'The danger of global warming is, as yet, unseen, but real enough for us to make changes and sacrifices, so that we do not live at the expense of future generations.’ It was 1990 when these words were uttered, during the second World Climate Conference in Geneva. The utterer was UK prime minister Margaret Thatcher. ‘Our immediate task,’ she went on to say, ‘is to carry as many countries as possible with us, so that we can negotiate a successful framework convention on climate change in 1992.’
As incredible as it may seem, that is what happened next.
In 1992, during the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro, better known as the Earth Summit, the world’s nations agreed to establish a proper seat for common climate action. It was called the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and, with a secretariat based in Bonn, it was charged with organising an annual, fortnight-long pow-wow where all nations could tackle humanity’s greenhouse gas emissions. Climate diplomacy was born.
If the goal was to inspire, the resulting name for these annual meetings – ‘Conference of the Parties’ – doesn’t quite hit the mark. Yet today, the acronym ‘COP’ has finally started to receive the attention it requires. Glasgow’s COP26, or the 26th edition (originally scheduled for 2020 but postponed because of the pandemic) promises to be the most important climate summit since 2015, when the Paris Agreement was signed. We must hope it fulfils such promise. By and large, the previous summits’ track record is rather dismal.
It started off hopefully and energetically. ‘We come to Rio with an action plan on climate change. It stresses energy efficiency, cleaner air, reforestation, new technology,’ declared US president George HW Bush at the Earth Summit in 1992. None of his Republican successors (including his son) ever said anything like that again. It appears that, at that time, decisions were indeed science-based. People became aware of a growing hole in the ozone layer, which protects us from harmful radiation: the 1987 Montreal Protocol was promptly implemented, banning ozone-destroying chlorofluorocarbons. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warned in its First Assessment Report that emissions resulting from human activities may trigger a cascade of unfortunate events: UNFCCC was signed two years later.
By COP3, the first international treaty on climate change was signed. The Kyoto Protocol, based on the principle of ‘common but differentiated responsibilities’ (long-term polluters should bear the bigger burden) divided the world into two blocks: industrialised and non-industrialised countries. It was 1997, and China then belonged to the second group. The Protocol was signed by a smiling US vice president Al Gore, who was already well aware that the US Senate would never find the required majority to ratify it. Sure enough, that never happened.
Kyoto was intended to be just the first step of a gradually increasing global commitment to reducing emissions of carbon dioxide and another six greenhouse gases, including methane and nitrous oxide. After many years of painstaking diplomatic efforts (in and out of the COPs), the Protocol entered into force in 2005. During the first commitment period, 37 countries had to decrease their emissions by an average of five per cent compared with 1990 levels. The European Union spearheaded change with the establishment of the first carbon market (known as European Emissions Trading), which was meant to discourage emissions in energy-intensive industries.
Many COPs passed by without ever showing the kind of bold approach needed to tackle a problem as big as the Earth’s atmosphere. Under the pretext that China had no commitments to fulfill, the USA – the biggest carbon polluter in history – not only rebuffed Kyoto, but systematically undermined the multilateral negotiations held under the UN flag. From Montreal to Nairobi, from Bali to Poznan, the climate merry-go-round went on with negligible progress, yet was regularly sold as a diplomatic step forward.
Then, in 2009, with Barack Obama in the White House and China finally willing to do its part, everything changed. It looked like the perfect moment for signing a new, more inclusive and legally binding international treaty. More than 45,000 delegates, climate activists, scientists, journalists and corporate representatives crowded into Copenhagen’s Bella Center – seat of COP15 – with sky-high expectations. Obama, the Chinese premier Wen Jiabao and all of the European leaders were there, ready for the photo-op of the signing ceremony. It turned into a spectacular failure.
In overtime (a defining feature of almost every COP since Kyoto), a statement drafted by the USA and a few other countries was announced. The so-called Copenhagen Accord allowed for the continuation of the Kyoto Protocol, but it contained little else. It wasn’t binding and, technically, it wasn’t even legal: under the UNFCCC rulebook, decisions must be unanimous. Many developing countries had voted against it, arguing that it was too soft and inconclusive.
It may have seemed fair at that time to question whether it would ever be possible to have 194 nations agree on the same text. Six years later, however, it happened. After a few more almost-empty-handed COPs (Cancùn, Durban, Doha, Warsaw and Lima), the Paris Agreement was unanimously signed in 2015 amid cheers, hugs and tears. The treaty aims to keep the Earth’s mean temperature increase since the Industrial Revolution ‘well below 2°C’ and below 1.5°C if possible. In order to get every single country on board, it prescribes emission reductions on a voluntary basis (the so-called nationally determined contributions, or NDCs) and it doesn’t sanction those who miss their targets. This time the treaty is legal, but not particularly binding.
While the Paris Agreement is a true step forward, it shifts the balance from compulsory to voluntary actions. In other words, it’s all about pledges. ‘We will be net zero carbon by 2050,’ is now a popular vow, often coming from politicians or corporate leaders who, by that time, will be long retired. The problem with pledges became evident when Donald Trump won the presidency and pulled the USA out of the Paris Agreement, and while Joe Biden signed an executive counter-order on his first day in office, the problem remains. ‘Promises are about trust,’ a Chinese delegate told me during a COP of many years ago. ‘Can we trust the word of an American president who doesn’t control a majority in the Senate?’
Three decades ago, when Margaret Thatcher spoke of ‘changes and sacrifices’ to be made, CO2 concentrations were at 354 ppm (parts per million) and the temperature was 0.3°C hotter than in pre-industrial times. Any level above 450 ppm and +1.5°C was considered, and still is, a dangerous threshold. We are currently at 419 ppm and +1.2°C.
In Glasgow, countries are expected to increase their NDCs, and most of them will. They must, because even if all commitments made up to this point are fulfilled, we will still see a dire 2.7°C-warmer world. But there is also much more at stake. ‘Coal, cash, cars and trees,’ UK prime minister Boris Johnson has outlined as his agenda. Which translates into ‘consigning coal to history’ with a timeline to stop burning it; finally delivering the promised US$100 billion a year to help poorer countries adapt to climate change; setting a deadline for the end of petrol cars and halting deforestation on a planetary scale.
Three decades later, it’s time for those largely forgotten words from Margaret Thatcher’s speech to be rephrased: ‘The danger of global warming is now well and truly evident, so we must hurry to make changes and sacrifices. We have been living for too long at the expense of future generations.’