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26 Climate Conferences Have Failed to Halt Emissions. Do We Need a New Strategy?

Negotiations and climate conferences can’t bring change on their own if major powers continue to block them.

Participants are pictured at the Sharm el-Sheikh International Convention Center during the COP27 climate conference, in Egypt's Red Sea resort city of the same name, on November 9, 2022.

Viewed soberly, the results have been catastrophic: After 26 UN climate conferences, greenhouse gas emissions have not only not fallen, but have risen by almost 60 percent, while the climate crisis continues to escalate virtually unchecked.

With COP27 (“Conference of the Parties”) underway in Egypt, no one seriously expects a sudden turnaround from the international climate meeting, even though such an outcome would be crucial for the survival of the human species.

So far, only a few countries have tightened their climate targets — contrary to promises made at the last conference in Glasgow a year ago. This is, to put it mildly, a disappointment; even if their climate targets are implemented, a scenario of 2.9 degrees Celsius (2.9°C) global warming is still possible this century, as the UN has calculated.

Developing countries need $2 trillion a year by 2030 to get a rapid energy transition complete. At least half of the funding should come from rich countries, according to a UN report. But at COP27, industrialized countries are once again not even meeting their $100 billion pledge, a mark they were supposed to reach by 2020. Critics say the U.S. in particular is not paying its fair share.

Many climate advocates and activists are not even attending the meeting, partly because the Egyptian regime leaves little room for civil society involvement and protests on the ground, which have been the main strategy for pressuring states to take meaningful action. Greta Thunberg has also announced that she will not travel to the conference venue Sharm el-Sheikh in protest against the Egyptian government’s human rights violations and repression.

A fundamental question arises, one that climate activists have been debating for some time: Are UN climate conferences a waste of time and resources — a diversion from more effective battlegrounds?

Given the abysmal record, the answer at first seems straightforward. But it’s worth understanding why climate diplomacy and global climate action have not progressed for decades. After all, it’s not negotiation in itself that’s the problem, but the power play behind the scenes.

The Outcomes of Past COPs

It is hard to argue that UN climate conferences had a significant effect on emissions. A 2010 study from the World Bank shows that even the often romantically hailed Kyoto Protocol of 1997, with its binding commitments, did not change the global output of emissions. It wasn’t even able to slow the increase of greenhouse gases, according to the World Bank. This is not because the developed countries didn’t deliver on their promises to cut emissions. (On the contrary, they exceeded them.)

The reason for this failure has to do with the unambitious targets. They were way too low (minus 5.2 percent until the period of 2008-2012) for most of the wealthy states, and loopholes and offsets made them even less effective. In addition, there were no targets at all for the developing countries because the industrialized countries were unwilling to fund the transition process. Global emissions went up, unchecked, while wealthy countries congratulated themselves.

At the Copenhagen 2009 conference, a bloc of rich countries led by the U.S. then tried to bully the developing countries into a deal with no binding targets for the former and an unfair distribution of the remaining carbon budget for keeping the world under 2°C. The South Centre, an intergovernmental policy research and analysis institution of developing countries, reported that under the COP15’s plan (the so-called Danish text that was leaked during the summit), the industrialized countries would be allocated around 30 to 35 percent of the remaining carbon dioxide budget, even though they account for only 16 percent of the world’s population (and had already exceeded their budget in the past). At the same time, the agreement would implicitly cancel the climate debt owed by industrialized countries for their past emissions, while the Global South would be forced to close the gap through tough emission cuts — without funding from the north.

A year after the Copenhagen summit, embassy cables published by Wikileaks showed how the U.S. in particular used espionage, threats and financial aid pledges (virtual bribes) to try to force political support from individual developing countries for an agreement in Copenhagen. The EU played along. For example, then-European Commissioner for Climate Change Connie Hedegaard met with her counterpart Jonathan Pershing, U.S. deputy envoy for climate change, in Brussels on February 11, 2009. According to the cables, Hedegaard reportedly told Pershing, “The Aosis [Alliance of 39 Small Island States] countries [including Haiti, Guinea-Bissau, Maldives and the Marshall Islands] could be ‘our best allies’ given their need for funding.”

