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A Short History of Climate Conferences: Can COP26 succeed where others have fallen short?

Updated: Jul 3, 2023

Matt Gillett takes a look back at the successes and failures of previous climate change conferences, and asks whether the Glasgow summit can buck a wretched trend.

Image credit: Li-An Lim

As 20,000 delegates descend on Glasgow to dire warnings that the Earth is at ‘one minute to midnight’ in the fight against climate change, many might be wondering how it has got to this point. Given that this is COP26 – the 26th Conference of the Parties – why have the previous 25 meetings failed to avert climate disaster? Surely if these conferences were so effective at combating climate change, we would not be ‘digging our own graves’? And if they are not the way to resolve the climate emergency, why are 20,000 experts, journalists and world leaders spending a week in Glasgow?

To begin to answer these questions, we have to go back in time, not to COP1, but even further: Stockholm, 1972. For the first time countries got together, under the guise of the ‘United Nations Conference on the Human Environment’, to discuss how to govern the environment more effectively. Though it led to the creation of the United Nations Environment Programme, the meeting was boycotted by the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc: this was the height of the Cold War and tensions were running high. Meanwhile the Chinese were more interested in denouncing American involvement in the Vietnam War, whilst the West created the secretive ‘Brussels Group’ to stifle the conference and ensure minimal progress was made.

This set the scene for action on climate for the rest of the Cold War: states were far more interested in using the stage to fight ideological battles than to fight against environmental degradation. It was not until the fall of the Berlin Wall, the collapse of the Soviet Union and consequently the end of the Cold War that progress could be made. Enter: Rio, 1992.

Image Credit: Matt Palmer

A new era had been ushered in, buoyed by a sense of optimism and confidence that with the end of the Cold War progress could be made on a wide range of issues, including the climate. At the Rio Summit, countries got together and committed to a range of binding environmental agreements for the first time, including the Climate Change Convention. Yet, despite grand plans most of the goals set at the summit were never reached, in particular commitments to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. Nevertheless, it was a start, and set the stage for an even bigger and more ambitious conference: Kyoto, 1997.

To implement the Climate Change Convention, a ‘Conference of the Parties’ to the Convention was held annually from 1995 onwards. Kyoto 1997 was COP3. The big development was the agreement of the Kyoto Protocol, signed and ratified by 192 parties – including virtually every country on the planet, except a handful of small states that most would struggle to point to on a map: Andorra, South Sudan and the United States of America.

Thus here lies the root of the failure of the Protocol. It succeeded in committing countries to reduce their emissions and set up mechanisms to enforce this, yet bickering between major powers watered down the agreement to the lowest common denominator, and the failure of the US – responsible for 36% of global emissions in 1990 and the sole remaining superpower by this stage – to sign meant it was doomed to failure. The failure of the Kyoto Protocol to both set and achieve ambitious targets set the stage for the next two decades of conferences that largely ended in disappointment: New Delhi 2002, Stockholm 2009, Durban 2011. That is, until Paris, 2015.

Image credit: Patrick Hendry

COP21 agreed to the Paris Accords, committing the countries of the world to limiting rising global temperatures to well below 2°C. Every state would plan and report on their contributions to achieve this goal. Just getting almost every nation to agree was a major achievement, and some progress has been made since Paris. Yet once again, the Accords have been widely criticised for not going far enough: there are no mechanisms to force countries to reduce their emissions, and the targets set are not sufficiently binding to encourage participation.

However this fault is not unique to the Paris Accords, nor to COP or climate change agreements more broadly. Any international agreement being negotiated by almost 200 states is inevitably going to be heavily watered down to the bare-bones that all can agree on – they’re usually heavy on rhetoric and light on detail. So global conferences have so far not succeeded in accomplishing meaningful action on climate change: some steps have been taken, but they are nowhere near enough. This brings us to Glasgow, 2021.

It’s a fair question to ask whether COP26 can succeed in combating the climate emergency where all previous attempts had ended in disappointment, if not outright failure. The answer, rather depressingly, is probably not. A number of major economies, including Russia and China, aren’t even bothering to turn up, whilst action to implement previous climate accords, including Paris and Kyoto, have stalled.

Image Credit: Markus Spiske

Even as grassroots campaigns to fight climate change have gained momentum, world leaders have shown little inclination to follow up on grand rhetoric with grand solutions. Already at COP26 a dizzying array of ambitious pledges have been announced and yet, as at previous conferences, that’s all they are so far: pledges, not concrete policies with binding targets, secure funding and implementation measures in place. Pledges are certainly better than nothing, and they are a start, but they are not enough. Different countries have very different ideas on both how to combat climate change, and how far to go at the expense of economic growth and budgetary restraints. Furthermore domestic politics is acting as a severe restraint on many world leaders, including US President Joe Biden and Australian PM Scott Morrison.

The broader question is really whether massive climate summits are the best way to find a solution. Not only does gathering 20,000 people in one place at one time produce huge emissions – 118 private jets arriving burned an estimated 1000 tons of CO2 – but climate conferences rarely produce substantive progress, as seen in this whistle-stop history tour. Whether there is a viable alternative to COPs, and what those alternatives might be, is far beyond the scope of this article.

However it is clear that, as the 26th COP draws to a close in Glasgow, these vast conferences have yet to reverse, halt, or even substantially slow climate change, and it appears unlikely that this summit will be dramatically different. Nonetheless it appears that, for now, COP is the best, and perhaps only, way to tackle the climate emergency on the global level. Consequently, here’s hoping COP26 can do something remarkable, and buck a wretched trend. Whether that’s possible will only become clear in the coming days, months, and even years.

Image Credit: Patrick Perkins

About the author: Matt Gillett is Online Editor at WILD and a third year History and Politics student at the University of York. He has a passion for 4000-word essays, 3 hour-long seminars, and 20-minute group presentations – the longer the better! Matt’s mum is concerned about him.

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