As the climate crisis soars to the top of people’s political concerns, we are hearing more and more about ‘the COP’ taking place in just a few days now in Glasgow. So what is the COP? What are its chances of success? And what would success look like?
COP stands for ‘conference of the parties’. This doesn’t mean a social event or even a political party but countries who are party to the UN’s Framework Convention on Climate Change, which is why you will also see the abbreviation UNFCCC knocking around.
There have been a whole series of COPs dating back to 1992 when the Earth Summit held in Rio began global action on what was then known as ‘global warming’. Yes, nearly 40 years ago and so little action has actually taken place.
Progress was made at most of the COPs but very few make global headlines. But you may well have heard of COP15, held in Copenhagen, where the process fell apart and there was no treaty, although there was an agreement that the rich countries of the West should find $100bn to recompense the lower-income countries that are bearing the brunt of the historic emissions from the rich countries.
But the big success story was COP21, held in 2015 in Paris, out of which emerged the Paris Agreement. The key to achieving a global agreement was shifting from legally binding emissions targets to what are known as NDCs, nationally determined contributions. Countries assessed what they could contribute to reducing global emissions. Although this was an achievement, the pledges in total only signified a warming of 2.8o above pre-industrial levels, meaning catastrophic impacts on our climate system and all our lives. So at Paris countries also undertook to improve their NDCs over the next five years, ready for COP26.
Those with a keen eye on the maths will note that we are now six years on from 2015, a result of the Covid pandemic. But this is the main purpose of the Glasgow COP: that countries should jointly increase their NDC pledges enough to keep warming within 1.5o.
I say that optimistically, as though countries are actually reducing emissions; sadly, the reality is the reverse. The World Metereological Organisation found that ‘Concentrations of the major greenhouse gases – carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4) and nitrous oxide (N2O) continued to increase in 2020 and the first half of 2021’. Meanwhile, emissions from the G20 countries – responsible for 75% of emissions, CO2 will increase by 4% this year, having dropped 6% in 2020 due to the pandemic.
This is why Greta says what we get is ‘blah, blah, blah’, meaningless promises to be fulfilled by others after the current generation of politicians are well into their comfortable retirement. Without agreement on actual policies to change the way the economy works – and my favourite is a global carbon tax – it is unlikely that we will see action with sufficient force to keeping climate warming within 2 degrees, much less 1.5.
We are also at risk that what began as an egalitarian global movement under the auspices of the UN is becoming a rich man’s club dominated by the US and – to a lesser extent the EU and UK. The G7 is making a strong play to corner the market in CO2 emissions – and I say that advisedly and cynically as they seek to make climate action a profitable activity.
Because the G20 countries are responsible for 75% of total global emissions, that means they have a particular responsibility to reduce emissions; it does not give them any greater moral right to determine the future of the world we share.
This so-called ‘loss and damage’ agenda is the most serious potential stumbling-block in Glasgow. Unless the need to transfer wealth to the countries of the Global South is addressed then there is a clear possibility that they will not support the negotiations or any political outcome.
Saleemul Huq, from Bangladesh, is mobilising the countries that are suffering from the impact of other people’s emissions ahead of the Glasgow negotiations. He suggests that there should be envoys specifically focused on loss-and-damage appointed at the highest level, and that loss-and-damage should be made a specific agenda item in the climate talks.