But the U.S. and EU’s scheme met fierce resistance. Representatives of poorer countries were infuriated. Bolivia’s then-President Evo Morales, in a speech to delegates, demanded that rich countries repay their climate debt and called for a 1°C temperature limit. Morales also proposed that an international court of climate law be established. The disparity in emissions between the U.S. and the EU on the one hand and the Global South on the other was repeatedly raised on the podium.

The negotiations crashed. Only a political declaration of intent was adopted (the Copenhagen Accord), which did not have to be formally approved, and it contained no reduction targets. But for the first time, an upper temperature limit was discussed: 2°C. After Copenhagen, the emissions kept on increasing. In Germany, a country that has long called itself a “climate pioneer,” emissions went up a little and then stagnated for eight years from 2009 until 2017.

In Paris, six years after Copenhagen, an agreement was finally reached. The corporate media and many mainstream environmental groups in the West were euphoric, calling COP21 an historic moment and a breakthrough in climate negotiations. However, many climate scientists and civil society activists strongly disagreed. Studies showed that the promises made by states at the summit could lead to 3°C of heating. Pablo Solón, a former Bolivian ambassador to the United Nations, called it “a death sentence for many people.”

The conventional view is that “Copenhagen was a disaster and Paris a triumph” — a strange view, notes Dan Bodansky, the co-director of the Center for Law and Global Affairs at Arizona State University, and a longtime observer of climate diplomacy. Bodansky argues the Paris Agreement only formalized the “bottom-up paradigm” of the Copenhagen conference in which emissions goals are reached through the principle of voluntary commitments. The essential elements — such as the 2°C limit, the non-binding national contributions, the announcement to mobilize public and private funds for climate financing and the tendency to put industrialized and developing countries on an equal footing — had already been included in Copenhagen. Bodansky therefore speaks of Copenparis: “In essence, what the Paris Agreement does is tie a treaty ribbon around these key elements of the Copenhagen Accord.”

Looked at more closely, the path from Copenhagen to Paris via Cancún (COP16) and Durban (COP17) is in fact a process of eroding the foundations of climate diplomacy since the 1990s. The 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change’s (UNFCCC) principle of “common but differentiated” responsibility for the climate crisis was finally abandoned in Paris and replaced by “universal responsibility.” In other words, all countries would be considered equally responsible, and all have to deliver, without consideration of their state capacities, resources or historical culpability.

But why did the developing countries agree to the paradigm shift in Paris, which they had largely refused to accept in Copenhagen? The main reason was that the countries of Africa, Latin America and Asia realized that they would not get any other deal from the industrialized countries, especially the U.S. and EU.

Long before the Paris summit, the U.S. together with the EU made sure that the Copenhagen debacle would not be repeated. Shortly after, they held a series of high-level diplomatic meetings with China, culminating in the Joint Climate Change Statement in 2015. It was the usual “carrot and stick” method: The U.S. and EU offered China financing and technology in combating smog in their cities to quell the demand by China and the G77 alliance of developing states that the industrialized countries should pay 1.5 percent of their GDP — $500 billion per year — to developing countries as climate finance.

In his detailed analysis of climate diplomacy, political scientist Fuzuo Wu concludes that China and India made several concessions in Paris since they were dependent on technology transfers from the U.S. and EU to implement the energy transition and adapt to the impacts of a heating planet.

Solón in an interview at the COP21 in Paris offered an example of how resistance in the Global South can be broken by the industrialized countries. At the 2010 climate conference in Cancún, he said, many countries, especially in Africa, had affirmed in a joint press conference that they would not sign the agreement — just a few hours before the vote. But then they suddenly agreed to it, with Bolivia alone standing firm. Solón asked his colleagues what happened. One of the negotiators answered him that the EU had called his government and threatened it financially. “This kind of blackmail is part of the negotiations,” Solón said.

Activists Outside the Official Meetings Keep Hope Alive

But what about the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow last year? Didn’t the gathering keep hope alive? That depends on which gathering one considers, because actually two climate summits took place in Glasgow — which is also true for Paris and Copenhagen. There was the COP26, where the state delegates met at a convention center, accompanied by lobbying groups like from the fossil fuel industry. In fact, the fossil fuel industry had a bigger delegation than any state present, with over 500 lobbyists.

