The Basic: UNFCCC, COPs and Paris Climate Agreement

(updated: 2021.05.15)

Well before the 1980s, many climate scientists around the world had already issued continuous warnings about the warming up of the Earth’s atmosphere because of excessive greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by human activities since Industrialization, and the resulting climate change. In 1988, the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was established. This is the international body of more than 1000 scientists on climate and other related subjects, charged to provide peer-reviewed and internationally recognized scientific assessments and reports.

After a few years of international efforts, the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) was adopted in 1992; it is the first international treaty with its main objective to “stabilize greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system.” The Convention entered into force in 1994, signed and ratified by 197 nations, each one being a Party to the Convention.

From 1995 and on, the UNFCCC Secretariat organizes an annual Conference of Parties (COP) toward the end of every year, under the terms defined by the Framework Convention. In each of these COPs, representatives from the ratifying nations (Parties) would gather for two weeks to negotiate and establish the international mechanisms and policies of tackling the runaway greenhouse gas emissions and the consequences, based on the scientific assessments and findings issued by IPCC.

This has been a long and complicated multilateral negotiation process, involving various dynamics between scientific reality, international politics and power play, industries’ interests, financial implications, and civil society, just to name a few. Each COP, while dealing with different aspects and focuses, might not be equal in its significance; some even failed to achieve what they were set out for, while others have moved the process forward with important milestones.

The following is just an over-simplified sampling of a few more noticeable ones:

  • COP 3 (1997, Kyoto, Japan) ~ Adopting the Kyoto Protocol, the world’s first greenhouse gas emissions reduction agreement, with internationally binding commitment targets, while placing a heavier burden of reduction on the industrialized nations. Effective from 2005 to 2012.
  • COP 16 (2010, Cancun, Mexico) ~ Establishing the Green Climate Fund; also confirming for the first time the imperative to hold the increase in global average temperature below 2°C above pre-industrial levels, and the need for drastic actions to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions in order to hold that line.
  • COP 18 (2012, Doha) ~ Extending the Kyoto Protocol until 2020.
  • COP 19 (2013, Warsaw, Poland) ~ Establishing the Warsaw International Mechanism for Loss and Damage associated with Climate Change Impacts (WIM). 
  • COP 21 (2015, Paris, France) ~ Adopting the Paris Agreement: for the first time almost all nations on earth agreed to achieve the “below 2°C” objective, while pursuing the aspired goal of “below 1.5°C.” The Agreement will enter into force in 2020.

(This infographic provides an easy-to-understand graphic representation of the entire UNFCCC process and focuses of various COPs. Meanwhile, the UNFCCC official website has a detailed page on Key Aspects of the Paris Agreement)

Back in 2015 when the nations gathered in Paris, agreeing to curb greenhouse gas emissions for that “below 2°C” objective, there was a cautious optimism, even though the Paris Agreement was far less than ideal in terms of immediate reduction targets being committed and registered by various nations and the compromised mechanisms for its execution. Things have worsened significantly.

Politically, in 2017 when the then US President Donald Trump announced his intention of having the US to withdraw from the Paris Agreement (and was effective in 2020), it dealt a major blow to the internationally hard fought effort (meanwhile the US still remains as a Party to the UNFCCC). This situation was reversed in early 2021 when the newly elected President Job Biden rejoined the Paris Agreement, with a more ambitious goal of “50% reduction by 2030 and net-zero emission by 2050” (2021.04). Meanwhile, many nations have announced similar intentions. However, most announcements and intentions by nations have not yet translated into concrete, effective and aggressive policies and measures for large scale reduction of GHG emissions.

Meanwhile, from the climate science perspectives through actual observations and latest research, the overall picture is increasingly alarming, to put it mildly. These have shown by numerous reports released by the IPCC and other international bodies in the last couple of years about the current state of affairs on climate change.

Just two more prominent examples:

In October 2018, IPCC released the Special Report: Global Warming of 1.5°C, the first of three within a window of 12 months, with the following assessment:

1. The differences between a warming world of “below 2°C” and that of “below 1.5°C” would be catastrophically significant, just to name a few of the impacts as shown in this chart (reference):

below 1.5°Cbelow 2°C
Sea level rise by 2100An average of 48 cm

(current sea level is 13-20 centimeters higher on average than it was in 1900 – note)
An average of 58 cm
Extreme heatwave experienced by world population14%>35%
Arctic sea iceRemains in most summers Ice free summers 10x more likely
Coral reefs10-25% remainsVirtually all gone

2. If the nations of the world would be able to keep the crucial “below 1.5°C” goal, we need to reduce all emissions of human-caused Carbon Dioxide (CO2 ~ the most common among GHGs) to 45% (compared to 2010’s level, some nations will need to reduce more, from 50%-65%) by 2030, and then we must achieve net-zero emission by 2050. And this has not factored into the troublingly increasing levels of other more potent greenhouse gases such as methane (CH4) and Nitrous oxide (N2O).

