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THE CLIMATE COPS AREN'T WORKING. HERE'S WHY
A complete overhall of the COP process is needed for the world to have any chance of avoiding climate catatrophe
The latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report released in March was the starkest yet, delivering its “final warning” urging policymakers to act now before it’s too late. The big question now is, how can we slash greenhouse gas emissions fast enough to sidestep dangerous climate breakdown? Naturally, concerned individuals as well as the international community look toward the next United Nations climate change conference—or COP, as it is commonly known—due to be held in December, to provide the answers, but the prospects aren't good.
Now in its 28th year, the COP event has become a key part of the international community’s annual calendar. What used to be a niche summit for people working or active in the field of climate change is now a household name, having grown from little more than 2,000 delegates at COP1 in 1995 to a staggering 50,000 at COP27 last year in Sharm El-Sheik, Egypt, along with a huge range of sectors represented.
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At the height of a climate and ecological emergency this should, to some extent at least, be reassuring. After all, the COPs continue to play a key role in tackling the climate crisis. Not only do they bring together all the stakeholders who have an interest in bringing down greenhouse gas emissions and reining in global heating, they also mark the only occasions guaranteed to push the climate crisis to the very top of the world's news agenda.
The problem is, they are no longer fit for purpose.
Back in the Early Days
The climate COPS are the by-product of an international treaty known as the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, or UNFCCC, which came into being in 1992. The goal of the UNFCCC was nothing less than combating “dangerous human interference with the climate system” by stabilizing greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere, which have been climbing ever since the industrial revolution got going in earnest. The remorseless rise reflects the continued ramping up of carbon emissions, driven primarily by the use of fossil fuels, changes in agricultural practices and the destruction of the world’s forests and other carbon sinks that help to absorb the CO2 in the atmosphere.
More than 150 nations signed up to the treaty at the Earth Summit held in Rio de Janeiro that same year, and it came into force two years later. Signatory governments were required to reduce atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, which, it was recognized, would only be possible if there were significant decreases in emissions. Critically, the treaty acknowledged that the so-called developed or industrialized nations—known as Annex 1 countries—responsible for the lion’s share of emissions, would have to take the lead to push through policies capable of bringing down national emissions, ideally to 1990 levels, by 2000. All Annex 1 nations, except those in the throws (at the time) of transitioning to democracy or market economies – were also charged with bearing financial responsibility for helping low- and middle-income countries to grow their economies in a sustainable manner that did not involve major hikes in emissions.
Long Road to Nowhere
By the time of COP1, the first “conference of parties” to the UNFCCC held in Berlin in 1995, it was already clear that even if developed nations voluntarily brought down their emissions to 1990 levels, it would be nowhere near sufficient to stabilize greenhouse gas levels in the atmosphere. Something more was needed, and this took the form of a treaty agreed upon at COP3, held in the Japanese city of Kyoto in 1997, that bound signatories to agreed emissions reductions.
Ultimately signed by 192 countries, the Kyoto Protocol advanced emissions targets a little further, but took a considerable time to get going. It wasn’t until 2005, seven years later, after Russia and Canada ratified the treaty, that it come into effect. But there were other setbacks, too. The United States, which was responsible at the time for the highest levels of greenhouse gas emissions, never ratified the protocol, while Canada—keen to exploit its huge tar sand oil reserves—pulled out in 2011. Only 36 nations fully participated in the protocol’s first commitment period, which ran from 2008 to 2012, cutting their emissions by an average of 24 percent below 1990 levels, compared with a target of 4 percent.
Unfortunately, emissions climbed so rapidly elsewhere that by 2010, global emissions were up by almost one-third compared to 1990 levels. COP18, held in Doha, Qatar, in 2012, saw the protocol extended for another eight years to 2020, in order to give countries a chance to catch up. Yet this took so long to ratify that it actually came into force and expired on the same day—Dec. 31, 2020—with little impact on emissions.
Paris: A Different Tack
Meanwhile, efforts to cut emissions were transferred to a new treaty, the Paris Climate Accord, agreed upon at COP21 in the French capital in 2015. This took a different tack to earlier treaties, focusing on temperature limits rather than emissions reductions. For the first time, the international community—or at least most of it—signed up to cutting emissions “as soon as possible” in order to keep the global average temperature rise compared to preindustrial times well below 2 degrees C. It was also acknowledged that the rise in temperature should preferably be limited to a maximum of 1.5 degrees C, which would mean global emissions would need to fall by around half, compared to 1990 levels, by 2030.
