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Explainer: COPs, international climate action and the outcomes of COP27

What is a COP, you may ask? 

A COP is a ‘Council of Parties’ set up under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). The UNFCCC was ratified (approved by Parliament) by 197 countries in 1992. It is an international treaty, made up of three agreements, that encourages the countries of the world to find ways to stabilise the human-induced greenhouse gas concentrations in the earth’s atmosphere at a level that will prevent dangerous changes to the world’s climate system. The treaty also states that this must happen in a timeframe that allows ecosystems to be able to adapt naturally and for sustainable development to take place. 

The COP is an annual meeting, or conference, where the countries of the world come together to discuss and decide on outcomes and deliverables aimed at ensuring we can achieve the goals of this treaty over time. At the same time, in addition to national governments, COPs attract representatives and policy-makers from other levels of government, non-government organisations, cities, regions, business and civil society organisations, as well as the media.

These meetings have delivered landmark agreements that have encouraged countries – very often with much accompanying public discussion, argument and controversy – to commit to actions designed to mitigate (limit the extent to which climate change happens) and adapt to climate change.  


COP3:  The Kyoto Protocol

At the third COP, held in Japan in 1997, the Kyoto Protocol was adopted, named after the city in which the conference was held. The Protocol was distinct from the Convention itself because, instead of ‘encouraging’, it legally ‘committed’ the industrialised countries that signed and ratified it to taking action. It was entered into force in 2005.

There were three mechanisms to the Kyoto Protocol. The first was for the establishment of the concept of a carbon market through an emissions trading mechanism. Secondly, a joint implementation mechanism worked to enable industrialised countries to carry out joint implementation projects with other developed countries, which were usually those with economies in transition. And thirdly, a clean development mechanism involved committing investment to sustainable development projects that would reduce emissions in developing countries. In this manner, the Protocol was designed to assist countries to adapt to the inevitable effects of climate change and to facilitate the development of techniques that would help increase resilience to climate change impacts.

Under the Protocol, the actual emissions of each country had to be monitored and precise records kept of the trades carried out. 

Australia signed the protocol in 1998, but did not ratify it until 2007.


COP7:  The Marrakesh Accords (and COP18: the extension to Kyoto)

COP7 was held in Marakesh, Morocco in 2001. COP7 is significant because it is when agreements (accords) were reached that set rules for implementing various commitments under the Kyoto Protocol, including rules for establishing a greenhouse gas emissions trading system, for implementing and monitoring the clean development mechanism, and for setting up and operating three funds to support efforts to adapt to climate change.

The original time period covered by the Kyoto Protocol, over which it sought to regulate the emissions of the 36 countries that ratified it, was from 2008 to 2012. This period was extended to 2020 at COP18 in Doha, Qatar in 2012 – referred to as the Doha Amendment. 

However, ongoing disagreements among countries about the measures that could be taken on the way forward, combined with the failure of 17 of those that ratified it to meet their emissions targets, and the refusal by the United States to participate, has generally resulted in the Kyoto Protocol being considered to fall somewhere between ‘failure’ and ‘limited success’. In the end, it managed to achieve a small reduction in emissions among the countries that stuck with it, and has been widely seen as laying the groundwork for what was to come.


COP21:  The Paris Agreement

The next major step forward in global climate change negotiations came at COP21, held in Paris, France in 2015. The Paris Agreement is extremely significant because it was adopted by 196 countries (i.e., near universal membership) as a binding accord bringing all these nations into the common cause of undertaking ambitious efforts to mitigate climate change and adapt to its effects. Its goal was and is to limit global warming to well below 2 degrees Celsius, and preferably to 1.5, compared to pre-industrial levels, with countries aiming to reach a global peak in greenhouse gas emissions “as soon as possible” in order to achieve a climate neutral world by mid-century.

The Paris agreement works in five year cycles, each increasing ambition over the one before. It also has a ‘bottom-up’ approach where individual countries decide what action they will take, rather than having them imposed from above.

Under the agreement, countries were required to submit mandatory plans for climate mitigation, known as nationally determined contributions (NDCs), by 2020. These plans list the actions they would take to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions, in line with achieving the 2C and 1.5C limit, and to build resilience for adapting to the impacts of rising temperatures. Countries were also invited to submit non-mandatory long-term low greenhouse gas emission development strategies (LT-LEDS) that would outline their long-term planning and development priorities, including how future development would take the NDCs into account.

It is important to note that countries do not necessarily submit their NDCs at the same time, so these five year periods are not in alignment internationally.

