emitting nations had to agree to reduce their damaging emissions as part of this agreement.

The nations are required to abide by their Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) even if this is not, in theory, a legally enforceable agreement. Countries share actions they will take to reduce their emissions to reach the goals outlined in the Paris Agreement. In their NDCs, the nations communicate all the actions they plan to take to augment their resilience against extreme weather and temperatures.

Working on five-year-long cycles, the Paris Agreement requires long-term strategies from the countries as well as NDCs. These long-term low GHG emission development strategies (LT-LEDS) are not mandatory; however, they are necessary to meet the agreement’s goals. 

Due to the need for countries to submit completely open data on their emissions, these contributions are essential to keep countries accountable for their emissions.

China, for instance, committed to levelling off emissions by no later than 2030; India, on the other hand, pledged to reduce the intensity of its emissions by 33–55% below 2005 levels by 2030 and to produce 40% of its energy from non-fossil sources.

When Donald Trump was elected president of the United States in 2017, less than two years after the Paris Agreement was drafted, the US announced that it would no longer make contributions to the Paris Agreement.

Following various discussions and debates, Cop25 in Madrid in 2019 was designated as an “Ambition Cop”. Its goal was to finalise the details of the Paris Agreement so that it could be fully implemented be the next year. However, the nations were unable to come to an agreement, and the pandemic forced the cancellation of the following amendment meeting.

What impact has the Paris Agreement had?

In 2021, on Joe Biden’s first day in the Oval Office, the newly-elected president started the process to rejoin the Paris Agreement once again, which officially went through in February 2021.

For the Paris Agreement to have an impact, there needed to be initiatives and new projects to speed the process along. For instance, a $2.3bn fund was established for the agreement’s Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities (BRIC) programme to assist communities in becoming better prepared for extreme weather. Additionally, wind energy opportunities arose with the possibility of 700,000 acres offshore of sustainable energy to provide power to more than three million homes.

Glasgow, Scotland, hosted the finalisation of the Paris Agreement in 2021, the same year that nations were asked to submit long-term plans to combat climate change. The nations’ policies will be updated every five years in addition to keeping temperature increases under 1.5 degrees.

The UN has communicated that the world is “nowhere near” reaching its goals to cut GHG emissions. If countries keep going on this path, global temperatures will rise to 2.5 degrees before the end of the century. 

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said: “We are still significantly off-schedule to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement. This year [2021] has seen fossil fuel emissions bounce back, greenhouse gas concentrations continuing to rise and severe human-enhanced weather events that have affected health, lives and livelihoods on every continent.” 

He continued: “Unless there are immediate, rapid and large-scale reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, limiting warming to 1.5 degrees will be impossible, with catastrophic consequences for people and the planet on which we depend.”

The Glasgow Climate Pact

With the Glasgow Climate Pact, Cop26 in Glasgow came to a historic conclusion. This agreement, which only exists because the Paris Agreement is not producing the desired results, was created to speed up the process to counteract global warming. 

The fundamental purpose of Cop26, which recognised that “the cost of inaction far outweighs the cost of action” was to maintain the goal of preventing a rise in the global temperature of more than 1.5 degrees. The cooperating nations concluded that the only way to do this is by reducing coal power, with the following four objectives:

  1. Mitigation: Countries overseeing 90% of the world’s population have vowed to attain net-zero emissions, and Cop26 determined the best way to do it is to stop deforestation, cut methane emissions, and switch to electric cars.
  2. Adaptation and loss and Damage: Over 80 nations are currently covered by both National Adaptation Plans and Adaptation Communications, and 45 of those nations have submitted measures to mitigate climate risks. The Glasgow-Sharm el Sheikh Work Programme on the Global Goal of Adaptation was established at the summit. Additionally, this marked the first time a worldwide adaptation objective had ever been established. Further, there has been discussion about loss and damage financing to increase indigenous peoples’ access to funding.
  3. Finance: Annex I countries, by raising their contributions, have made progress toward achieving the $100bn climate financing objective by 2023.
  4. Collaboration: Now that governments are collaborating, it will be easier to finalise the Paris Rulebook.

What impact has the Glasgow Climate Pact had?

About 150 nations have amended their NDCs with new targets to hit by 2030, requiring greater emission cuts than expected.

The Glasgow Climate Pact requested that the countries reconsider their commitment in order to align with the Paris Agreement temperature by the end of 2022 rather than 2030 because some nations, such as Australia, Brazil, Indonesia and Mexico’s new plans did not evolve enough compared to their previous ones.

The Glasgow Climate Pact Act also challenged the nations to revise their long-term climate change plans in order to better pursue the route to net-zero emissions by 2030, since the world’s temperature will climb by 2.5 degrees with the present NDCs.

Checking in on each nation’s development will be simpler and more fruitful thanks to three extra procedures: a work programme, an annual round table, and an annual report. These programmes will launch during Cop27 to improve mitigation and communication.

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