These ambitions, however, were not matched by binding targets or mechanisms for reducing emissions, and it was left yet again to individual nations to decide how, where and by how much to cut their country’s emissions. Left in the hands of national governments with domestic policy agendas, it was perhaps inevitable that many countries refused to prioritize emissions reductions, particularly in the wake of the 2008 global financial crisis. Perhaps more than anything, it was this switch to an emphasis on goals, rather than on how to achieve them, that has doomed our world and its population to the imminent arrival of unstoppable, all-pervasive, climate breakdown.
As a result, eight years and seven COPs on from the Paris agreement, it is clear that it is now practically impossible to stay this side of the 1.5 degrees C limit, widely regarded as marking the dangerous climate change guardrail. The noises coming out of Glasgow’s COP26 in 2021 and Sharm-el-Sheikh’s COP27 in 2022 were all about keeping 1.5 degrees C alive, even though pretty much everyone could see that it was already dead in the water. Global emissions continue to climb and are projected to be barely changed by 2030, perhaps even higher, rather than down by the 50 percent needed to keep 1.5 degrees C viable. According to some projections, emissions will still not be halved even by 2050, a target date around which many countries have coalesced for achieving net-zero carbon emissions.
The original 1994 UNFCCC treaty sought to rein in emissions so as to guarantee that ensuing climate change would not happen so precipitously that ecosystems would struggle to cope, food production would be compromised and economic development would not suffer. Thirty years on, it is clear that, based on these metrics, the COP process has failed catastrophically. Climate breakdown is causing ecological mayhem. Experts predict that crop yields will fall by as much as 30 percent by 2050, by which time the planet’s increased population will mean that 50 percent more food will be needed. And economies are exposed to an additional wide and growing range of threats, from climate wars and civil unrest, to migrations on a biblical scale and stranded assets.
Ironically, this is happening at a time when the total amount of time devoted to COP negotiations since 1995 is approaching an entire year. Despite this, both greenhouse gas levels in the atmosphere and annual emissions continue their remorseless rise. As delegates gathered for the first COP in 1995, the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide—the principal greenhouse gas—was 361 parts per million (ppm), having climbed from around 280 ppm prior to the industrial revolution. By COP27 in 2022, levels have risen by more than 2 ppm year-on-year, to 420 ppm.
As a result, we are now in completely uncharted territory. The rate of increase in both atmospheric carbon levels and the average temperature of the planet may well be unprecedented in the entire 4.6-billion-year history of our planet.
The fact, then, that the COP process has failed should be self-evident. And much if not all of this failure is tied up with its inability, or refusal, to address the issue of fossil fuel use.
The Elephant in the Room
All COP initiatives, even the few that have been legally binding, have left it up to signatory nations to decide how they will cut their own emissions to meet any agreed targets. As such, there has never been any attempt to pull together a binding international agreement on cutting back on fossil fuel use or limiting new exploration or exploitation of fossil fuel reserves and resources. In fact, a pledge at Glasgow’s COP26 to “phase down” unabated coal power, is the closest a COP has come to addressing the issue. And even this wording was watered down from the more radical “phase out”, at the insistence of India and other coal states.
This lack of engagement with fossil fuels has always been the elephant in the room that, more than anything else, flags the inadequacy of the COP process. Over the 30 years of COPs, it has even proven difficult to have words like “fossil fuel,” “oil,” “gas” and “coal” mentioned in closing communiques. Indeed, mention of fossil fuels has often been inserted as an afterthought, typically following outcries that early drafts didn’t even acknowledge their existence—an astonishing failure given their central role in global heating and the climate emergency.
Yet, while the COPs have failed dismally to engage with and confront the fossil fuel sector, the reverse has certainly not been the case. Representatives of oil, coal and gas corporations have always been keen to insinuate themselves into the climate conferences, where they can not only lobby delegates and politicians to push their cause and obfuscate the issues, but also seek new business. As a result, the COPs have become seriously, if not terminally, discredited.
Compromised Beyond Redemption
Collectively, the COPs have become a “carcass to which the fossil-fuel flies are attracted and buzz in ever greater numbers,” as I put it earlier this year, and I stand by that description now. The truth is that, in recent years in particular, the whole COP process has become increasingly compromised by the growing involvement of oil, gas and coal corporations.
