The 27th annual United Nations Climate Change Conference is upon us! Usually shorthanded to COP (long story), and individual COPs get a number. So there’s COP1, COP2, COP15, COP21, et cetera. This November is COP27. An event where world leaders, business leaders, legislators, lobbyists, celebrities, finance hawks, non-profits, activists, and an army of corporate representatives will descend upon Egypt to talk all things climate change. This is the event for climate change and can a) offer some progress, new measures, and options for managing and mitigating climate change, b) serve as a bellwether for how urgent and important a problem climate change is for different interest groups and c) be a colossal disappointment.
COP has a decidedly mixed record from the last 26 years it’s been in operation, to put a pleasant spin on it. For a substantial chunk of the climate change community, the United Nations’ Climate Change Conferences are synonymous with failure, disappointment, and despondency. COP’s failures go way back to the Kyoto Protocol, which Canada dropped out of, the U.S. senate refused to ratify, leading to a haphazard mess of useless carbon credits, no movement on climate action, and a major setback to climate action. Further agreements came and went that were largely ignored, as climate action stalled for the better part of twenty years. Which isn’t to say the U.N. and their work on climate change was useless, it wasn’t. The research and reports the U.N. prepared on climate change are incredibly comprehensive, although they were often poorly explained and communicated to the public.
Then came COP21 in 2015. COP21 led to the creation of the Paris Agreement, the first major international agreement to set limits to how much climate change the world could allow. I can’t find the source for who said it, but I remember a Canadian climate change scientist in CBC describing the Paris Agreement as akin to getting nothing but a pair of socks for Christmas. Christmas wasn’t cancelled, but it was a letdown. The Paris Agreement, for all it has been lauded as a breakthrough and a major success, is pretty weak. But this is a feature, not a bug. The Paris Agreement has no enforcement mechanism, has voluntary target setting for emission reductions, and does not call for reductions large enough to prevent extreme climate change. But these missing elements were key in getting every country to sign on. After all, there are no risks for doing so, everything is voluntary and there are no penalties for missing goals (except for worse climate change, I guess). The theory was that as more climate-conscious countries ratcheted up their ambitions and goals, laggard countries could be shamed into keeping up. Shame can be powerful. Trends can be powerful. Economics can be extremely powerful. Paris, while not the outright solution, was a pathway to limiting climate change.
However, a global agreement with every country in the world is going to be insanely complicated and it took years to hash out all the rules, criteria, and sticking points around different articles in the agreement. A low point was hit at COP25 in 2019 when the participants couldn’t agree on climate funding, how to compensate for damages, and ended up just reaffirming that the unresolved elements of the Paris Agreement were important, without resolving them. This was also amidst a wave of populism that led to the elections of some very anti-climate world leaders like Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro, who dropped out of the Paris Agreement and refused to host the Paris agreement, respectively. Things were looking very dire for climate action, and at this desperate hour, COVID-19 became a global pandemic and COP was cancelled in 2020.
However, last year’s COP26 in Glascow, delayed one critical year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, yielded significant progress compared to the anemic and constipated COP25. Outstanding issues with the Paris Agreement were sorted out, renewed commitments from several member countries (with the rejoining of the United States) promoted further climate action, and ultimately meant that 85% of the world’s population was living in countries with a net-zero target for emissions. Among other accomplishments, a global methane pledge of 103 countries was created to reduce methane emissions, an improved mechanism to ratchet up commitments sooner than every five years, and a commitment to “phase down” coal usage. While the language around coal was watered down from ‘phase out’ to appease countries still heavily dependent on coal, the direct mention of coal usage in a COP agreement was noteworthy progress. As climate change has only grown more urgent and increasingly recognized since then, I have some hope that COP27 could create further progress and pressure for laggard nations to step up their commitments.
Having said that, I wouldn’t bet the farm on noteworthy progress. COP has been criticized from the beginning as being inefficient, largely powerless, and more symbolic than practical. Without a binding mechanism or any real authority, there is only so much a U.N. summit can accomplish. And even pledged commitments can fall flat if the participants simply decide not to follow through with them. While this enrages some climate activists, this is the reality of how the U.N. functions and is what we have to work with.
The history of COP always takes me back to a 50-year history of the United Nations by Stanley Meisler, which summed up the history of the U.N. with, “the United Nations never fulfilled the hopes of its founders, but it accomplished a great deal nevertheless.” The same criticism can be applied to the COPs over the last thirty years. While they have yielded increasing awareness of climate change, a colossal wealth of scientific knowledge on climate change, a voice for developing countries to stress the urgency of climate change, and the Paris Agreement to manage humanity’s collective response to climate change, they are not fulfilling the goal of ensuring humanity can mitigate and adapt to climate change. We will see what COP27 brings. I’m of the mindset to be thankful for any progress at all, and giving the increasing visibility and urgency of climate change, I hope we see a push for climate action like nothing ever before.