This year's United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change’s Conference of the Parties - otherwise known as COP27 - ended last month in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt under the tagline “Together for Implementation”. Held in a year filled with climate-related issues such as hurricanes, heatwaves and long-term droughts, the UN Secretariat General Antonio Guterres opened this COP with a bold statement: “The clock is ticking. We are in the fight of our lives. And we are losing.”
It’s no surprise that ESG discussions are taking a more serious tone. But to understand the progress and implications of COP27, it’s important to understand the history of the COPs, instrumental landmarks that shaped their growth, and how the conferences have evolved over the years.
To understand the COPs, we must look at the history of the global environmental movement. 1962 is often considered the movement's birth year, as that marks the year that Rachel Carson, a known scientific popularist, published the activist book, Silent Spring. Carson is not the sole proprietor of the movement, but her work was fundamental in reaching a wide audience, as the book detailed the harmful
The problem of the environment finally began to pass from the scientific sphere to the public sphere. It also acknowledged that pollution was not a necessary evil for development, and that the world had to start taking environmental health into consideration, rather than industrializing to whatever degree necessary in the short term. This prompted many associations and public movements, including the Environmental Protection Agency by the Nixon administration, marking the first time a country created an agency designed with environmental oversight in mind.
In 1968, the movement scaled to the global level, with Sweden urging the UN to create a conference that would focus on human interaction with the environment. The General Assembly met in 1972 to confer on stimulating and supplying guidelines for actions by international organizations and national governments. The Stockholm Conference, which is informally known as the first Earth Summit, placed for the first time the environment at the forefront of international concerns. One of the major outcomes of the conference was the creation of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). Following this, in 1987 the Brundtland Report was published by the UN and paved the way to the concept of sustainable development. The report recognized that human resource development and wealth redistribution was crucial to strategies for environmental conservation. It also recognized that environmental limits to economic growth in developing and developed countries existed.
In 1992, another crucial meeting was convened, when countries met at Rio de Janeiro to cooperate internationally on developmental issues. The Rio Convention was the first legal convention on global climate change, sustainability and biological diversity, and its aim was to produce a broad agenda on guiding international cooperation and development policy in the twenty-first century. This led to the creation of the UNFCCC and an international environmental treaty to combat climate change. It was signed by 154 states and went into effect on March 21, 1994. In addition, the framework for the Conference of the Parties (COP) appeared, and soon after the UNFCCC creation, the first COP was held in Berlin in 1994. During COPs, world leaders, ministers and negotiators discuss how to jointly address climate change and its impacts. Civil society, business, the media, and international organizations are invited to observe the proceedings and bring transparency to the process.
In particular, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), gives key information to environmental UN policy debates. It focuses eco-political efforts on climate protection and reduces its complexity by supplying formula such as the 2°C threshold for global warming. This research is invaluable to set up an uncontested consensus on the unsustainability of advanced modern society. The COP is fundamental in supplying unambiguous imperatives for radical ecopolitical change which is based on the most authoritative science and within an international body of the highest standing and transparency. However, as much as the COP tries, and the IPCC has aided in depoliticising climate change and constructing a science-based consensus, it still remains a politicized issue.
The Kyoto Protocol is the first landmark stemming from the COPs, as it helped pave the foundation for the conferences as we now know them. The protocol, agreed to in 1997 at COP3, was the first step towards greenhouse gas emissions reductions and bent the emissions curve for many developed countries. It also launched a heated debate by addressing historical responsibility of environmental damages caused by climate change.
The convention and the Kyoto Protocol had divided the world into two: countries with responsibility to mitigate emissions and countries without such responsibility. This caused perceived free riding into the system and, not surprisingly, escalated tensions. In the context of a rapidly changing world, developed countries now account for less than 35% of total emissions while developing countries account for 65%. Even with the recognition for historical responsibility, this caused a universal unwillingness to act. Secondly, emission reduction goals were modest at best and presented no clear path to solving the global problem. Due to the severity of the issue, an ambitious global goal and commitment to national emissions was imperative.
