Climate crisis: what is COP and can it save the world?

As the 25th summit of the UN’s conference of the parties begins, we examine whether it works – and what the future holds

What is COP – and how will it help?

For almost three decades, world governments have met every year to forge a global response to the climate emergency. Under the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, every country on earth is treaty-bound to “avoid dangerous climate change”, and find ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions globally in an equitable way.

COP stands for conference of the parties under the UNFCCC, and the annual meetings have swung between fractious and soporific, interspersed with moments of high drama and the occasional triumph (the Paris agreement in 2015) and disaster (Copenhagen in 2009). This year is the 25th iteration. Delegates started arriving last night for the two-week summit.

Where is it happening?

This year’s COP has already needed a last-ditch rescue. Costa Rica wanted to host the event but lacked the resources, so Latin America’s richest per-capita economy – Chile – took control. Everything was set for a December COP in Santiago, billed as “the blue COP” because at long last issues about the oceans would take centre stage.

But rioting in the capital and a political crisis forced the COP to be moved. The Spanish government – despite being in the throes of a general election – stepped up and offered Madrid, where this year’s talks will now take place.

A worker walks past a COP25 logo at the IFEMA Convention Centre in Madrid.
A worker walks past a COP25 logo at the IFEMA Convention Centre in Madrid. Photograph: Sergio Pérez/Reuters

The abrupt change of venue has caused many headaches, not least for the young campaigner Greta Thunberg, who had to hitch a lift back across the Atlantic by boat. There will be less opportunity for Latin Americans to showcase their vital role in reducing emissions, and Brazil may escape some of the attention on its recent moves to exploit the Amazon rainforest.

It also means the conference will be scaled down, with room for fewer NGOs and businesses. Activists and protesters are hurriedly gearing up to make public pressure felt, and participants are hoping that the act of rescue will focus minds and lead to a spirit of cooperation.

Carbon emissions chart

Who will be there?

World leaders will not be turning up, though appearances by VIPs and celebrities cannot be ruled out.

The negotiations, which run until 13 December, will be led by environment ministers and civil servants, aided by UN officials. Nearly every country is expected to send a voting representative at the level of environment secretary or equivalent, and the big economies will have extensive delegations.

What is special about the meetings?

The COPs, for all their flaws, are the only forum on the climate crisis in which the opinions and concerns of the poorest country carry equal weight to that of the biggest economies, such as the US and China. Agreement can only come by consensus, which can be frustrating and means some countries – notably Saudi Arabia – can act as a drag on more ambitious action, but gives COP decisions global authority.

Each of the 196 nations on earth, bar a few failed states, is a signatory to the UNFCCC foundation treaty and no country has yet opted to withdraw from it. That includes the US, which is in the process of withdrawing from the Paris accord.

Remind me – what was agreed at Paris?

Under the landmark 2015 agreement, nations committed to holding global heating to no more than 2C above pre-industrial levels. The vast majority of nations have now ratified the deal.

185 countries have ratified the Paris Agreement Photograph: Beautiful news

Though the deal is legally binding, the commitments that countries have made to cut their emissions are not. These are known as nationally defined contributions which will have to be ratcheted up next year if the aims of Paris are to be met.

Who will be the disruptors?

So far, the US has played a low-key role in the UN climate process under Donald Trump, but that could change to more damaging obstruction. “As in years past, the US plans to send an interagency delegation. The US delegation will engage in negotiations to protect US interest and level the playing field for US businesses,” the state department said. Other potential obstructors include big oil powers such as Saudi Arabia, Russia and Venezuela, as well as Brazil and Bolivia. Key to progress at COP are China, the world’s biggest emitter, and India, whose emissions are rapidly rising.

Isn’t China the new green leader?

China has been working hard to cut emissions, not least from the coal-fired power plants that have generated widespread air pollution. But new research from Global Energy Monitor has found that the country has increased its coal-burning capacity by more than 40GW in the 18 months to June, and plans more.

A man tends to vegetables as emissions rise from cooling towers at a coal-fired power station in Tongling, Anhui province, China
A man tends to vegetables as emissions rise from cooling towers at a coal-fired power station in Tongling, Anhui province, China. Photograph: Qilai Shen/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Christine Shearer, an analyst at the NGO, said: “China’s proposed coal expansion is so far out of alignment with the Paris agreement that it would put the necessary reductions in coal power out of reach even if every other country were to completely eliminate its coal fleet.” China is also funding the building of new coal-fired power plants elsewhere, including in South Africa, Pakistan and Bangladesh.

What will be decided this year?

The main subject up for discussion is a provision in the Paris agreement known as article 6, which allows for the use of a global market in carbon to help countries cut emissions and to fund measures that reduce emissions in developing countries.

Carbon markets have been around since the 1997 Kyoto protocol. The broad idea is that rich countries could meet their targets by buying carbon credits that were awarded to projects reducing emissions in the developing world. In this way, rich nations bought themselves time, and poorer nations got cash to help them on the road to a green future. But the mechanism had basic flaws – with too many easy credits devaluing the system.

The financial crisis of 2008 led to the outright collapse of the carbon market. It has never fully recovered, and today projects to cut carbon in developing countries are more likely to rely on conventional fundraising or overseas aid.

