COP decoded: The story of the climate conference

COP stands for Conference of the Parties and is an annual UN conference on climate change. In this article, you're taken on a journey through the history of the climate conference.

Nov 15, 2023

Climate change

Isabella S. Rasmussen

You probably already know what COP is. Maybe you even know quite a lot about it, or maybe you just know that it has something to do with climate change.

In case you don’t have a clue, don’t be ashamed. Even Catherine McKenna didn’t know what COP was before she became Canada’s Minister of Environment and Climate Change in 2015 (and now she’s famous for having started Canada’s carbon pricing scheme).

Anyway, if you want to become THE go-to expert when it comes to the purpose and history of COP (and if you just love acronyms), you’ve come to the right place.

So, what is COP?

COP stands for Conference of the Parties and is an annual UN conference on climate change. The first COP was held in 1995, but let’s turn back time an additional 27 years so I can tell you the whole story because I don’t like to do things halfway.

How the Conference of the Parties came to life

Once upon a time in a world where climate change was still an invisible enemy, the first seed of the COP was planted.

This happens in 1968 when Sweden, at a meeting in the UN’s Economic and Social Council, suggests convening an International Conference on Problems of the Human Environment. To be able to discuss this further, the UN Secretary-General writes a report about problems of the human environment and recommends convening the conference as suggested by Sweden.

The report recognizes the “important aspect of the problem of human environment, that is the impact on man himself of the process of change by technological advances” and stresses issues with, among other things, pollution, water use, use of land and the weather.

It also acknowledges the “increase of the carbon-dioxide in the earth's atmosphere which may change our climate” and concludes that “in the future man may be able to influence upon weather and climate not only at a small scale but also over larger areas”.

The suggestion is accepted by the UN General Assembly, and so, the conference is held in 1972. In Sweden, where else. Often referred to as the Stockholm Conference, The United Nations Conference on the Human Environment is the first world conference on climate and marks the beginning of the global conversation (or should I say, discussion) on climate and climate change.

The conference leads to the creation of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) whose purpose it will be “to monitor the state of the environment, inform policy making with science and coordinate responses to the world’s environmental challenges”.

In 1979, the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) in collaboration with UNEP and other UN bodies convenes the first World Climate Conference (WCC). The outcome of the conference is a declaration that strongly urges all nations to:

(a) take full advantage of man’s present knowledge of climate.

(b) take steps to improve significantly that knowledge.

(c) foresee and prevent potential man-made changes in climate that might be adverse to the well-being of humanity.

Back then, the knowledge about climate change was quite limited compared to today, but I think we can all agree that the prediction in this passage of the WCC declaration has been fulfilled:

The seriousness of climate change had only become more evident during the previous years, and the declaration correctly stated that the battle to fight climate change would “require an inter-disciplinary effort of unprecedented scope at the national and international levels” (if only they knew…).

To spearhead the efforts following points a, b, and c from the declaration, the World Climate Programme (WCP) is established as a UN body. During the following years, a lot of research is carried out, especially with focus on the role of greenhouse gas in global warming. This culminates in the Villach Conference statement of 1985 which projects “temperature rises in the first half of the 21st century greater than any in human history”.

In 1988, UNEP and WMO together establish the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) who are to continue the research on climate change and its consequences. They release their First Assessment Report in 1990 and have since been widely acknowledged as the main source of scientific knowledge on climate change.

IPCC recommend the creation of a global treaty to combat climate change. Their recommendation is followed, and in 1992, at the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) also known as Rio Earth Summit, an international treaty called the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) is established, with 155 countries joining. The ultimate goal of this UN convention is the “[…] stabilization of greenhouse-gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system”. The convention is to adopt the necessary agreements for combating climate change and global warming and to raise public awareness of climate change and its impact.

Enter COP.

The countries that are part of the UNFCCC are to meet at annual climate conferences. Those conferences are called Conferences of the Parties but are better known as COPs.

And now you might want to go for another cup of coffee before we dive into the story of the COPs (if it will have a happy ending remains to be seen, but it has not exactly been a fairytale so far).

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The story of COP

The first COP is held in Germany in 1995, where the focus is on limiting emissions and not yet on reducing them. The Parties agree to set goals for their limitations and how they will achieve them.

At the second COP, Parties agree to set binding targets for emissions reductions. Those targets are to be defined in Kyoto, Japan, where the third COP takes place in 1997. As part of the target-setting process in Kyoto, the world is divided into industrialized and non-industrialized countries, as it is acknowledged that industrialized countries have polluted more than less developed countries and therefore should bear a bigger burden (this division of the Parties will turn into a significant source of conflict during the coming two decades).