Paris also reaffirmed commitment to the Cancun Adaptation Framework, established at COP16 in Mexico, which made countries responsible for issuing their National Adaptation Plans (NAPs). These plans lay out their approaches to reducing vulnerability, building capacity for adaptation and resilience, and to integrating climate adaptation into policies and planning at a national level. Unlike NDCs, they are required ‘periodically’, not every five years.

The Paris Agreement reaffirmed that developed countries should take the lead in providing financial mitigation and adaptation assistance to more vulnerable countries, while going further, to encourage voluntary contributions. It established a technology framework to provide policy and implementation guidance about accelerating technology development and transfer for improving resilience and reducing emissions. It also encouraged and reinforced the imperative for all developed countries to increase the support they provide for capacity-building in developing countries.

The Agreement also established an enhanced transparency framework (ETF). It is ‘enhanced’ because it applies to all countries, whereas the UNFCCC transparency system set different requirements for developed and developing countries. The ETF means that, in 2024, during the second cycle, countries will be required to report transparently on the actions they have taken, and the progress they have made, in climate change mitigation, adaptation measures and any support provided or received. Under the ETF, these reports will be reviewed, and the information gathered will form the basis of a global stocktake, which will assess the collective progress towards the long-term climate goals. In turn, this will lead to recommendations for countries to set more ambitious plans in the next round, beginning in 2030.


Has the Paris Agreement been successful?

In the years since the Paris Agreement was entered into force, low-carbon solutions and new markets have emerged. More and more countries, regions, cities and companies have established net-zero carbon targets. Zero-carbon solutions have also become more and more competitive across economic sectors, creating many new business opportunities for early movers. And many countries – including the top emitters – have submitted stronger pledges.

However, most scientific experts consider that the pledges countries have made are not ambitious enough, and will not be enacted quickly enough, to limit global temperature rise to 1.5°C. According to the Climate Action Tracker, compiled by the German nonprofit Climate Analytics and the NewClimate Institute, even if all countries fully implement their pledges and policies for 2030 and beyond, the earth’s average temperature will still rise by a minimum of 2.1°C by 2100.

Similarly, the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) considers the world to now be in an extraordinarily dangerous position, where the ability of the climate to meet human needs is made less likely by every small delay in action on mitigation and adaptation. In 2021, the UN Secretary General, António Guterres, referred to the IPCC Working Group’s Sixth Assessment Report, which assesses the global and regional impacts of climate change – looking at ecosystems, biodiversity, and human communities – as “a code red for humanity”. He noted that the internationally-agreed threshold of 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels of global heating was “perilously close” and that “the only way to prevent exceeding this threshold, is by urgently stepping up our efforts, and pursuing the most ambitious path.”

During the period since the Paris Agreement, there has been ongoing country level argument about responsibilities and commitments, which has seen little formal advancement made in mitigation, adaptation and climate finance. Apart from the partisan politicisation of climate change in Australian politics, this period also saw the United States withdraw from the Paris Agreement, announced in November 2019, only to rejoin in January 2021 after a change in government. 

The IPCC’s analysis is that about half of the world’s population is “highly vulnerable” to the impacts of climate change, with people in highly vulnerable regions, at this point in time, being 15 times more likely to die from floods, droughts and storms. This means there is an urgent need for the international negotiations and commitments made over the next decade to be far more cooperative and constructive. The IPCC’s view is also that radically transformative action needs to be taken if we are to establish effective and successful ways forward on food, energy, biodiversity, and security.


COP26 in Glasgow

COP26, held in Glasgow, Scotland in 2021, resulted in a global pact that included ‘language’ that supported a “phase-down of unabated coal power”, new rules for trading carbon credits across borders (which had not been resolved since creation of the Paris Agreement), a call for more ambitious emissions targets and a request for a yearly report summarising nations’ annual commitments to reduce emissions. There were also other widely-made, non-binding pledges by nations to reduce methane emissions by 30 per cent by 2030, as well as to halt and reverse deforestation. 

However, many coal-reliant countries resisted a phase-down of coal til at least the 2040s, accountability was resisted and very little progress was made on climate finance. COP26 ended with vulnerable developing nations making a call for richer economies to establish a loss and damage fund to compensate them for the social and economic costs of global warming. These are costs that largely result from actions taken over time, by richer industrialised nations, which have caused, for example, damage from cyclones or drought, or permanent damage from rising sea levels or the drying up of rivers.


