The Conference of Parties, commonly referred to as ‘COP’, met once again this year, for the 27th time, and ended on a monumental note. For the first time in contemporary history countries of the Global North have taken collective accountability for their historic emissions, and have agreed to reconcile this in the form of a loss and damage fund.
This dialogue will delve briefly into the history of the COPs and will go on to analyse why this particular conference was a momentous one, with reference to the themes of this year’s COP and the disproportionality of the climate discourse historically.
A brief history
The issue of climate change only entered the sphere of public discourse and global debate in 1972 at the Earth Summit. This was a UN scientific conference which led to the formation of the UNEP. Following this, global warming became a prominent issue on the global political agenda in 1988. The UNEP organised an internal seminar, which resulted in the creation of the IPCC - the ‘Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’. Subsequently, the UN General Assembly ‘identified climate change as a specific and urgent issue’. The next Earth Summit, in 1992 met in Rio de Janeiro and created the UNFCCC - Framework Convention on Climate Change, and was signed by 158 States by the end of the year.
The ‘Conference of Parties’ is the supreme decision making body of the UNFCCC. Its first meeting was in Berlin in 1995, where a process was established to deal with matters of climate change.
You can read more about the chronological history of international climate change negotiations here.
What were the themes of this year’s COP?
Every year, COP has an overarching theme that reflects the needs of the climate crisis and public discourse of that time. For example, last year at COP26 in Glasgow the parties set out to ‘adapt to protect communities and natural habitats’, a clear shift in the direction of the pressing need to make the global environmental rhetoric more intersectional, and less neo-colonial. Along with the themes, there are various days of action and discussion dedicated to various sub-themes. This year’s COP27, held in Sharm el-Sheik, Egypt, followed the theme of delivering for people and the planet, and closed with a historic deal on loss and damage. There were talks on adaptation, climate finance, renewable energy, net zero, and biodiversity. The election of these themes is of course, not arbitrary. The climate crisis is the product of a series of human activities involving the burning of fossil fuels whose ultimate consequence has been the anthropogenic climate change that we are experiencing today, and will continue to witness for generations to come.
The carbon content in the air today is not only the result of present day activity, but is largely the consequence of historical emissions. To pin the climate crisis on present day emissions by developing countries would be to ignore the high level of emissions produced by the industrialisation of Global North countries such as the US, UK and Germany.
The beginning of human induced climate change can be traced back to the industrial revolution of the 19th century. Since 1880, global average temperature has risen by 0.08 degrees Celsius every decade. Since 1981 it has more than doubled to 0.18 degrees.
Emerging economies such as India and China point out that they should have access to a higher carbon budget in order to develop and lift their populations out of poverty, just as wealthier countries have done in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. It is important to note that although these countries should be entitled to a greater proportion of the remaining carbon budget, it is still a budget implying that the amount of greenhouse gas emissions must be limited to secure a safe and healthy future for all.
In some areas of the world, particularly in the Global South, the effects of the climate crisis are already immensely devastating. So much so that the IPCC warns that even if effective actions to limit global temperature increase to 1.5°C were put in place, the losses and damages caused by emissions that are already in the atmosphere have irreversible consequences. The loss to livelihoods, degradation of territory, farmland, cultural heritage, indigenous knowledge, societal and cultural identity, biodiversity, and ecosystem services, are beyond tragic, and have highlighted that climate change affects the globe disproportionately, and is thus an issue of justice. “While we may all be in the same storm; we are definitely not in the same boat”.
These truths indicate that there is a historic responsibility for climate change. Thus arises the question of accountability. Should the wealthier nations of the Global North pay for their damages to the environment by having access to a lower carbon budget and financing contributing the most to climate finance?
This year's COP affirmed this notion. It was agreed that a loss and damage fund would be established and operationalised. It was recognised that significant financial costs associated with loss and damage for developing countries, have resulted in a growing debt burden and have impaired the realisation of the Sustainable Development Goals. Despite the grand promise of this conference, the continued hope is that the actions that will follow will be equally promising.
Contrary to what governments, markets and decision making institutions would like us to believe, the climate crisis is not a mere glitch that can be fixed through only economic and scientific intervention. What must occur is a civilisation shift away from the exploitative mode of being in which we currently exist. Our attitudes and approach to life must reflect our ecological limits.
The imposition of Western capitalism which has resulted in this stage of high mass consumption all over the world makes a life that does not look like this one seem almost impossible. The way in which individuals consume is not just a product of targeted ads, but also of the need for convenience and ease in our very demanding and intensely time consuming lives. Despite the consequences of this way of life to our environment and even our personal health, we continue to pursue this way of life, because our survival is largely dependent on our economic status. The lack of freedom and difficulty to veer away from this socio-economic hegemony makes attaining ecologically sustainable lifestyles very challenging. What we need is not only environmental economics and scientific breakthroughs, but also a keen awareness of indigenous knowledge, and to protect those communities who exist both in the Global North and South, who are and will be most adversely affected by climate change.
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