What Have Other Climate Change Summits Accomplished? Disagreement Has Been A Theme In Past Years
President Barack Obama and the leaders of 194 other countries will attend COP21 this week. The COP, or Conference of the Parties, meetings began in 1995 in Berlin, Germany, and they've been held every year since, according to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. But, in the past, the outcomes of COP meetings haven't been newsworthy, or just weren't widely publicized. That's mostly because previous COPs weren't taken seriously and often didn't accomplish much.
At this year's COP, Obama and other major carbon-producing countries hope to create a legally-binding plan that will reduce carbon emissions worldwide. Obama hopes all 195 countries will be on board, and things look promising so far. But Adil Najam, a professor of global studies at Boston University, penned an op-ed for The Guardian where he said that previous COPs seemed filled with anticipation and hope. In 2009, Najam attended the COP in Copenhagen, Denmark. He said the major carbon-producing countries — the U.S., the European Union, China, and India — hoped to develop a plan that would "(a) limit their emissions, (b) support developing countries in their transition to low-emission futures, and (c) create a mechanism to assist vulnerable countries in coping with the costs of adaptation and climatic disasters that, by then, had already become inevitable," according to his Guardian column.
But none of those things happened, he said. And nothing has happened since. The COP21 talks are scheduled to end Dec. 11, which will be exactly 25 years since the start of the climate change talks. "Let that fact sink in: we have now been talking about an international agreement for a quarter of a century," Najam said. "We have no agreement. And there is none in sight. One has to wonder if all the hot air that has been generated by all this talk was worth the carbon cost of all our globe-trotting to these COPs."
Here's a look at the past six COP talks and what they did — or, realistically, didn't — accomplish.
COP20 In Lima, Peru
The COP20 talks started with the same optimism Najam said the Copenhagen talks had and the same optimism that this year's Paris talks held. Prior to the Lima talks, both the U.S. and China, which are the world's two leading carbon-producers, agreed to move their economies toward being more "low-carbon," according to the Daily Telegraph. The talks quickly began to deteriorate as soon as they began, though, when key sessions were delayed due to arguments, for example, about whether the document leaders were viewing should be displayed on a big electronic screen in the meeting room. (That's not an exaggeration, the Telegraph noted.) Eventually, China and the U.S. started butting heads over how to distribute emissions costs between rich and poor countries.
Before they left, world leaders agreed in theory on what they should do to reduce their emissions, and they all agreed that rich countries should help poorer countries develop sustainably, but they failed to create a concrete plan that they could agree on, according to the Telegraph. That outcome is a running theme for many of the COP meetings.
COP19 In Warsaw, Poland
So, the very strange thing about most of the COPs before the Paris talks is that they were all treated as planning meetings for this year's meeting in Paris. The Warsaw talks ran a full day longer than originally planned, and leaders set timelines "for proposing their 'intended nationally determined contributions' to the 2015 agreement," according to the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions. Plainly put, the Warsaw talks achieved a timeline for when leaders would start proposing ideas to combat their contributions to climate change.
COP18 In Doha, Qatar
The most major accomplishment of the Doha Climate Gateway was the addition of an amendment to the Kyoto Protocol. The amendment established a new round of binding emissions targets for the European Union, Norway, and Australia, among other countries, according to the International Institute for Environment and Development. Unfortunately, it's unclear whether the amendment was ratified so that it could be enforced in the nations that signed on, according to the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions. It's also unclear how the emissions targets would be enforced.
The Doha talks also looked at developing a measure to compensate poor countries that were negatively effected by climate change that richer countries contributed to. Presumably, these were effects that kept poorer countries from developing, according to the IIED. But, like other talks, leaders just discussed the possibility of developing such a compensatory measure — they didn't make any moves to actually create such a measure.
COP17 In Durban, South Africa
The Durban talks lasted two days longer than planned, but countries in attendance created the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action, which was a two-page document with the names of countries who would be cutting their carbon emissions for the first time, according to the Telegraph. The document then provided a "road map" to help countries reach a worldwide deal in 2015 to cut emissions beginning in 2020. Developed countries, like those in the European Union, also signed onto the second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol, meaning they agreed to a legally binding treaty to cut carbon emissions before the Paris agreement takes place in 2020 (that's assuming a Paris agreement is reached).
Yet again, smaller countries criticized the Kyoto commitment and the Durban Platform as not having any real measure in place to ensure compliance from the largest carbon emitters.
COP16 In Cancun, Mexico
The talks in Cancun seemed to restore the legitimacy of the COP meetings after the failed meeting in Copenhagen. The talks ended with the Cancun Agreements, which took major steps at establishing a plan to protect the world's forests, assist vulnerable countries in developing sustainably, and set objectives — like a timeline — for when a binding treaty would be reached, according to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. But, one of the major problems with carbon emissions promises that still wasn't fixed at COP16 were loopholes that allow countries to circumvent their emission targets (another recurring theme), according to the Stockholm Environmental Institute.
COP15 In Copenhagen, Denmark
This is the COP that Najam attended and that so many countries were so hopeful about. It was the most disappointing of all the COPs because talks were tense — so much so that leaders gave up on reaching any sort of legally binding agreement to address climate change. The Copenhagen Agreements established "an aspirational goal of limiting global temperature increase to 2 degrees Celsius;" terms for reporting and verifying countries' actions; a commitment from developed countries to allocate $30 billion to help developing countries reduce emissions and preserve their forests, among other agreements, according to the Center for Climate Change Solutions.
Venezuela, Sudan, Nicaragua, Bolivia, and a few other countries wanted to block the agreements because they were allegedly made when some leaders weren't even in the room. Given that many of the past COPs have been used to plan this year's COP in Paris, it would be disappointing, to say the least, if a binding agreement still can't be met. Like Najam said, leaders should save the atmosphere from the carbon and just not travel to COPs anymore if they can't come together and create a comprehensive plan to address climate change.