COP27 failed. So why continue with these UN climate summits?
Climate change is an existential threat to human civilization and planetary ecosystems. Yet despite 27 UN Conference of the Parties (COP) meetings that have taken place so far, the international community has been unable to ward off imminent disaster.
A number of expert commentators have already declared COP27 — the recent UN climate summit in Egypt — to be a failure. The talks stalled on key issues and failed to secure commitments to stop greenhouse gas emissions from rising beyond thresholds that will lead to dangerous global warming.
Other critical voices are concerned that the whole process is becoming too business-friendly, to the detriment of other perspectives and voices. These yearly big climate conferences have also been criticized as a waste of time and resources.
Given these problems and repeated failures, why continue with the COP meetings? As researchers who study social movements and environmental and climate change politics and policy, we believe that continuing with these climate conferences can still lead to positive outcomes.
Assessing COPs success or failure
Under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) agreement, member states meet at the COP summits annually to review the implementation of the decisions taken by COP members and further develop a collective approach to addressing global climate change.
For many, especially those following the COP discussions from the outside, the assessment of the success or failure of the meetings tends to focus on commitments made in the final agreements.
From this perspective, the 2015 Paris conference stands out as a relative success as it set in place a formal commitment — the Paris Agreement — to limit global warming to well below 2 C. Meanwhile the 2009 Copenhagen COP was judged as a failure because it failed to deliver a significant new agreement while the Kyoto Protocol was winding down.
But this failure unfolded while pressure from civil society and other actors grew, and lessons learned from this experience enabled first steps towards a paradigm shift in the international climate change regime that ultimately led to the progress that was made in the Paris Agreement.
It is, therefore, even more difficult to gauge the outcomes of any given specific COP based on the final agreement alone.
Three conditions that can facilitate progress
It is important to look at the bigger picture. From this perspective, we argue that the UNFCCC process creates three conditions for progress on international climate change policy.
First, the UNFCCC meetings create path dependencies — initiatives that might have small effects to start with, but that may result in increasing returns over time — that stabilize co-operation between states, often simultaneously on multiple topics. Even after the failure of the 2009 Copenhagen conference, nation states continued the yearly meetings and began negotiating a new agreement, resulting in the paradigm-shifting Paris Agreement in 2015.
In the recent meetings in Egypt, there was a significant breakthrough on a provisional agreement for a fund for “Loss and Damage” to compensate poorer countries that are disproportionally affected by climate change. This fund, which is a key part of the solution to addressing climate justice, has roots in the 2013 Warsaw COP meeting. But significant progress was not made until COP27.
Second, the UNFCCC process serves as a focal point for the formation of social network among various government and non-government organizations. By bringing together representatives from cities, regions, businesses and civil society organizations, the UNFCCC summits provide a venue that promotes interaction and facilitates “overlapping multi-level games.”
Put another way, although a lot of the attention directed at COP meetings focuses on the role of national governments, the COP meetings also attract policymakers from other levels of government. These interactions frequently lead to important bilateral or side deals that are often overlooked because news headlines focus on the final COP agreements.
This was seen at last year’s COP26 in Glasgow when the Beyond Oil and Gas Alliance (BOGA) was announced. The alliance was co-led by Denmark and Costa Rica, and involved other provinces and states.
Third, COP meetings are “critical events” — episodic and widespread socio-political events — that shape the context for social issues or movements. While critical events are unpredictable, COP meetings are regularly scheduled.
This allows civil society to plan to participate in or support the political opportunities that COP meetings provide. It also attracts significant media attention. Society’s involvement in these critical events plays an important role in changing the discourse about climate policy — including the shift in attention towards climate justice and loss and damage — and putting pressure on climate laggard governments.
Failure: a stepping stone to success
Conference of the Parties fail at delaying or stopping climate change. They will continue to fail until they are able to limit warming to 1.5 C.
In the interim, they provide essential conditions for positive change: a stable platform for trust-building and collaboration among countries, a venue for interaction across levels of governance and a critical event to mobilize civil society and media coverage.
These crucial functions need to be protected and expanded. The parties need to demonstrate courage and be willing to make “concessions” in order to move the process forward. This was seen at COP27 as some Western nations gave up their resistance to the “Loss and Damage” fund.
The diverse groups observing the COPs — from within the climate summit venues and from across the world — must be ensured access to participation in these meetings. This will facilitate transparency and provide opportunities for interaction and co-operation across various sectors. And while the private sector has an important role to play, the creeping shift toward making COP a business fair needs to be curtailed. Or else, the next COP will be yet another business-as-usual affair.