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Climate COP: what is it and why should you care?

The UN Conference gathers countries to try to solve the most global of problems: the climate crisis

What is a COP?

“COP” is an acronym for Conference of the Parties. COPs are meetings of governments from around the world to advance implementation of UN treaties. The most famous are the climate COPs or United Nations Climate Change Conferences, held at the end of every year since 1995 (with the exception of the pandemic year of 2020) and they currently bring together diplomats and ministers from 197 countries plus the European Union. 

The climate conferences seek to implement the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. Also known by the acronym UNFCCC, this is an international agreement signed in 1992 in Rio de Janeiro with the goal of preventing “dangerous anthropogenic interference” with the global climate system. 

And is it working?

Like with any multilateral process, the cup can be seen as half empty or half full. The cup half empty is that, more than thirty years on, despite extraordinarily detailed scientific knowledge about the causes of the problem, its consequences, and the ways to tackle it, the UNFCCC has still not been able to avoid humanity’s dangerous interference in the climate. To the contrary,  the decade with the highest greenhouse gas emissions in human history was from 2010 to 2019, right on the tail of the COP-15 meeting held in Copenhagen, regarded then as the planet’s last chance to finalize a global agreement against climate collapse.

The cup half full is that in 2015, the world achieved a broad consensus to produce the Paris Agreement, the climate treaty currently in effect, which sets goals for cutting greenhouse gas emissions (carbon dioxide, methane, and others) for every country in the world. The public’s strong interest in COP meetings and the fact they are now on the calendars of political leaders from around the globe has helped to drive the world economy toward “decarbonization,” the name given to reducing the pollutant gasses in the atmosphere responsible for global heating. The mass production of electric cars, the global consensus against tropical deforestation, and falling renewable energy prices are important gains that the COPs have achieved, even though the effects come less quickly than needed. 

How does a COP work?

The COP meetings are actually several meetings in one. The same diplomats who meet for two weeks at the Conference of the Parties also take part in three or four other conferences at the same time: the Meetings of the Parties to the Paris Agreement and the Kyoto Protocol (the zombie climate treaty preceding the current treaty) and the so-called UNFCCC “subsidiary body” meetings – the SBSTA (the advisory agency translating scientific recommendations into policies), and the SBI (which takes care of the legal details in the agreements). 

These simultaneous meetings last two weeks, at the end of which a set of decisions is expected to guide countries in tackling global heating. At the end of the second week of negotiations, the Environment or Foreign Relations ministers taking part in what is known as the “high-level segment” usually enter into political agreements on points where the diplomats were unable to advance at the technical level.

Diplomatic negotiations take place in the so-called Blue Zone of the conference. This is also the location of  national pavilions, which illustrate a fast-growing aspect of COPs – the trade show. Countries, civil society organizations, local governments, universities, UN agencies, and companies meet in this venue to hold debates, exhibit proposals and technologies, and do business. One informal rule of these pavilions, as observed by Brazilian journalist Cristina Amorim, is that the more luxurious the space, the less the country holding it has to show on climate action. 

During the Bolsonaro administration, when Brazil decided against having its own space at the COPs, it was civil society that assembled the country’s pavilion, the Brazil Climate Action Hub, which brought together the country’s actors with an interest in this topic (including congressional members, governors, and the business community). At COP-27, this space also hosted representatives for Lula, who was the president-elect in 2022 and was sworn in as president in January of this year. 

Only people with special UN credentials – given to civil society observers, country delegates, and journalists – may enter the Blue Zone Yet there is another, more democratic space at the COPs, the Green Zone, which is open to everyone. It is usually physically separate from the Blue Zone and hosts events for environmentalist organizations and social movements.

The COPs are increasingly mass events. There were 33,000 registered attendees at the COP-27 meeting in Sharm el-Sheikh, while over 70,000 are expected at the COP-28 meeting em Dubai. On the one hand, the popularization of this negotiation space poses a risk of greenwashing, with governments and companies spending millions to disguise their misbehavior. On the other, as one veteran reporter of these events noted, the massive attendance by society at the climate conferences helps to pressure world leaders to act.

Why have negotiations advanced so little? 

