From pledges to binding commitments – a review of key milestones in previous COP conferences

Last updated: 17th October 2022

In November 2022, the 27th Conference of the Parties to the UNFCCC (COP27), the next round of UN negotiations on how to tackle climate change, will take place in the resort town of Sharm El-Sheikh in Egypt.

The timing of COP27 is somewhat overshadowed by serious world events, including Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the increase in prices, especially energy and food, and inflation rates rising worldwide. However, climate change remains a key concern globally.

Here’s a look at the milestones of past COPs, what the international community has already achieved to tackle climate change, and why our future may depend on the success of this year’s conference.

What is the COP?

COP stands for the Conference of the Parties (COP), an annual climate summit to which the United Nations (UN) brings together almost every country on Earth. Since 1995, this conference has been held in a different country every year, with the exception of COP26 which was postponed from 2020 to 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.  

The UN describes the COP as “the supreme decision-making body” of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). It includes representatives of all the countries that are signatories, known as parties, to the UNFCCC. During each COP, the parties review the progress towards the overall goal of the UNFCCC: to tackle climate change.

Throughout the years, COPs have seen intense debates, arduous negotiations, and unfortunately some standing still. But there have also been highlights, resulting in ground-breaking treaties and legally binding measures.

The world was slow to recognise the urgency of climate change

For a long time, environmental issues like climate change and global warming were not a major concern of the international community or the UN. However, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, a growing environmental consciousness emerged in western society.

In 1972, 23 years after its foundation, the UN organised its first international Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm, Sweden. For the first time in history, the environment was treated as a major issue and placed at the forefront of international concerns. Known as the first Earth Summit, this conference adopted a declaration that set out 26 principles for the preservation and enhancement of the human environment, and an action plan containing 109 recommendations for international environmental action. The creation of the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) is one of the major results of the Stockholm Conference on the Human Environment.

Since then, environmental issues have slowly crept up the international agenda. In 1979, the first World Climate Conference (WCC) took place in Geneva, Switzerland. Nine years later, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was formed, releasing its first assessment report on climate change in 1990. Then, the first meeting of the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee (INC) occurred a year later.

Nevertheless, it took more than 20 years for the international community to identify climate change as a serious problem and commit to action. This was during the Earth Summit in 1992 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. This Summit laid the foundation for the UNFCCC that entered into force two years later. The Convention provides the framework for ongoing climate negotiations, which take the form of preparatory conferences and the annual COP.

Kyoto Protocol: The first legally binding agreement on climate change

In 1995, the first Conference of the Parties, COP1, took place in Berlin. The next year, COP2 occurred in Geneva, Switzerland. Both formed the basis for subsequent international climate talks: In December 1997, the UN Parties met in the Japanese city of Kyoto to discuss the concrete implementation of the UNFCCC. After long negotiations, the participants agreed on the Kyoto Protocol, which was considered the most far-reaching climate agreement up to that time. For the first time in history, an absolute and legally binding limit on greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions for industrialised countries was anchored in an international treaty.

The Kyoto Protocol was ratified by 191 states on 16 February 2005, including all EU member states as well as important newly industrialised countries such as China, India, Brazil, and South Africa. The USA was the only industrialised country that didn’t ratify it, even though it had previously signed it in November 1998 during COP4 in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

With the Kyoto Protocol, 37 industrialised countries committed themselves to reduce GHG emissions to 5.2% compared with 1990 levels in the period from 2008 to 2012. However, no restrictions were imposed on developing countries like China and India, despite both being significantly polluters. In addition, international emissions trading was introduced.

Long negotiations led finally to a turning point

Soon after the initial negotiations, it became clear that many points of the Kyoto Protocol were still unresolved. For this reason, the parties agreed in November 1998 to adopt the “Buenos Aires Action Plan”, establishing deadlines for finalising work on the different Kyoto mechanisms (Joint implementation, Emissions trading, and the Clean development mechanism), compliance issues, and policies and measures.

