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When it comes to climate change, there are a lot of shorthand descriptions to decipher. But the one we’re here to explain is possibly the most important acronym of 2015— COP, or, Conference of the Parties.
What is a COP?
Let’s get the dry stuff out of the way: a Conference of the Parties is the governing body of an international convention. Whether the convention’s aim is to control tobacco use or chemical weapons, the COP refers to all the parties involved, and to the decision-making process of reviewing and putting the rules of the convention into effect. This year, France will host the 21st United Nations Framework Convection on Climate Change COP (COP 21)— with the goal of making broad and lasting decisions on how to solve climate change.
How Does the COP Limit Emissions?
It’s complicated! At its core, the COP’s track record of making emissions limitations “legally binding” has been pretty murky (as is the true nature of that term when you’re talking about nearly 200 different countries). Realistically, you might want a lawyer to help you parse the nuances of how past COP agreements were enforced— in some cases, it’s been up to individual parties to ratify the agreements within their own countries before they can be implemented into law globally.
And, at any rate, an agreement doesn’t apply when a country drops out. For instance, when President Clinton signed onto the 1997 Kyoto Protocol (the first major COP decision to reduce CO2 emissions), the US congress didn’t ratify it, and in 2001 the Bush administration rejected the protocol entirely. Meanwhile, even when the Kyoto Protocol was put into effect (minus the US), there were no repercussions for countries that didn’t meet their emissions limitations. During the entire history of the COP, environmentalists, not surprisingly, have been calling for a much stronger enforcement of emissions limitations.
Why is it So Complicated?
Right from the start, the United Nations Framework Convection on Climate Change (UNFCC) principles called for action on climate change that reflected "common but differentiated responsibilities" from the parties involved. In plain terms, this refers to the difference in historical emissions between developed countries, like the US, and developing nations, like Zimbabwe. By the time the UNFCC set out its principles, highly industrialized countries had been emitting carbon dioxide for around a century and a half— by historical comparison, countries just starting to grow their economies accounted for a much smaller proportion of the carbon pollution causing climate change.
However, if you look at the extremely complex analysis of which country accounts for what percent of carbon emissions, the negotiations around which countries should limit what amount of emissions— and how much resources should be available to developing nations to adapt to climate change problems caused by developed countries— were of course fraught.
Has There Been Any Progress?
The short answer is yes, but it’s taken almost 20 years. Under the Kyoto Protocol, developed countries were allowed to continue emitting and growing their economies, with the burden of reducing emissions on the more developed countries. With the US bailing out, and a quickly growing Chinese economy beginning to emerge as the biggest source of carbon pollution in the world, it was clear another framework was needed.
A new tact was set forth in 2007 in Bali, with the US agreeing to further negotiations. By 2009 in Coppenhagen, for the first time, all the parties involved agreed to limiting emissions— with the globe’s largest economies uniting with a shared goal. What didn’t get decided upon, and is still being negotiated, is just how the parties will effect the emissions limitations that were agreed upon in 2009.
What Will COP 21 Decide On?
The science on climate change is clear. Every year we experience new record high temperatures around the world, and more and more studies warn of the public health and economic impacts of climate change. Many of the COP countries have already submitted their Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDC’s — the acronyms just keep coming!) outlining their emissions reductions. By the Paris conference, all the countries will need to make clear how much they will cut emissions, and negotiators will embark on crafting what we all hope will be a clear plan to reach those goals— including a mechanism for providing finance to developing countries struggling to reach these goals while adapting to volatile climate-changed weather.
What Can We Do To Influence the COP?
No matter what, we should keep pressure on world leaders to commit to 100% renewable energy by 2050— and you can do just that by signing the Avaaz petition below.