COP27 in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt 2022

As COP27 began in Egypt at the end of last year, expectations were therefore high that matters that were not completed in Glasgow would be followed through. In the intervening year, few countries had responded to the call to submit new, revised or updated NDCs, and those that had done so mostly failed to strengthen targets. (Ironically, Australia, after our change in government, was the only country to have increased its ambition on mitigation.) Thus, hopes were high that a draft decision on upscaling ambition would be adopted to help close the emissions gap this decade and keep 1.5˚C in reach. Similarly, adaptation was in the spotlight, with hopes that something like the five yearly ratchet mechanism attached to NDCs might be implemented for NAPs. Developing countries again entered the conference hoping for action on the long-promised $100 million in climate finance from developed countries, as well as movement on their call for a loss and damage fund. 

At the same time, the year leading up to COP27 had been characterised by intense geopolitical changes, with Russia’s new war on Ukraine resulting in, not only an immediate energy and food crisis in Europe, but worldwide, which has at times sidelined long-term climate action. The resultant European search for alternative oil and gas resources in Africa and Latin America, mainly to get countries through the northern winter – on top of being a clear departure from the strong anti fossil fuel stance of the West – confronted those nations with the consequences of not having moved more swiftly to abate emissions. 

Additionally, estimates place attendance at COP27 by fossil fuel lobbyists, having strong influence over many country delegations, at over 600. And the host country – Egypt – was widely interpreted as having sympathies with the oil-producing states in its region.

As COP27 approached its conclusion, it came perilously close to becoming only the second to close without any form of agreement. It also came very close to backsliding from the meagre language about mitigation agreed upon in Glasgow. That was despite India calling for a pledge to phase out all fossil fuels – not just unabated coal – with the support of the EU and many other countries. Saudi Arabia, Iran, Russia and other oil-producing countries firmly resisted such efforts. In fact, COP27 ran two days into overtime before almost 200 countries agreed to create a loss-and-damage fund for vulnerable countries bearing the brunt of climate change – dubbed the Sharm El-Sheikh Implementation Plan. 

The final agreement achieved in Egypt does not increase ambition on lowering emissions or take new steps to preserve the 1.5 degrees target. On the upside – after decades of discussions –  it is a commitment to create a loss-and-damage fund, provided details can be worked out at subsequent COPs. On the downside, because ”current major emitters” such as China, India, Brazil, and Indonesia are considered to be developing nations, they won’t have to contribute to this loss and damage fund. Critics not only point out that, as a result, countries like these are now likely to replace developed nations as the primary cause of climate-related loss and damage, but highlight the missed opportunity where this exclusion could have been used as a leverage point to make them cut emissions. Additionally, they point out that the structure of the loss and damage fund lacks a clear focus on the “most” vulnerable of these countries, which poses fundamental questions about the way the funds will be used by the various recipient countries.

On a more optimistic note, though, there was movement of mitigation and adaptation from outside national governments. Observers note that NGOs and civil society, young and indigenous activists, philanthropy and the private sector (particularly the finance and insurance sectors), and mayors and governors played their largest role yet in driving new solutions for climate mitigation and adaptation. One example is the Sharm el Sheikh Adaptation Agenda (SAA), which is a commitment from non-state actors to build climate resilience for four billion of the world’s most vulnerable people. It includes a commitment in the SAA to mobilise around three thousand insurance companies to finance climate-adaptation projects.


So, how useful are these gigantic annual meetings really?

Despite the fact that outcomes achieved at COP meetings are often met with varying levels of disappointment at the lack of ambition and commitment, there is a common view that the value of so many parties coming together to discuss the issues relating to taking action on climate change is nevertheless an important and valuable exercise. 

Many positive outcomes, such as the loss and damage agreement at COP27, can be traced back to another meeting where they were first seeded – in this case, climate justice discussions at COP19 in Warsaw, Poland in 2013. So these ongoing discussions over time often prove fruitful. 

At the same time, parties attending the conferences, which are not national governments, are increasingly taking action based on discussions held and relationships formed at the COP, including the forming of alliances and coalitions that are not only becoming increasingly influential, but are assisting by making meaningful contributions to driving down emissions. An example is the Beyond Oil and Gas Alliance, co-led by Denmark and Costa Rica, and involving other provinces and states, which was established in Glasgow at COP26..

Finally, with the vast array of international media devoted to these events each December, the eyes of the world stay focused over time on this massive existential issue, and its associated areas of concern, taking discussion from the global stage to offices, class-rooms and lounge-rooms. This aids transparency, participation and interaction – and helps the conversation stay dynamic, alive and in the front of the public mind.

The bottom line is that. While all of this happens, the world’s focus continues – even when it seems to stumble a few steps back to move a few steps forward – on finding solutions.

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