The following COPs from 1999 until 2008 focused on discussing the implementation of the Kyoto Protocol and its different mechanisms.

In 2009, COP15 in Copenhagen attempted to establish a successor agreement to the Kyoto Protocol, which was due to expire in 2012. However, it failed to deliver a new global treaty and ended with a non-binding agreement, called the Copenhagen Accord. This document generally promoted taking action to keep temperature increases below 2 °C but did not specify how this would happen.

However, COP15 did reach three key outcomes: firstly, industrialised countries committed to economy-wide emissions reduction targets by 2020. At the same time, countries in the global south committed to voluntary self-financed climate protection measures, and to undertake to account internationally for measures supported by industrialised countries and to list them in a register.

Secondly, industrialised countries agreed to mobilise US$100 billion annually by 2020 to fund climate action in countries of the global south, on the condition that the latter make meaningful and transparent mitigation commitments to reduce GHG emissions.

Thirdly, the conference successfully concluded the two-year negotiations on the rules for afforestation and reforestation projects in developing countries. This closed the last gap in the Kyoto Protocol’s rules of implementation.

Cancún Agreements set the 2 °C global temperature target

At COP16, which was held in 2010 in the Mexican city of Cancún, the parties adopted the Cancún Agreements, which were the first in history to formalise the 2 °C target of reducing global warming above pre-industrial levels in a UN decision. 

One year later, COP17 in Durban, South Africa resulted in the Durban Platform for enhanced action. For the first time, all countries, including major economies from the global south such as China, India and Brazil, were committed to GHG emissions reduction. Moreover, it was agreed to extend the Kyoto Protocol for a second period from the beginning of 2013. 

Long negotiations and hesitations of countries to commit to ambitious reduction goals was the main characteristic of the COP18 summit, which took place in 2012 in Doha, Qatar. These negotiations concluded with a new agreement called the Doha Climate Gateway, which documented the further extension until 2020 of the 1997 Kyoto Protocol on reducing GHG emissions.

COP19, which was held in 2013 in the Polish capital Warsaw, resulted in a road map for a new climate agreement. The parties also agreed on a rulebook for reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation and a Green Climate Fund for financing mitigation and adaptation measures.

The major outcome of the following COP20, which took place in 2014 in Lima, Peru, was to lay the foundation for a new global climate agreement.

The Paris Agreement: a historic breakthrough

Finally, in 2015, after many years of intensive negotiations, the 196 parties present at COP21 in Paris, France adopted the Paris Agreement, a legally binding treaty on climate change that mapped out a vision for a net zero emissions future. For the first time in history, all countries committed to submit their plans for climate action, known as nationally determined contributions (NDCs), by 2020. The Agreement includes commitments from all major emitting countries to cut their GHG emissions and to strengthen those commitments over time. The Paris Agreement declared that the main goal of reducing emissions is to limit global warming to well below 2 °C, preferably to 1.5 °C, compared to pre-industrial levels.

At COP22 in Marrakesh, Morocco, Germany presented its Climate Action Plan 2050 to reduce its GHG emissions by 80 to 95 % by 2050. This was the first country to demonstrate an ambitious long-term climate action strategy.

The following COP23 in Bonn, Germany under Fijian Presidency, COP24 in Katowice, Poland, and COP25 in Madrid, Spain under Chilean Presidency all focused on discussing the Paris Rulebook, which addresses questions such as how countries are to measure and report on their GHG emissions. 

COP26, which was rescheduled from November 2020 to November 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic and took place in the UK in Glasgow, resulted in the signing of the Glasgow Climate Pact. This Pact included a commitment to end “inefficient” fossil fuel subsidies, to move away from coal, and agreed on the Paris Rulebook.

The next round of UN negotiations, COP27, will be hosted by Egypt in November 2022. The world is still awaiting a breakthrough on how to reduce GHG emissions and restore the planet to pave the way to a net zero future by 2050.

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