The legally binding Kyoto Protocol is adopted and obligates 37 industrialized countries and the EU to meet specific targets for reducing greenhouse gases. Downside? The agreement only covers around 18% of global emissions. The US doesn’t want to be part of the agreement because it doesn’t demand developing countries to reduce their emissions. And major economies such as India and China are categorized as developing countries.

Bonus information: While 1997 is the year most people associate with the Kyoto Protocol, the treaty didn’t enter into force until 2005 after Russia ratified it in 2004. Without Russia, the agreement wouldn’t cover enough emissions to be valid.

The Kyoto Protocol states that the participating Parties must reduce their emissions by 5% compared to 1990 during the period 2008-2012.

The nine years following the adoption of the Kyoto Protocol are largely blank pages in the book of combating climate change as they are spent on little more than finalizing the details of the protocol.

In 2007, COP13 takes place in Bali with the main goal of figuring out what to do when the Kyoto Protocol expires in 2012. A two-year action plan is made for working towards a global agreement in COP15 in Copenhagen, Denmark.

Expectations build and are very high before COP15 whose official goal is “a comprehensive climate change agreement” that would be legally binding. Specifically, there are hopes of reaching an agreement to reduce carbon emissions by 50% by 2050 compared to 1990.

But COP15 doesn’t get its happy ending. In fact, it doesn’t even get its happy beginning.

It is doomed already before it begins as the US, among other countries, indicated weeks prior to the conference that they only expected a political agreement and not a legally binding one. The conference is characterized by chaos, leaks of texts, division between developed and developing countries, conflicts between the US and China, and exclusive meetings for only certain countries. The outcome is a non-binding agreement that is not even formally accepted in which developing countries commit to implementing mitigation actions while developed nations commit to implementing emissions targets for 2020.

The agreement acknowledges the need to limit warming to 2°C but does not contain the necessary emissions reduction targets to do so. It is described as weak by many, among them The International Institute for Environment and Development, who state that “What countries have so far proposed will commit us to a 3 to 3.5-degree temperature increase”. And Greenpeace UK goes so far as to comment that: “The city of Copenhagen is a crime scene tonight [final day of the Conference], with the guilty men and women fleeing to the airport”.

Then comes COP16 in Cancún, Mexico. Crucial to the reestablishment of faith in global collaboration, this conference is more about saving COP than saving the world. Sadly, very few world leaders attend due to the “what’s-the-point” feeling shared by many after the great disappointment in Copenhagen. However, COP16 is known as one of the highlights from the COP history for establishing the Green Climate Fund. It is decided that in the period 2010-2012, $30 billion should go into the fund, and starting in 2020, $100 billion should go into the fund every year to help poorer nations fight climate change. They did not, though, figure out where this money should come from, and to this day, the $100 billion goal has not been reached a single year.

At this point in the story, the current pledges from the Parties have the world headed for a 2.6-4.0°C of warming.

For many, the goal of COP17 in Durban, South Africa in 2011, is prolonging the Kyoto protocol that is going to expire in 2013. But the EU has higher ambitions. They want a new, global treaty with commitment from all Parties. And the final Durban Deal is one step in that direction as Parties agree to work towards adopting such an agreement in 2015 while some Parties also agree to commit to a second period of the Kyoto Protocol. Japan, Russia, and Canada make it clear they do not want to be part of a second period of the Kyoto Protocol.

While COP17 for many is seen as a sign of hope and a step in getting back on track in the fight against climate change, others simply see the Durban Deal as a goal of achieving a deal in 2015 that should already have been achieved in Copenhagen in 2009. Youth activists even claim that “In the long run, Durban will be nothing but a footnote in a narrative of missed opportunities and willful ignorance. […] We're sleepwalking towards calamity, and the world's governments just agreed to wake up at some point down the line”.

COP18 in Doha: The Kyoto Protocol is prolonged to 2020, but the countries that commit to it only cover around 15 % of global emissions. The work on a global 2015 deal continues.

2013’s COP19 in Warsaw is known for the mass walk-out by NGOs and trade unions who aren’t satisfied with the outcomes of the conference and the level of ambition of the various countries.

Climate finance is a big subject during this conference and more work is done in relation to the Green Climate Fund and establishing a mechanism for compensation for loss and damage to developing countries. Preparations for the 2015 deal in Paris continue, and parties agree to hand in their nationally determined contributions (NDCs) before COP21 in Paris.

