Climate Action and Financial Commitment: Exploring the Legacy and Challenges of COP Conferences

By: Alexandre Tiesset | December 1, 2023

For nearly three decades, the world has annually witnessed an event of critical importance for the future of our climate: the Conferences of the Parties, better known as the COP. First held in 1995 following the adoption of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change at the Earth Summit in Rio in 1992, these conferences bring together nations that have ratified this treaty in a collective effort to combat climate change, a phenomenon increasingly evident in our daily lives.

Among these conferences, two stand out for their significant impact. The first COP3, held in Kyoto in 1997, marked a turning point with the near-unanimous adoption of the Kyoto Protocol. This agreement, which came into force in 2005 after intense negotiations, mandated signatories to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by at least 5% by 2012. Despite its legally binding nature, some countries attempted to diminish its ambition, and others, like the United States, never ratified it. Canada withdrew from the treaty in 2011, citing the discovery of highly polluting tar sands in Alberta. At the 2012 Doha conference, the Kyoto Protocol was extended until 2020 despite the absence of the US agreement.

COP15, held in Copenhagen in 2009, acknowledged for the first time the necessity of limiting global warming to 2°C above pre-industrial levels and proposed the creation of a Green Climate Fund endowed with 100 billion US dollars annually until 2020. Unfortunately, this initiative lacked legal enforcement and clear rules for fund allocation. By 2014, after the Lima conference, the Green Climate Fund had only amassed 10 billion US dollars.

Then came COP21 in 2015 in Paris, one of the most well-known conferences, which led to the landmark Paris Climate Agreement. This agreement set three primary goals:

        1. Limit Temperature Rise: Keep the global temperature rise well below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels while pursuing efforts to limit it to 1.5 degrees Celsius.
        2. Adapt to Climate Impacts: Enhance the ability of countries to adapt to climate change impacts, focusing on resilience and adaptive capacity, especially in vulnerable regions.
        3. Align Financial Flows: Redirect financial flows towards low greenhouse gas emissions and climate-resilient development, ensuring consistent support for mitigation and adaptation.

Once again, the agreement was not, or only minimally, binding: Participant countries were encouraged to define their "Nationally Determined Contributions" to be re-evaluated and submitted to the UN every five years, with each submission expected to be more ambitious than the last. The only legal obligation was the transparency of national contributions and their evaluation by experts.

The Paris Agreement, however, paved the way for landmark climate litigation, including a significant case in the Netherlands where a foundation sued the Dutch government for reducing its climate ambitions. The government lost, with the European Convention on Human Rights forming the legal basis of the decision.

From Words to Deeds: The Struggle for Effective Climate Change Policies at COP28

The climate is a highly complex system with significant inertia; actions taken today might only manifest their effects in a century! As of 2020, global warming is estimated to be around +1.2°C, with an increase of approximately +0.2°C per decade.

Current policies are steering us toward a +3°C increase, underscoring the need for a COP that results in a binding agreement backed by major powers and supported by financial measures. Former UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon had suggested a global tax on financial transactions to fund the Green Climate Fund.

There is also hope for new agreements to ban subsidies for fossil fuels. However, the fact that COP28 is set to take place in the United Arab Emirates, chaired by the CEO of the national oil company, sends a mixed message. It is crucial that Gulf countries play a significant role on the international stage, especially given the recent escalation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in late 2023, highlighting their pivotal role in both international peace and climate change issues. On the latter, the trajectory is concerning: 181 million tons of oil were extracted in 2022, an increase of nearly 11% in a year, and gas extractions, though stable over the past year, have risen by 9% since 2012.
COP28, therefore, faces legitimate criticism, with the most significant being that the conference could be an exercise in greenwashing. Recent allegations reported by the BBC suggest potential misuse of the COP presidency to secure new oil and gas contracts.

Finally, responsibility contributions remain unresolved: the "Economic North" is primarily responsible for climate change, yet those who will suffer the most are the countries of the "Global South." Some island nations are even at risk of disappearing due to rising sea levels caused by climate change, and certain areas could become uninhabitable by 2050 due to extreme temperatures and humidity, preventing natural cooling processes like sweating. Addressing loss and damage will also be a central point at the conference.

Stay tuned for the second part summarizing the debates and agreements done at COP 28.