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A Very Brief History of the COPs

Kara Weekes Nov 2022

COP - A.K.A the Conference of the Parties or the UN Climate Change Conference - is an annual summit where representatives from 198 countries, or ‘parties’/signatories to The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) meet to advance its implementation. The first COP took place in Berlin, Germany in March, 1995 and COP26 was the last COP to take place, which was held in Glasgow, Scotland. In just under a week (Nov. 6 to Nov. 18, 2022), COP27 is set to kick-off in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt.

What does the UNFCCC bind parties to do?

The UNFCCC entered into force on 21 March 1994. Today, it has near-universal membership in that 198 countries have ratified (or signed) the Convention (‘Parties’ to the Convention).

The Convention states that parties will agree to stabilize greenhouse gas concentrations to "a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic (human induced) interference with the climate system."

It states that "such a level should be achieved within a time-frame sufficient to allow ecosystems to adapt naturally to climate change, to ensure that food production is not threatened, and to enable economic development to proceed in a sustainable manner." Preventing “dangerous” human interference with the climate system is the ultimate aim of the UNFCCC.

However, as you may be able to tell, it was pretty vague. Nevertheless, it was a landmark agreement in that it a) acknowledged climate change was a real problem, and b) it was an attempt to mobilize international action. It also called for all ‘rich’ or developing nations to support climate change activities in developing countries by providing financial support for action on climate change.

Then came the Paris Agreement (and a few other intermittent agreements that we won’t touch on here).

What is the Paris Agreement?

The Paris Agreement is an additional, much more specific agreement which lives neatly under the ‘Parent’ UNFCCC. Still following?

Essentially, the Paris Agreement was a critical first step to practical international action, and it was born during COP 21 in Paris, France, 2015.

The Agreement stipulates that Parties to the Convention will take action by ensuring global average temperature increase of 1.5° Celsius and no more than 2° Celsius (3.6° Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial levels.

This is a challenge, since today we’re already at a 1.1° Celsius increase and, according to the latest Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs - pledges of emission reductions that each Party/country must supply to the secretariat), we’re on set for a 2.4° Celsius increase.

Many already argue that the 2° limit is not ambitious enough as there will be dangerous global consequences of a temperature rise of even that much.

The Agreement is was revolutionary in that as well as ensuring Parties commit to mitigating the future impacts of climate change, they must also finance adaptation to climate as well as loss and damage (the permanent loss or repairable damage caused by climate change), which is particularly important for developing countries - those who are the most hit by the impacts of climate change.

Read the whole agreement here.

So... what happened at the last COP (COP26)?

The Glasgow Climate Pact built on the Paris Agreement. The following was agreed:

  1. For the first time, there was an explicit plan to reduce use of coal - which is responsible for 40% of annual CO2 emissions. However, since countries only agreed a weaker commitment to "phase down" rather than "phase out" coal, many argue this didn’t go far enough
  2. An increase in finance for (mostly) developing countries in the areas of adaptation and loss and damage, encouraging, however the previous pledge for developed countries to provide $100bn (£72bn) a year by 2020 was missed. Will we see the same for this 2025 target?
  3. It was agreed to phase-out all fossil fuel subsidies, but no date was actually set!

There were further agreements on deforestation, reforestation, biodiversity and more. You can read the entire Glasgow Climate Pact here.

What needs to happen at COP27?

This really depends on who you ask, but we’ll give you our take!

This year, as with every year in the last decade, the impacts of climate change have worsened. A third of Pakistan is now underwater, Europe experienced the hottest summer in 500 years, over a million people have been displaced by the worst flooding Nigeria has ever seen, and we are still seeing intense droughts in the Horn of Africa.

  1. We want to see an increase in and actual delivery of finance for loss and damage, as well as climate change adaptation - to ensure that those the least responsible for the impacts of the crisis (who are often those with the least resources to tackle it) are the most protected.
    1. This means clear mechanisms in place, with emphasis on monitoring and evaluation to ensure that those who are the most affected are supported the most
  2. The complete phase out of fossil fuels by 2030 at the very latest
  3. NDCs in line with the 1.5° Celsius increase since pre-industrial times
  4. More voices from those most affected by the crisis

How can you engage with COP27?

The number one thing that we can do at home is stay informed and try to hold our local representatives accountable by voting for those with the most environmentally conscious policies and lobbying for change to take place.

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