People with fossil fuel interests at heart have long attended climate conferences, embedded within national delegations, most notably those from oil-exporting nations like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, as well as other big fossil fuel producers, including the United States and Russia. But the level of involvement by the fossil fuel sector has exploded since COP25 in 2019. Brazil was originally slated to host that meeting, but then-President Jair Bolsonaro withdrew the offer soon after taking office. The country’s close neighbor, Chile, stepped in to help, but civil unrest just ahead of the conference meant that it too had to pull back, this time in favor of Spain. Sensing an opportunity, the fossil fuel sector stepped up too: Spain’s two energy giants—Iberdrola and Endesa—paying to become major sponsors and have their logos plastered across the conference venue in Madrid.
This seems to have opened the floodgates. After a two-year disruption due to the pandemic, more than 500 lobbyists representing oil, gas and coal interests descended on the COP26 meeting in Glasgow two years later, compared to just 25 at COP24. That number rose to well over 600 at COP27 in Sharm-el-Sheikh the following year. Make no mistake, these people are not attending the COPs to ensure that the decisions made will help slash emissions in line with the climate science consensus. They are there to do all they can to stop this from happening, while at the same time sniffing out new reserves of carbon to exploit. In Sharm-el-Sheikh, in fact, the focus was the dash for African gas, with fossil fuel lobbyists glad-handing delegates and heads of state from the continent in the hope of grabbing a piece of the action.
As if this situation couldn’t get any worse, this year’s COP28 conference—slated for December in the UAE—will be presided over by Sultan Al Jabar, the head of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company, or ADNOC. As such, the fossil fuel sector’s COP coup is now complete. It is the equivalent of a cancer conference being hosted by a CEO of Big Tobacco, except in this case the health and well-being of the whole planet is at stake. Needless to say, there is good reason to be skeptical that any proposals will come out of COP28 to improve the chances of avoiding dangerous climate breakdown.
It’s clear, then, that the annual COP conference has become a traveling circus where politicians can perform and delegates scramble to try and get meaningful deals done before the big tent is taken down. Expectations are inevitably raised in advance and shattered by the end, as performances and negotiations fail to translate into concrete actions tailored to cut emissions rapidly enough to bring global heating to heel. Something has to change, and quickly, if we are to pass on a livable planet to those who come after us.
But there is no time to pull apart the whole COP structure and start again. Instead, it has to be reformed. One need not be an expert on how best to conduct negotiations to see that doing so under intense time pressure, at the center of a media scrum and surrounded by a circling shoal of fossil fuel lobbyists is not the way to do it.
The climate emergency is happening now. The scale and frequency of extreme weather events have exploded in recent years. Indeed, looking at the floods in Pakistan, the wildfires in California and France, and the drought of historic proportions in East Africa, all of which occurred in the past 24 months, it would not be unreasonable to suggest that dangerous climate breakdown is already upon us.
The situation is getting desperate and is far too critical to be addressed by a single conference held once a year. Instead, the international community needs to be doing its utmost—every minute of every day—to rein in global heating.
A better way forward, then, would be to replace the annual spectacles with smaller directorates working all year round and focusing on the key areas—notably energy, transport, deforestation, and loss and damage, among others. In contrast to the way things are handled at the annual free-for-all, these bodies could each have the power to negotiate with governments or national representatives, and to draft agreements to be signed once a sufficiently critical mass of nations was on board. Membership of these directorates would be representative of the global community, and the nations most affected and most vulnerable to climate breakdown, rather than just those that are the biggest polluters, would need to be at the heart of the decision-making process. It goes without saying that fossil fuel lobbyists would not be welcome.
Within such a framework, there could still be room for annual COPs, but these would be much lower-key events that rubber-stamp or add the final touches to agreements already hammered out, while providing opportunities for stakeholders such as NGOs to engage with the directorates and their membership. Though barring representatives of the fossil fuel sector from attending future annual COPs would potentially be difficult to enforce, every effort should be made to severely restrict their influence, given how unhelpful, unwelcome and even dangerous their presence is to the process.
Almost 30 years after the ratification of the UNFCCC, the planet is teetering on the edge of climate collapse. Time has all but run out, and we don’t have the luxury of another three decades to prevaricate. If we wish to bequeath to our children and their children a world worth living in, then the COPs have to change—now.
A version of this article was published in World Politics Review on April 4th, 2023.
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