Parallel to the official conference, there was a “People’s Summit for Climate Justice” organized by the COP26 Coalition, a civil society and movement-based alliance, which at its core aimed to address citizens of the Global South and Indigenous communities’ needs and demands. Hundreds of events and huge demonstrations took place in Glasgow. 150,000 people from all around the world protested for a Green New Deal and climate justice. This meeting was far bigger than the official one.

At the official meeting, major powers decided to keep the world on a course that eventually is going to burn the planet. Even if all promises governments have given in Glasgow were kept, we would reach 3°C or even more in this century, catastrophically changing life on earth especially for the human species, according climate experts like Kevin Anderson from the Tyndall Center for Climate Change Research.

In her speech, the prime minister of Barbados called the lack of commitments in emission cuts and climate finance by the developed countries “reckless,” “dangerous,” “immoral” and “injust.” Greta Thunberg spoke the famous phrase “blah, blah, blah” for what was happening in Glasgow and is still happening to this day: greenwashing.

At the second summit, activists, ordinary people and climate experts demanded climate justice and a truly Green New Deal in accordance with best science, as they have done for decades. They tried again to pressure the wealthy countries to take responsibility, cut their emissions back to zero until 2030 or 2035 respectively and pay reparations to the poor countries in form of climate finance. This finance must amount to hundreds of billions of dollars each year at least, so that developing countries are able to make the fast energy and infrastructure transition needed to adapt to already ongoing global heating and its effects.

But the people’s summit, with all its voices, insights and demands, was almost blacked out by the major media in the West. Only the huge demonstration drew some attention in the news. Asad Rehman, one of the organizers of the coalition and the people’s summit, said: “Unfortunately a lot of media are just taking sound bites from the UK government and reproduce them…. What we’re seeing is a really a very lazy journalism.”

The overarching narrative in most of the media outlets was that the COP was a step in the right direction. Of course, if you lower the expectation to near zero, everything can be labeled as an improvement while leaving out the fact that for a long time there has been no room left for minor steps.

At the same time the public was inundated in Glasgow with net-zero promises (attention: net zero is not zero) and isolated green initiatives. Brazil even committed to a deforestation initiative, as it had done in the past, while continuing to destroy the Amazon without pause.

Promises are recycled. Emissions keep rising.

So, to return to the initial question: Are climate conferences useless? Are they even detrimental — as German politician and the architect of the internationally influential Renewable Energy Act (EEG) Hermann Scheer once said — since UN climate diplomacy is consensus-driven and eventually waters down national ambition?

Certainly, the criticism of the existing climate diplomacy and some of the faulty designs within the negotiation system are justified. But it is not the UN climate system that is responsible for the inaction. After all, the Paris Agreement kept multilateralism alive — that is, the principle of an internationally agreed on and fair solution without which no possibility of global climate action.

Climate diplomacy and the UNFCCC framework also contain meaningful elements such as responsibility sharing, financing, setting a temperature ceiling, managing national reduction targets, review mechanisms, orientation towards science and equity principles.

Climate conferences also generate publicity and mobilization. Without the 1.5 to 2°C threshold at the Paris conference, protest movements would not been able to nail the industrialized countries on this and win victories in courts. In this way, governments and parliaments can be put on the defensive before their own electorates.

But negotiations and climate conferences can’t bring change on their own if major powers continue to block them. Climate diplomacy is effectively a power struggle between poor and rich countries, high and low emitters, the Global South versus the Global North. And in this struggle the developed countries have major advantages and the underdeveloped ones have no real leverage. Thus, necessary change will not come without mass political opposition within and against the powerful states like the U.S. or European countries, pushed through by civil society.

In Egypt at the current climate conference, an alliance of civil society groups and climate movements — called the COP27 Coalition, led by African and Arab organizations — is mobilizing to put pressure on the negotiators and create publicity. The COP27 Coalition is calling for rapid emissions reductions to zero (not net zero) from rich countries, repayment of climate debt to developing countries and no more “false solutions” like carbon markets. On Saturday, they will hold a Global Day of Action to lift up these demands.

COPs are not condemned to fail. But they will if we let them.

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