Reviving the carbon markets through article 6 is seen as a worthy aim by many involved in climate finance. Trading could also help raise funds to prevent deforestation.

For some campaigners, however, the markets are a scam aimed at allowing rich countries to get away with continuing to burn fossil fuels while paying poor countries to clean up. “We do not have the luxury of talking about carbon offsets, we need absolute emissions cuts now. Offsetting is unacceptable in the face of the scale and pace of emissions reductions required, and we will oppose the creation of a new global carbon market,” says Juan Pablo Osornio of Greenpeace.

Trees in the nursery at the Instituto Terra in Aimorés, Brazil
Trees in the nursery at the Instituto Terra in Aimorés, Brazil. Twenty years ago, the land was completely devastated but has been through a process of afforestation. In the last 20 years, over 2.5 million native Atlantic seedlings have been planted. Photograph: Christian Ender/Getty Images

Nat Keohane, senior vice-president at the US Environmental Defense Fund, and a former US COP delegate, rejects that analysis. “It is about cooperation – markets are cooperation, and they are a pathway to reducing emissions fast,” he says. Cooperation among developed and developing countries is crucial, in his view. By funding, using and sharing technologies and methods of bringing down emissions in the developing world, rich countries are helping solve a crucial part of the global problem.

However, he agrees that “no deal on article 6 is better than a bad deal”, and some countries are in danger of undermining the discussions by insisting on rule changes. Brazil, for instance, is accused of seeking double counting of its forests, by being allowed to count its tree cover towards its commitments to cut emissions under Paris, while also seeking to sell to other countries carbon credits received for keeping its forests standing.

This sets the scene for a bitter fight over article 6, which would endanger the delicate consensus achieved at Paris, and that must be preserved if countries are to fulfil the aims of Paris by ratcheting up their commitments to bring down emissions.

box 1

So, one article and we’re good?

There are far bigger issues hanging over COP, but they will not be decided this year, just hinted at. The biggest alarm is that the aspiration set in Paris to constrain temperature rises will require unprecedented efforts to achieve. But individual country commitments to steer the world towards that best-case scenario were not part of the binding Paris deal, but contained in a non-binding addition.

So emissions are increasing again, temperatures are higher than ever, countries are not mandated by law to act – and time is running out: the IPCC concluded that on current rates we have little over a decade to halt emissions growth and bring down carbon rapidly to keep warming within the 1.5C threshold.

Current commitments made by national governments under the Paris agreement fall far short of what is required – taken together, they would still condemn the world to an estimated temperature rise of more than 3C by the end of the century. According to the UN’s latest “emissions gap” report, published a few days before the start of this year’s talks, countries must reduce their greenhouse gases by about 7.6% a year for the next 10 years, to stay within the 1.5C limit. Closing that gap will be COP26’s biggest task.

Wait – there’s another one after this?

Every year, alas. To meet the Paris objectives, it is clear the national targets must be revised upwards, and the deadline for that process is next year – which is also when previous targets, set at Copenhagen, expire for many countries. That makes 2020 a pivotal year for climate action.

Arguably the most important function of this year’s COP is to clear the way for the crunch summit next year, the most important meeting on the climate emergency since the Paris agreement was struck in 2015. The past five years have been spent thrashing out the “rulebook” by which Paris would be implemented, in a long series of technical discussions on issues as arcane as how carbon sinks should be accounted for.

Those discussions have been necessary to deal with the bureaucratic side of this complex international treaty, but they have not addressed the central issue of what emissions reduction commitments governments are prepared to offer.

Box 2

COP26 will take place in Glasgow, and the UK will be charged with the vital diplomatic role of coaxing countries into the commitments needed – commitments that were so ambitious, compared with governments’ meagre and sometimes reluctant offerings, that they could not be achieved in Paris five years ago.

In the years since Paris, new high-carbon infrastructure such as roads, coal-fired power plants and skyscrapers have continued to be built, and new oil and gas fields opened up. In addition, governments in some countries – the US, Brazil and Australia among the major economies – have been elected which are openly hostile to climate action.

This doesn’t sound promising …

Indeed. You could argue that three decades of negotiation have produced just one agreement to hold temperatures to a limit that is too high, and we are not even remotely on track to honour that agreement. All the hard decisions in the Paris agreement have been put off to a conference next year that might be a disaster, going on current form. Meanwhile, the Amazon is burning, bush fires are raging in Australia and America, climate chaos is causing a humanitarian disaster every week, and our global plan is to have some more meetings.

The Gospers Mountain wildfire rages south west of Sydney, Australia.
The Gospers Mountain wildfire rages south west of Sydney, Australia. Photograph: Dean Lewins/AAP

And yet if we didn’t have this UN process, we’d have to invent it. Without it, the world would be truly adrift and fully at the mercy of individual governments and vested commercial interests. Osornio says: “Whether or not the UNFCCC is adequate isn’t really the point – at the moment, it’s all we’ve got. Without [it], we would have to create another multilateral process for the world to come together and address the global climate crisis. Upholding existing multilateral processes, like the UNFCCC, helps against the rise in nationalism and isolationism already threatening international cooperation.”


Fiona Harvey Environment correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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