The following COP takes place in Lima, and once again, the main goal is to make sure that the parties stay on track for the 2015 deal. Some good news is that US and China for the first time commit to reducing emissions, which they announce in a joint commitment.

And then 2015 comes with COP21 in Paris that actually does become the milestone in the fight against climate change that it has been expected to be. With France as the conductor leading the COP orchestra, the conference is broken down into small groups to deal with one obstacle at a time. This COP is therefore characterized by a high degree of secrecy, and many off-the-record meetings and bilateral trade-offs are happening in the last couple of days to ensure that everyone is on board for the final agreement.

This COP is therefore characterized by a high degree of secrecy, and many off-the-record meetings and bilateral trade-offs are happening in the last couple of days to ensure that everyone is on board for the final agreement.

Cause for huge celebration, 196 Parties of the UN convention, representing more than 95% of global emissions, adopt the global legally-binding, landmark Paris Agreement, set to apply from 2020.

The goal of the agreement is to limit “the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels” and strive “to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels”. Additionally, the agreement aims to enhance countries' ability to cope with the consequences of climate change.

Since the Paris Agreement was adopted, the COPs have centered around making sure the Parties were on track to reach those goals in a common effort.

The following four COPs (COP22-COP25) are for the most part technical meetings spent on finalizing the Paris Agreement Rulebook before its implementation in 2020.

Worth noting is that US President Trump withdraws the US from the Paris Agreement in 2017 as one of his first acts as president. However, this only strengthens the spirit among the remaining parties who even step up their efforts in order to make up for the departure of the US.

Before COP24 in Katowice, Poland, IPCC releases a new report that states that "limiting global warming to 1.5°C would require rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society” and that “global net human-caused emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) would need to fall by about 45 percent from 2010 levels by 2030, reaching ‘net zero’ around 2050”. The report creates tension in Katowice as some countries (Saudi Arabia, the US, Russia and Kuwait) object against ‘welcoming’ the report.

COP25 has little progress to show. Greta Thunberg criticizes violence against indigenous communities in the Amazon and is called a ‘brat’ by Brazil’s president Bolsonaro and told by Trump to “work on her anger management problem, then go to a good old fashioned movie”.

Glasgow in climate-ambitious UK hosts COP26, a conference that shows more progress than the past four conferences. The Paris Rulebook is finalized, meaning that the Paris Agreement can finally be fully implemented. More than 100 countries join a voluntary pledge to cut methane by 30% by 2030. And, finally, an action plan is made for fulfilling the pledge of funding $100 billion yearly to climate-vulnerable developing countries by 2023.

At the time of COP27 in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, the world is heading for a 3°C of warming by the end of the century, and IPCC has made it clear that a 2025 emissions peak is required to reach the 1.5°C goal of the Paris Agreement. Even so, the Parties do not reach an agreement on this.

On a positive note, the number of countries joining the methane pledge reaches 150, and the US and China restarts their cooperation on climate change after their Taiwan conflict.

Also, a dedicated fund for loss and damage is established. However, it is not decided how the fund will be financed, which made “show us the money” become one of the most repeated phrases at the COP (probably right after “let’s postpone this”). You can’t blame vulnerable developing countries for not trusting the promise after developing countries still haven’t met their promises in relation to the Green Climate Fund.

As I write this article, COP28 is right around the corner, and it will be exciting (and nerve-wracking) to follow the continued story of the COPs.

Taking score

When the first COP was held in 1995, climate change was still for the most part an invisible enemy lurking around the corner.

But in 2022, 1,700 people were killed, and 8 million were displaced in Pakistan due to flooding. And this September in Libya, 4,300 were also killed by flooding and 8,500 are still missing, presumed to be dead. Wildfires have been raging in Europe, Hawaii, and Canada who had their worst wildfire season on record, causing the US to experience the worst air quality in almost two decades. I could also give you facts on severe heatwaves and drought, but I’ll spare you.

It’s safe to say that climate change is no longer invisible. It’s already right here, giving us only a taste of what lies ahead if we don’t listen to the science and act accordingly. Whether that happens is up to the future COPs.

The seriousness of the situation is widely accepted, and progress has been made during the 28 years that COP has existed so far. But much more must happen during the next 28 years to reach Net Zero by the time that they have passed.

A milestone was reached with the signing of the Paris Agreement, and now it needs to be fulfilled.

But the Conferences of the Parties are still too much about politics and too little about science. Climate change is not something that can be negotiated, it is a fact. The climate can is still being kicked down the road while politicians disagree on what’s fair. But climate change is not fair, and combating climate change is not about doing what’s fair. It’s about doing what’s needed.

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