Every year, the UN hold climate talks, called COPs. It means “Conference of the Parties” of the UNFCC (the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change) but really, they are just UN climate talks cloaked in some jargon.
They’ve been running since the mid-1990s. They are large global events, even if they don’t always get that much news coverage. 45,000 people traveled to COP15 in Copenhagen in 2009 (even though there was only space for 15,000). Whether you love them, hate them or are simply disinterested, they are the space we’ve made for global negations on climate change.
As delegates assemble in Lima for COP20, here are 8 things that stand out from two decades of these behemoth annual meetings. Good, bad and debatable.
1) They happened in the first place.
It’s easy to see global action on climate change as way too little, way too late, way too slow. And, arguably, that would be a fair analysis. But we shouldn’t forget the human achievement in noticing it was a problem and putting systems in place to at least try to deal with it. We built the UNFCCC. That’s historic. Even if it also feels insufficient.
2) The Kyoto Protocol.
The 1997 COP3 took place in Kyoto, Japan. After intensive negotiations, it developed the world’s first agreement between nations to cut greenhouse-gas emissions. It didn’t come into force until 2005, by which point global emissions had risen substantially. The US never ratified it in the first place, big emitters like China and India were always except, and Canada and Russia later backed out. Still, Europe mostly followed through on its promised cuts. Again, it was a thing that we made.
As Kevin Smith writes for the Platform blog, COP 6, held in the Hague in 2000 was a milestone in helping global networks of climate activists work together. A series of direct actions took place around the conference, including activists occupying one of the main beams over the great hall and scattering fake carbon credits over the delegates below. US lead negotiator Frank Loy also got a custard pie in the face during a press conference. COPs have always had an activist fringe of sorts, but, hot on the heels of the World Bank/IMF mobilizations in Prague in September of that year, this was influential in developing a coalition of climate activists who sought to highlight the role for corporate lobbyists, marginalization of the Global South, and increasing dominance of carbon markets as an apparent solution.
4) Climate tourism.
Speaking at the 2006 talks in Nairobi, Sharon Looremetta, gained a standing ovation for a speech including the line: “Fine, we can have Western countries coming, but some came here with their own agenda, to protect themselves and their economies; others came here as climate tourists who wanted to see Africa, take snaps of the wildlife, the poor, dying African children and women.” After a decade of talks, and limited action, understandably people were querying whether this process was helpful. The European Union delegate tartly replied that they were serious. But even the key outcomes of these COP12 talks were less-than-firm commitments and extensions to follow up work later.
5) Emotional outbursts.
Venezuelan delegate Claudia Salerno dramatically lifted a bloodied hand to the UN and Danish hosts at the 2009 talks. There were surely tears of various sorts at every COP, but some of the most memorable public expressions of such emotion came in 2007, from Yvo de Boer, and in 2013, from Yeb Sano. At COP13 in Bali in 2007, de Boer — then head of the UNFCCC — had to be led away from the chamber in tears. More recently, at COP19, in Warsaw in 2013, Philippines lead negotiator Yeb Sano broke down in the middle of his address. He also added an an unscripted pledge that — in solidarity with his country people who were struggling to find food in the wake of super-typhoon Haiyan — he would be fasting for the duration of the talks.
6) Hopenhagen to Brokenhagen.
The 2009 Copenhagen talks — COP15 — were accompanied by a massive PR push. It built on what appeared to be, at least to some, large scale and growing support for action on climate change. It felt as if, finally, something meaningful might happen. A “Hopenhagen” campaign organised by the UN in conjunction with major advertising agencies attempted to build a sense of public moment. But the talks ended in what was at best described as a weak compromise, the word “meaningful” seemingly empty spin. Seen as a collective failure, Copenhagen left much of the environmental movement in a state of despondency, dubbing the talks “Brokenhagen.”
7) Finance takes the lead.
In trying to find a positive outcome of the Copenhagen talks, we might look to the Green Climate Fund and Climate Technology Centre, finally agreed the following year at COP16 in Cancún and drawing on over a decade of work at COPs. These offer mechanisms for the transfer of resources for dealing with climate change from developed countries to the rest of the world. Some critics prefer free market solutions, others more directly call for reparations, or at least argue the pledges offered by richer countries are way too little, way too late. Approve or not, the Green Climate Fund is a system the UNFCCC has built for responding to climate change.
Amongst documents released by Edward Snowden last January were revelations on how the USA spied on climate negotiators before and during the 2009 Copenhagen COP, potentially giving the American delegation an edge in discussions. In November, the UN announced it was to investigate reports that Britain similarly spied on governments at Copenhagen and Cancún. None of this is unexpected, but it is still a problem. The sites of UN climate talks are officially UN territory for the duration of the negotiations.