Climate change, Environment

COP, from pledges to progress: Navigating the climate change landscape for 27 years

This year’s United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP-28), to be held in Dubai from 30 November to 12 December, aims to pave solid future pathways to address the urgency of the climate crisis as it reaches unprecedented levels. The Conference of the Parties (COP) began in 1995 as a series of annual meetings to bring countries together to assess progress, negotiate agreements, and strategize on global climate governance, serving as a forum for international collaboration and developing collective strategies to mitigate and adapt to climate change. As COP-28 is close at hand, this article looks back on the past COP efforts to derive some lessons for a way forward.

Laying the foundation

The origin of the COP meetings can be traced back to COP-1 in 1995 in Berlin, which marked the beginning of a series of gatherings that have since become an essential forum of discussion and negotiation on the global response to climate change. The COP meetings deal with climate change mitigation, adaptation, finance, and technology transfer and facilitate the implementation of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), a landmark international treaty adopted in 1992 in response to the growing recognition of the global threat posed by climate change.

COP-1’s primary objective was to lay the groundwork for addressing the complex and urgent issue of climate change because, during these early stages, nations struggled to create a cohesive approach that could garner widespread support while acknowledging different countries’ diverse circumstances and responsibilities. The Kyoto Protocol was adopted at COP-3 in 1997, a watershed moment in the history of the COP meetings. This pioneering agreement set legally binding targets for emissions reductions for developed countries, a significant step toward addressing climate change globally.

The emergence of the Kyoto Protocol reflected developed countries’ shared recognition of their historical contribution to greenhouse gas emissions with the commitment to distribute the burden of addressing climate change more equitably. The Clean Development Mechanism (CDM), an essential part of the Kyoto Protocol, was established at COP-7 in 2001. The CDM sought to bridge the gap between developed and developing nations by allowing the former to invest in emissions reduction projects in the latter. This mechanism pioneered efforts to intertwine sustainable development goals with climate mitigation strategies. However, these foundational stages were challenging due to the lack of a mechanism for ensuring that participating countries’ commitments would be binding. Additionally, it turned out that an intricate balance was needed to navigate the diverse interests of countries at varying levels of development.

As COP-1 to COP-7 unfolded, climate change was more widely recognized as a shared global challenge, and the need for cooperative, multilateral responses, which in turn required a delicate dance of diplomacy, negotiation, and compromise, became evident. The international community laid the groundwork during these formative years, setting the stage for subsequent COP meetings.

Figure 1: Frequency of Themes Discussed in COP Meetings

Source: Authors.

Toward a new agreement

The transition from COP-8 to COP-15 during 2002–2009 marked a critical juncture in the ongoing global effort, signifying a shift toward a new agreement to build upon the foundation laid in earlier meetings and propel the world toward a more comprehensive and inclusive climate accord. COP-8, held in New Delhi in 2002, continued the discussions on implementing the Kyoto Protocol. It emphasized the importance of engaging developing nations in climate mitigation efforts and recognized the need for a holistic approach to adaptation and mitigation and for focusing on technology transfer and capacity-building in developing countries.

COP-11, in 2005, held in Montreal, Canada, highlighted the necessity of a post-2012 framework, acknowledging the impending expiration of the Kyoto Protocol’s first commitment period. The conference initiated the Bali Road Map, setting the stage for COP-13 in Bali, Indonesia, which witnessed the launch of negotiations for a more inclusive and ambitious global climate framework. The Bali Action Plan outlined vital building blocks for future negotiations, including mitigation, adaptation, technology transfer, and financial support. COP-15 in Copenhagen in 2009 was anticipated to finalize a new global climate agreement, but it ended with the Copenhagen Accord, a political agreement that fell short of a legally binding treaty.

The Paris Agreement era

The era spanning COP-16 to COP-21 was transformative and culminated in the historic adoption of the Paris Agreement in 2015. COP-16, held in Cancun, Mexico, in 2010, was crucial in rebuilding confidence in the multilateral climate process, which made significant strides in climate finance, technology transfer, and deforestation reduction and laid the foundation for establishing the Green Climate Fund to finance climate action in developing countries.

