COP26 begins: what have the other 25 climate conferences been used for?


Estelle and other experts interviewed by French national television BFM TV on 31st October 2021. Article translated.

Un invité de la Cop21 contemple une projection du globe terrestre, le 30 novembre 2015
A Cop21 guest contemplates a projection of the globe, November 30, 2015 –  Alain Jocard – AFP


The first COP was held in 1995 in Berlin. Since then, every year, delegations from all over the world, more and more numerous over time, come together to try to fight against global warming. But what exactly is it for?

They will be tens of thousands, gathered to reflect on the future of the planet. The highly anticipated COP26, postponed for a year due to the Covid-19 pandemic, opens this Sunday in Glasgow (Scotland), until 12 November. It is, as its name suggests, the 26th of these “conferences of the parties”, organized every year since 1995, with the aim of fighting against climate change.

The meeting is being held a few months after a new “red alert” from the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change): scientists announced an “unprecedented” rise in extreme weather events due to the climate crisis, pointing to the “unequivocal” responsibility of humans in these phenomena.

Despite these annual international meetings, despite the measures identified by the Paris Agreements at COP21,the situation continues to deteriorate, and the worst scenarios of climatologists are being realized, which may raise questions about the effectiveness – and therefore the usefulness – of the COP.

“The challenge is to go beyond borders”

“On the climate, the first warnings were given in the 1970s and a first IPCC report in 1990″already  evokes the impact of human activity on the climate, reminds climatologist Jean Jouzel, former vice-president of the IPCC, and author of  “Climate: Let’s Talk True”.

 In this report, we can already read that “emissions resulting from human activities significantly increase atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases” on the planet.

This report led to the establishment of the UNFCCC  (United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change) in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in 1992. It aims to stabilize greenhouse gas concentrations “at a level that prevents any anthropogenic disturbance (due to human activity, Editor’s note) dangerous to the climate system,”  says the UN. The signatories of the UNFCCC are the famous “parties” present at the COP. There are currently 197 (196 States and the European Union).

“The ultimate goal of the COP is to succeed in avoiding climate change,” said Estelle Forget, a climate consultant who worked at the COP21 General Secretariat, for

“The challenge is to go beyond borders,” adds Frédéric Amiel, general coordinator of Friends of the Earth in France, an international federation for the protection of man and the environment. “It’s only at a global level that we can get things done, we can’t fix climate change at the country level.”

Kyoto, Copenhagen, Paris… 3 major COP

“Not all COP had the same importance,” notes Jean Jouzel. Thus, if there are 26 COP since 1995 three are particularly notable. First, there is COP3 in Japan, which endorsed the historic Kyoto agreements in 1997.

By this treaty, “38 industrialized countries commit to an average reduction of 5.2% of their greenhouse gas emissions between 2008 and 2012” compared to those of 1990, recalls the website of the French government.It is the “first legally binding international treaty against global warming”.

But among the signatories, we find neither the United States, nor China, nor Russia, which refuse this commitment, even though they are among the most polluting countries in terms of CO2.

The other COP that made history was COP15 in Copenhagen (Denmark) in 2009. But unlike Kyoto, “it’s a failure,” Gilles Ramstein, director of research at the Laboratory of Climate and Environmental Sciences, told “It had to decide what should happen after Kyoto, but the countries present failed to agree.” However, the discussions were not totally in vain, because in Copenhagen “and during the COP that followed, they made it possible to convince for the Paris Agreements, during COP21”.

Ratified by 191 parties, the 2015 Paris Agreements confirm the objective of keeping global warming below 2°C and call for continued efforts to limit the temperature to below 1.5°C.  It also provides for carbon neutrality by 2050, except for China, which is targeting 2060.

“COP21 is a success by its universality, everyone has put commitments, everyone has signed, ratified,” says Jean Jouzel.

The other COPs have contributed, little by little, to preparing these major agreements, each time taking stock of the situation. They are also an opportunity to make progress on specific technical issues. For example, COP16 in Cancun (Mexico) made it possible to implement the Green Climate Fund, which aims to transfer financial resources from wealthier countries to the most vulnerable countries to set up projects against global warming.

“To bring together divergent interests”

If it took so many years for nearly 200 parties to sign a common agreement, it is because each state has its own energy mix and stakes. “In France the share of nuclear power is high while in Poland it is coal,” notes Gilles Ramstein, for example.

Not to mention changes in governance, which can upset commitments. US President Donald Trump left the Paris Accords during his term in office, refusing to implement the promises of his predecessor Barack Obama.

“Since their creation, the difficulty of the COP has been to bring together divergent interests,” says Estelle Forget. “Agreeing on a common agenda is very difficult and takes time.”

In addition to the delegations from each country, which may already disagree, the COPs bring together members of civil society, associations, NGOs, companies or various lobbies present as observers, but who can sometimes intervene. It is a complex network of tens of thousands of people with discordant interests, and from this diverse gathering must come out agreements.

The COPs are “a real forum for negotiations. And since it lasts 15 days, it is really possible to succeed in changing the opinions of certain actors in one direction or another,” says Frédéric Amiel. Even if most often, he admits, “it is at the margin that it is played, on a paragraph, we negotiate on commas”.

Promises kept?

There is ambition in the promises signed in 2015, say the specialists interviewed, but they still need to be realized. If as early as Kyoto, “everyone had signed and respected these agreements, perhaps we would not be where we are today,” says Jean Jouzel. The climatologist recalls that from the 1970s to the end of the 2010s, “greenhouse gas emissions doubled” in the world.

Regarding the Paris Agreements, “Europe has kept its commitments for 2020 to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 20%,”says the climatologist, but “its carbon footprint has significantly increased at the same time”. He “hopes” that the EU will respect the next ones: a net reduction in greenhouse gas emissions of at least 55% by 2030, compared to 1990 levels.

“Global emissions should fall by more than 40% by 2030, while they are currently increasing,” Jouzel said.

To really have an impact on climate change, “it means changing everything, reviewing the energy system, but also that of public transport, the isolation of buildings,” says Gilles Ramstein. However, the specialist does not see for the moment a “long-term plan that would make it possible to achieve this”.

COP ‘help to move the debate forward’

The experts do not question the interest of these meetings. “This leads to commitments, reflections that would not be put in place if we did not talk about it so much,” says Jean Jouzel. With the COP, “there is a real interaction between what scientists are doing in the framework of the IPCC and reality, they made it possible to understand what was going to happen”, abounds Gilles Ramstein.

“The commitments made at the COP are important benchmarks on which checks and balances can be based,” says Frédéric Amiel. And “even if today the results of the COP are not necessarily visible, they contribute to advancing the debate on climate change.”

The COP26 that opens this Sunday could be part of the meetings that matter, because the parties present must “announce their new objectives to reduce greenhouse gas emissions”, explains the Ministry of Ecological Transition. But the Covid-19 pandemic, which has upset the world bodies, and especially its economic consequences, promise to influence the next discussions.  And therefore the ambition of the agreement that could result from it.

Link to original article in French by Salomé Vincendon Journalist BFMTV


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