The History Of COP: From Kyoto to Paris

A woman standing in a bamboo forest in Kyoto Japan.
Charlotte Smith

You will probably have heard about COP26 and know it’s being held in Glasgow, Greta Thunberg is likely to go viral for a scathing speech and it may be our ‘best last chance’ to mitigate against climate change. But what actually happens at COP summits? Why are they so vital in stopping the climate crisis? And what does COP26 even stand for?

Taking the last, and simplest, question first, COP stands for Conference of Parties and is when the UN brings world leaders together in one place – this year in Glasgow – for a climate summit. This year will be the 26th time this has happened, hence the name COP26.

In 1992, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change started an international treaty aiming to reduce greenhouse gases at the not-a-COP Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. Negotiations were launched and the first COP was held in Berlin a few years later. Since then, COP climate summits have occurred every year, bar last year due to COVID-19.

This brings us onto one of the more complicated questions: what actually happens at COP climate summits? Luckily for everyone writing a history of COP, and very sadly for our planet (and us too), since COP1 only two things have really happened.

It opened for signature in 1998 and was finally ratified in 2005

One of these things happened only two years later at COP3, the Kyoto Protocol. This required high-income countries to cut greenhouse gas emissions by varying amounts compared to their 1990 levels. It opened for signature in 1998 and was finally ratified in 2005 (it needed 55 signatures covering 55% of global emissions before it was able to come into effect).

There is a lot to celebrate in the Kyoto Protocol, but it wasn’t perfect. In perhaps one of the most bizarre pieces of climate policy ever written, countries with carbon emissions to ‘spare’ were allowed to sell them to other countries that were exceeding their targets. However, the larger problem stopping the Protocol from having a larger effect was that the US wouldn’t take part and rapidly industrialising countries such as China and India were not required to be a part of it.

18 years after the Kyoto Protocol, world leaders agreed to hold global warming to less than 2°C

The Kyoto Protocol officially ended last year but has been out of date since long before that. Did the countries involved reduce their emissions? Well, overall yes, though mostly due to the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s rather than their actual climate policies.

As the Kyoto Protocol petered out it needed a successor. You are likely to have heard of what came next – The 2015 Paris Agreement and the second thing to happen at a COP summit. 18 years after the Kyoto Protocol, world leaders agreed to hold global warming to less than 2°C, preferably 1.5°C, above pre-industrial levels.

The Paris Agreement is still a landmark in the fight against the climate crisis

Almost every country was involved this time round, including the three largest polluters the US (ignoring the recent Donald Trump-shaped blip), China and India. This was met with great optimism according to world leaders, and slightly less from climate scientists, since the targets countries agreed warming would be kept to 2°C, much more than 1.5°C. However, the Paris Agreement is still a landmark in the fight against the climate crisis.

This finally brings us to the present, COP26 and also to my third question – why are COP summits so vital in combatting climate change? Some people may say they’re not that important. Nothing ever happens there and so why bother?

However, the fact remains we are running out of years to postpone the issue. With more extreme weather already obvious, widespread action brought about by world leaders is the best and most important option. We all know this and there’s proof: earlier this year a UN study of 50% of the world’s population found 64% of people think climate change is a global emergency. For everyone’s sakes, I’m hoping that where the voters are headed, the politicians will follow.

Charlotte Smith

Featured image courtesy of Walter Mario Stein via Unsplash. Image license found here.

This article was part of Impact Nottingham’s COP26 series for more articles on the conference check out the link here.

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