As the protocol considered historical obligations, it distributed different emissions reduction goals to various countries. Developed countries, including the US and EU nations, had a target emissions reduction of 8%. The Russian Federation had a target of 0%, while Iceland was allowed to emit up to 10%. Lastly, the legal architecture was overly top-down and rigid, stifling innovation. The idea of a top-down model with binding targets for only developed countries became increasingly unpopular.
Ultimately, despite its intention, the protocol’s approach was ineffective. The US and Canada withdrew from the Kyoto Protocol, and only 36 countries had emission reduction obligations.
At 15 years old, the Conference of Parties held in Copenhagen can be seen as the low point in the history of the climate regime. The rhetoric leading up to COP15 was highly politicized, as the conference was held in the midst of the 2009 financial crisis, with many leaders suggesting that the coincidence of the financial crisis and the climate crisis stood for a unique opportunity to tackle causes of unsustainability. But the conference, which was meant to bring together the parties of the Kyoto Protocol, unfortunately resulted in a watered-down set of proposals and “Climategate”.
Climategate appeared as a controversy over the inclusivity of negotiations, as they increasingly appeared to be conducted by a small group of major states behind closed doors. The Guardian newspaper published a negotiated text drafted by the Danish government and unnamed developed states. China and the Sudanese diplomat Lumumba Di-aping, chief negotiator of the G77, declared the leaked draft as a violation that threatened the success of the Copenhagen negotiations. Furthermore, the negotiations were overshadowed by a geopolitical contest between the US and China. This led to famous controversies, like Obama finding the Chinese premier unexpectedly conferring with the Brazilian, Indian and South African leaders in their designated room for a face-to-face meeting discussion.
All of this meant that in terms of climate policy, an international community did not exist. It showed that the balance of power in ecopolitics shifted from the self-proclaimed international leader, Europe, towards China, India and other emerging economies who asserted their own policy priorities. This caused member states to leave Copenhagen with a set of diluted proposals that did not carry out its ultimate purpose. It didn’t seal the deal on effective and binding agreements to reduce global emissions, and it also highlighted the UNFCCC’s procedural problems.
COP15 witnessed the dominance of national political and economic institutions’ interests over norms, moral obligations and ambitions of global institutions.
Several years later, however, COP21 offered more optimism. The Paris-based conference held in 2015 was attended by 195 nations with the goal of unanimously adopting a legally binding agreement to reduce carbon emissions. Widely known as the best COP, it proved unprecedented global collaboration and was hailed as a monumental achievement. The 195 member states unanimously adopted the Paris Agreement. This ambitious agreement set a long-term goal to keep global average temperatures under 2°C above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels. Its processes were also binding, yet had a flexible legal nature, clear procedures for accountability and had a credible financial structure.
There are a handful of reasons that the Paris COP stood out. First, the narrative around climate change shifted from a story of sacrifice to opportunity. In addition, the tension created at the Kyoto Protocol between developed and developing countries had eroded considerably. Thirdly, the UNFCCC secretariat, the UN Secretary general and the host government offered unprecedented leadership. The changing narrative also put pressure on governments as a result of more actors and geopolitical shifts, and lastly, there was a new political imperative for actions at a global scale and enabling environmental movements. Overall, despite the shift in optimism after the emergence of the Trump administration, the Paris Agreement was the peak of climate action to date.
COP27 occurred during a peculiar time. Following the previous year’s conference, this year's gathering was meant to focus on strengthening countries’ individual pledges, helping vulnerable communities increase resilience, and financing “loss and damage” reparations.
But the invasion of Ukraine by Russia, and its subsequent condemnation, has caused destabilization in multilateral platforms. Due to the war’s impact, particularly on food and energy insecurity and rise in inflation, it has pushed climate change down political agendas and reignited demand for fossil fuel projects. The accord between US-China has also been undone since Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan.