(Note: “Net-zero emission” is also known as “Carbon Neutral.” It means, first, to minimize as much as possible the greenhouse gas emissions that are mainly carbon dioxide and cause global warming. As a result, the entire society must undergo a comprehensive transformation in transportation, power generation, heating and refrigeration, and almost all industrial and agricultural production operations. Secondly, for those unavoidable carbon emissions, it is necessary to find ways to recover excess carbon from the atmosphere, such as large-scale reforestation and the development of high-efficiency carbon capture or recycling technologies, making the recycled and captured amount equal to the residual emissions, in order to achieve neutralization.)

Furthermore in November 2019, the UN Environment Program (UNEP) released its latest annual Emission Gap Report, which indicates that without drastic action, our planet is headed toward warming of 3.2°C by 2100. Despite multiple years of effort, greenhouse gas emissions have not decreased as planned but increased 1.5 per cent annually over the past decade. The UNEP warns that serious and immediate global efforts of curbing GHG emissions must increase at least fivefold (5x) for the 1.5°C goal and threefold (3x) for the 2°C.

As we know now, our current world has just seen a full 1°C rise in average global temperature above the pre-industrial level, and news of such catastrophic scenes, all related to climate change, have already filled up our newsfeed: the continuous wildfire in California and lately across eastern coastal Australia, the worst tidal surge in history submerging most of Venice, Italy, severe flooding in the north of England recently and in various parts of Central and Atlantic Canada earlier during the summer months. These are merely the more noticeable ones from the perspectives of affluent western audiences. Many go unnoticed: the continuous severe droughts in much of Africa, Middle East, Central America, and South Asian subcontinent, while significant floods hammered other regions during unseasonable times of the years; increasingly powerful and more frequent tropical storms across the globe…

NOAA (The US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) estimates that US$1.5 trillion in damages has been incurred because of these climate-related disasters in the USA alone.  The Insurance Bureau of Canada estimates that CAD$1.8 billion in damages have been incurred in 2019 from climate change-exacerbated disasters, such as storms and flooding in Ontario and Quebec and lengthy wildfire seasons in BC and Alberta.

And these are just the economic costs in monetary terms, the human costs are even greater, as millions have lost their homes, were forced to relocate, died in malnutrition, fled from homeland because of civil wars partly caused by climate change related disasters.

Historically, both in ancient and modern times large amount of people had been displaced, either due to disasters, wars, or even persecution. However, man-made climate disturbances have become one of the direct or indirect reasons for the rapid increase in the number of refugees worldwide in recent years. Africa, Central and South America, and various parts of South Asia have been hit hard by persistent droughts. In the meantime, due to the melting of polar ice caps and continued sea level rise, the soil in the main grain silos such as the Mekong, Ganges and Nile deltas has gradually become salinized, making farming operations increasingly difficult. Large-scale forced migration has already occurred. Furthermore, many researches pointed out that because of a five-year long unprecedentedly severe drought (2006-2010), Syria, a state already extremely fragile under tyranny, eventually collapsed and a full-scale civil war followed. Millions of people were forced to flee, triggering the largest refugee crisis since World War II, which has not yet seen the end. Similar droughts and chaotic situations in Central America have caused tens of thousands from Honduras and other neighbouring countries to travel to the US-Mexico border.

Even in affluent areas such as the United States, the rising sea level has brought major crisis of flooding to many coastal areas and towns, with these areas partially or even completely overwhelmed within ten to twenty years. Some cities have invested billions of dollars to increase the height of most roads and infrastructure, while other cities have spent huge sums of money to reinforce seawalls. However, according to the estimation and latest modeling by climate experts, these measures are only a drop in the bucket, and will not be sufficient to withstand the rising sea in the long term. Residents will be very likely forced to leave their homes and cities behind eventually.

According to some rather conservative estimates by the United Nations, there will be waves of “climate refugees” in which more than 200 million people will be forced to evacuate due to climate change in the next three decades.

The climate crisis is not in the future tense; it is now and here with us.

Although the Paris Climate Agreement is full of loopholes, it is still the “best” and most comprehensive international climate crisis response plan that the global communities have achieved thus far. As the impacts of climate change have become increasingly obvious and severe, representatives of all the Parties met at COP25 in Madrid (from the end of November to the beginning of December 2019) with the objectives to finalize the essential implementation mechanisms for Paris Agreement, setting the stage for its official launch the year afterward (2020). However, due to the “absence” of the United States and the lack of positive will of various countries, no agreement could be reached, particularly on the key mechanism of carbon trading and the international climate financing arrangements. The summit essentially ended in failure.

As a result, the needed deliberation of the implementation mechanisms was postponed to COP26 in Glasgow, Scotland in 2020. Meanwhile, in accordance with the provisions of the Paris Agreement, the nations were supposedly scheduled to submit their respective second round of Nationally Determined Contributions (a.k.a. NDC, or simply put, the promised GHG emission reduction target of each nation) before COP26. In theory, these NDCs need to be more aggressive. However, in the wake of the COVID-19 Pandemic, countries around the world have been making all their efforts to deal with this public health crisis of historic proportion throughout 2020. With the premise of public health measures such as avoiding large-scale crowd gatherings, COP26 is postponed to November 2021, with the hope that it would held by then, but still with great uncertainty.

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