Climate: what are the COPs used for and how do they work?

For nearly thirty years, countries around the world have come together each year at a summit, under the auspices of the United Nations, to accelerate the fight against climate change. The 26e edition, COP26, will be held from October 31 to November 12 in Glasgow (Scotland) in the presence of 30,000 people from 196 countries and 120 heads of state. What are these high masses that punctuate the climate negotiations?

  • What is a COP?

The acronym COP refers to the “Conference of the Parties” (Conference of the Parties in English) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). This international treaty, adopted at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, recognizes the existence of man-made climate change and gives industrialized countries the primacy of responsibility for combating this phenomenon. He was ratified by 197 parties (196 states and the European Union).

The framework agreement establishes the Conferences of the Parties, who meet each year at a world summit where decisions to fight against climate change are adopted by consensus. The first COP was held in Berlin in 1995. The conferences take place in different cities each year, according to a system of rotation of the continents, or failing that in Bonn (Germany), the seat of the UNFCCC secretariat. They are prepared throughout the year, in particular through intermediate negotiations, which take place in June in Bonn, and by a pre-COP.

Note that beyond the climate COPs, there are also two other COPs, linked to the two other conventions adopted in Rio in 1992: the Convention on Biological Diversity and the Convention to Combat Desertification.

The COPs bring together around 30,000 participants, between delegations from 196 states, civil society (businesses, NGOs, scientists, local authorities, indigenous populations, trade unions) and the media from around the world. At COP26, as at each COP, two zones were organized: the blue zone, managed by the UN, which hosts the negotiations proper. And the green zone, organized by the UK, which is designed as a platform for the general public through exhibitions, workshops or debates.

  • What were the most significant COPs?

After COP1 in Berlin, COP3, organized in Japan in 1997, saw the adoption of the Kyoto Protocol, the first legally binding treaty. It aimed to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions of 55 industrialized countries by at least 5% between 2008 and 2012 compared to the 1990 level. The COP15, organized in Copenhagen (Denmark) in 2009, aimed to renegotiate a climate agreement, this time concerning industrialized and developing countries, but it ended in failure.

The COP21, organized at Le Bourget (Seine-Saint-Denis), led, on December 12, 2015, to the adoption of the Paris Agreement, the first international treaty to reduce emissions, which aims to contain global warming well in below 2 ° C and if possible at 1.5 ° C compared to the pre-industrial era. It has been signed by 195 parties and ratified by 192 of them. COP24 in Katowice (Poland), in 2018, made it possible to adopt most of the rules for applying the Paris Agreement.

  • How do the COPs advance climate negotiations?

“The COPs cannot do everything, but they have an important role to play as a high-level political body”, judge Lola Vallejo, climate director of the Institute for Sustainable Development and International Relations. They maintain multilateralism, give a voice to all countries, including developing and vulnerable ones, and “Offer a solid framework of transparency and accountability, during which we take stock of each other’s progress”, she adds. They also make it possible to launch sectoral coalitions, for example on the exit from coal or deforestation.

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For climate historian Amy Dahan, if they have not prevented greenhouse gas emissions from continuing to increase, and if they sometimes resemble “A bubble cut off from reality”, COPs are also used to “Mobilize civil society and raise public awareness”.

Find all the articles in our special COP26 file here.

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Climate: what are the COPs used for and how do they work?