The UN makes decisions by consensus. This means that a single country can block the progress made by the other 196. Indeed, consensus is something much harder to obtain when countries with interests in stark opposition are at the same table, like Tuvalu, a small island nation that is disappearing under the waters of the Pacific, and Saudi Arabia, whose economy depends on the product that is causing Tuvalu’s disappearance, oil. Or giants like the U.S.A. and China, the world’s two biggest polluters, who have turned the UNFCCC into a stage for their geopolitical dispute.

The impasses at the COPs occur in relation to a fundamental question where all of the parties are somewhat right: “developing countries” feel that “industrialized countries” are chiefly responsible for global heating. They should therefore act more rigorously to cut their own emissions of pollutant gasses and finance the fight against the climate crisis in developing nations. Developing countries resist acting as long as rich countries fail to move. These wealthy countries, in turn, point out that the global South currently produces most of the emissions and that countries like China cannot be considered “poor.” All of the COPs where major advances were made are ones where these entrenched positions on both sides found some flexibility.

The history of the COP meetings is filled with cases of sabotage or attempts at sabotaging consensus. There was one famous case in 2007, at the COP-13 meeting in Indonesia, when the United States tried to block the final plenary meeting decision and received a dressing down from the delegate from Papua New Guinea: “Either you show the way or get out of the way!” he said to applause. This intervention ended up embarrassing the Americans, who got out of the way.

If the COPs are unable to resolve the climate problem, why insist on holding them?

As the climate emergency becomes more serious, the insufficiency of the UNFCCC and COPs to attack the problem becomes more evident. The same can be said of the UN as a whole – as shown by the current wars in the Middle East and Ukraine. Yet the Climate Change Conference continues to be a fundamental space, because all of the countries are there, and they all have a voice. To attack a problem globally, all nations need to be together. Additionally, the COPs are important for defining the minimum global parameters of climate action: for instance, how can we ensure that national efforts to cut emissions of pollutant gasses are transparent and comparable to each other? When India and Norway say that they have cut 1 metric ton of carbon, someone needs to guarantee that these reductions actually happened. Working rules for the carbon market and the definition of common goals for cutting emissions and for financing are also fundamental. That is why the COPs will still be needed for a long time.

A COP will be held in the Amazon. What is at stake?

In 2025, the city of Belém will host the 30th UNFCCC Conference of the Parties, the COP-30. As it will take place ten years after the signature of the Paris Agreement, it will also be called Paris +10. The meeting’s overriding objective will be to crystallize the updated national targets for fighting climate change, the NDCs. Today, countries have emissions reduction goals that are valid until 2030, and these goals need to be extended to 2035 and they need to be more ambitious so that the world can move toward eliminating net greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 – when pollutant gas emissions reach close to zero and what is left is offset by actions like planting forests, for instance. This is the scientifically-recommended approach to limiting this “dangerous interference” with the climate system to the greatest possible extent.

But, of course, the Belém conference will also be the first COP held in the Amazon. Host countries have a prerogative to bring visibility to the agendas they feel are important. For example, at the COP-25, held in 2019, Chile’s president brought up the topic of the oceans, which are important to the country. And Brazil, along with other Amazonian nations, should reinforce the role forests play in relieving the climate emergency – as well as trying to bring in international financing to change the region’s economic model, as President Lula has committed to eliminating deforestation by 2030. 

Brazil intends to use its great environmental asset, the Amazon Rainforest, to position itself as a leader in the global South, within the new climate geopolitics. It’s an opportunity, but it could also be a problem, since the world’s spotlights will all be shining on the country and the contradictions and weaknesses in the environmental discourse coming from the federal government and state governments in the Amazon will be exposed.

Illustrations: Hadna Abreu
Text: Claudio Angelo
Fact-checker: Plínio Lopes
Proofreader (Portuguese): Valquiria Della Pozza
Spanish translation: Julieta Sueldo Boedo
English translation: Sarah J. Johnson
Layout and finishing: Érica Saboya
Photo Editor: Lela Beltrão
Editorial workflow and copy editing: Viviane Zandonadi
Coordination: Talita Bedinelli
Director: Eliane Brum

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