One important thing to take away from the COP27 is the loss and damage reparations. The Paris Agreement in 2015 outlined a global action framework to supply climate finance to developing countries, but it has yet to be materialized (the topic is particularly relevant as the COP27 is the fifth to be organized in Africa). Africa is responsible for only 3% of global CO2 emissions and yet it is one of the most vulnerable to the climate crisis. Therefore, climate justice is central to discussions in Sharm El-Sheikh.
Some actions were taken for African countries and other vulnerable countries, but frontline nations are not compensated for the impacts the crisis has caused. Many researchers have reinforced this as not only unfair but that it drives global destabilization. Talks of loss and damage funds must go beyond the ‘dialogue’ held during COP26 in Glasgow, Scotland. The idea for a fund was pitched in 1991 when the island country, Vanuatu, suggested an international insurance pool for small island developing states impacted by the rising sea level. Since, the developing countries have pressed this at climate talks but to no avail until now. As 80% of the population are reliant on agriculture to survive and lack preparedness for climate emergencies, disasters have devastating impacts on vulnerable countries. These countries who already have food insecurities and health insecurities now see their citizens having to leave their homes and losing their livelihoods.
The IPCC’s 2022 report paints a bleak image for the future of life on earth. The WHO urged that “climate change is the single biggest health threat facing humanity”, which has already taken the lives of 13 million people a year. Therefore, COP27’s decision to set up and operationalize a loss and damage fund is a historic moment. Guterres welcomed the decision and called it essential, however, he still urged the world to take giant leaps for climate ambitions.
Ultimately, the COP27 still falls short on certain areas. Despite support from 80 countries, there has been a collective failure to deliver clear commitments to phase out fossil fuels. The language around the 1.5°C goal is still the same and there are no ambitions on climate change mitigation. A UN report explained that under current policies, a minimum of 2.7°C rise in global temperatures will occur by 2100. Of around 45,000 delegates in attendance, 636 of them were oil and gas lobbyists. This raised concerns on whether corporate interests might overshadow countries. Details on the loss and damage funds have also yet to be worked on. Some criticize that given current climate funds and their issues, they are not optimistic on the finances materializing in a meaningful way. Therefore, a call for a much clearer statement, which addresses and incentivizes rapid action is needed.
The next COP will be held in the UAE, which allows once again the Middle East and North Africa to take the center stage. Furthermore, the COP to the Convention on Biological Diversity (COP15) is currently being held in Montreal. Much like COP27, the CBD COP15 raises a lot of the same questions, most of which are financial fund issues. Unlike COP27, however, active international participation is still poor, and many world leaders have failed to attend. During this COP, Germany has announced that it was upping its funding for international biodiversity conservation to €1.5 billion (US$1.49 billion) a year, making it the largest national financial pledge to save biodiversity. Canada’s Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, has suggested two crucial targets: to protect at least 30% of land and seas and halt and reverse biodiversity loss. It is a call for heads of state to urge all major corporations and financial institutions to assess and show their impacts and dependencies on nature by 2030. Many companies are following suit, and pledge to disclose valuable information related to nature.
There are several concrete steps still to be taken. This includes addressing the digital divide, harnessing innovative technology, mobilization, data collection and application. One of the barriers to relevant policies is the lack of awareness among the policymakers and the public alongside the data. Limited knowledge and skills are key to these issues. Many industries and SMEs lack investments in research and development, but they account for about 24% of global gas emissions.
Finally, low-carbon products and services are in the hands of the private and public sector, making it imperative to have better data and transparency.
Overall, each COP should not be studied independently but should be seen as a long movement.
While progress within each conference has ebbed and flowed, overall trends towards sustainability and ESG compliance are clearly moving forward, even if the pace is much slower than anticipated. For example, greenwashing - intentional or not - has become more difficult to get away with, and more companies are forcing their suppliers to adhere to stricter ESG guidelines as a way to bolster sustainable supply chains.