Top of the COPs

 In Winter 2016

A T TIMES, it might seem like the world’s political leaders have been negotiating and debating on legally binding treaties to cut carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions forever. In fact, it’s only been happening for just over two decades. The process started in 1992 at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, an 11-day marathon led by Canadian Maurice Strong, then secretary-general of the UN Conference on Environment and Development, when 196 countries adopted the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. “Countries understood then that we needed to address climate change,” says Janos Pasztor, United Nations assistant secretary-general on climate change.

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COP 15 in Copenhagen, Denmark, in 2009 UNCLIMATECHANGE / FLICKR

The convention, which took effect in 1994, was an agreement to stabilize atmospheric concentrations of GHGs at levels below those that might cause “dangerous” extremes of climate change. A year after that, Berlin hosted the ­first formal United Nations climate change conference (or COP, for “Conference of the Parties”). It was at COP 1 that member nations began negotiating speci­fic limits, obligations and processes to meet this goal. While each subsequent COP meeting has built on its predecessors, some have been more pivotal than others. This article focuses on six such meetings — their aims, achievements, stumbling blocks and Canada’s role — to give context for the results just seen at the recent COP 21 treaty meetings in Paris.

Kyoto, Japan (COP 3) Dec. 1-10, 1997

Focus: Even as the UNFCCC took effect, it was clear that countries’ initial pledges and financial commitments were inadequate to meet its goals. By the time of the third annual meeting in Kyoto, there was ample desire and momentum for a follow-up agreement.

Outcome: Members adopted the Kyoto protocol, under which 37 industrialized nations (plus emerging European economies) agreed for the first time to legally binding targets and timetables for lowering GHG emissions. Developed countries were singled out based on the principle that they were responsible for and had economic benefit from most of the GHGs added to the atmosphere in the past 150 years. Collectively, they agreed to cut annual emissions an average of five per cent below 1990 levels between 2008 and 2012.

Challenges: The Protocol would only take effect once 55 parties to the UNFCCC ratified it, provided that group included developed nations that together accounted for at least 55 per cent of 1990s-level CO2 emissions from developed countries. Also, the structure that bound developed countries to cuts while exempting developing nations was incomplete: developing nations omitted included China, India, Korea and Brazil. And even the means by which developed countries could meet reduction targets was eased — largely because of pressure from the United States — to include forestry and farming practices that provide carbon “sinks” (e.g., planting trees to absorb atmospheric carbon instead of just cutting emissions). “Countries have long been worried that taking climate action would put them at a competitive disadvantage in the global market,” says Pasztor.

Canada’s role: “In the early days, Canada was very productively engaged,” says Melissa Harris, project manager for climate change mitigation and energy with the International Institute of Sustainable Development. This was true under Conservative and Liberal governments. In fact, Canada played a central role in the negotiations that created the Kyoto Protocol, while backing the U.S. position on carbon sinks.

U.N. global warming conference
COP 3 in Kyoto, Japan, in 1997 KYODO VIA AP