At COP-17 in 2011 in Durban, South Africa, nations agreed to launch negotiations for a new universal climate agreement, departing from the bifurcated approach of the Kyoto Protocol to an inclusive pact involving all countries. COP-18 to COP-20 concentrated on the Green Climate Fund. COP-21 in Paris in 2015 was the pinnacle of this era. The Paris Agreement, a landmark accord, was adopted by 196 parties, all of which committed themselves to the goal of limiting the global temperature increase to well below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. The agreement acknowledged the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities, recognizing developed and developing nations’ varying capacities and circumstances.

Progress, setbacks, and adaptation

A paradigm shift toward collective responsibility, transparency, and a shared commitment to a sustainable future characterizes the Paris Agreement era spanning from 2016 to 2022, namely COP-22 to COP-27. This period witnessed progress but also setbacks and struggles to translate commitments into concrete actions. Both COP-22 in Marrakech, Morocco, and COP-23 in Bonn, Germany focused on implementing the Paris Agreement, with emphasis on the need for enhanced climate ambition, adaptation efforts, and financing mechanisms, but they could not turn aspirations into tangible results. The major difficulty lay in the rulebook for transparency and accountability, a vital component in assessing and improving global efforts. COP-24 in Katowice, Poland, in 2018 faced the complex task of finalizing the rulebook that would govern the implementation of the Paris Agreement. While progress was made, nations failed to reach a consensus on critical issues. COP-25 in Madrid, Spain, faced heightened expectations for countries to enhance their climate commitments. The conference highlighted the urgency of addressing the “ambition gap” between current commitments and the action level needed to meet the Paris Agreement goals. Disagreements over the reliability of the market mechanism and other issues dampened the overall success of the negotiations.

COP-26 in Glasgow, United Kingdom, in 2021, was a pivotal moment for the global climate agenda. The conference aimed to accelerate action and secure more ambitious commitments. While the Glasgow Climate Pact was a step forward, some felt it needed to go further in addressing the urgency of the climate crisis, revealing ongoing challenges in aligning diverse national interests. COP-27 in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt, achieved a breakthrough agreement to provide loss and damage funding for vulnerable countries hit hard by floods, droughts, and other climate disasters.

These efforts as a whole have not not entirely sufficient. Since the start of COP in 1995, GHG emissions have increased from 23.46 billion tons to 37.08 billion tons in 2019. Due to the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) and related lockdowns, the figure decreased slightly to 35.26 billion tonnes in 2020 (Figure 2). In 2021, cumulative GHG emissions amounted to 1,736.9 billion tons, with the United States contributing around 24%, the European Union 22%, the People’s Republic of China 14%, India 3%, and Mexico, Australia, and Saudi Arabia 1% each, with the rest from other countries and regions (Figure 3).

Figure 2: Total Global Annual GHG Emissions, 1990–2020

Source: Authors from “Our World in Data”.

Figure 3: Share of Cumulative GHG Emissions by Country/Economy, 2021

Source: Authors from “Our World in Data”.

Future pathways and beyond

Assessing progress and challenges for global climate action reveals an evolving landscape. The commitment to net-zero targets, renewable energy, and increased climate finance signifies positive momentum. However, challenges persist in closing the ambition gap, ensuring equitable contributions from all nations, and mobilizing adequate resources for adaptation and mitigation. The recollection of the past COP efforts has made it crystal clear that nations need to turn commitments into concrete actions, implement adaptive strategies, and foster international cooperation to address climate change’s complex and interconnected challenges effectively.

COP-28 is anticipated to be a pivotal moment. The focus is expected to be on tangible, transformative actions that transcend national interests, fostering a renewed commitment to sustainable practices, robust adaptation measures, and increased financial support for vulnerable nations. Governments, businesses, and civil society are poised to intensify the collaboration necessary for a holistic, inclusive approach to achieving the objectives of the Paris Agreement.

Tetsushi Sonobe

About the Author

Tetsushi Sonobe is Dean and CEO of the Asian Development Bank Institute.
Dil Rahut

About the Author

Dil Rahut is vice-chair of research and a senior research fellow at ADBI.
Raja Rajendra Timilsina

About the Author

Raja Rajendra Timilsina is a consultant (economist) at ADBI.
Shikha Chandrawat

About the Author

Shikha Chandrawat is a master's student at the International University of Japan.


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