The first ever Cop climate conference in 1995 was already organised too late. Rising greenhouse emissions have been a concern for scientists since the 1970s, but it took until the 1990s for world leaders to decide that they should take action.
To finally start to combat the issue, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) was established in 1994.
The term Cop refers to the Convention of Parties whose function is to carry out and monitor the UNFCCC. The summit was created to gather member states signed up to the UNFCCC and specially selected NGOs and scientists. In 2021, 197 states are signed up to attend Cop26.
Berlin, Germany was the stage for the first ever summit in 1995. On its first outing, Cop1 established some inescapable truths about the nature of the climate crisis. It found that the “global nature of climate change calls for the widest possible cooperation by all countries and their participation in an effective and appropriate international response.”
Scientists had made clear going into Cop1 that countries should reduce their greenhouse emissions to 1990 levels by 2000.
But making any attempt to reach this target was dismissed by developed countries as being far too limiting for their economic growth.
Instead of aiming to reduce emissions by 2000, this was the date when world leaders decided it would be good to begin tackling climate change.
On the last day of the summit, the Berlin Mandate was hurriedly established as a compromise.
The mandate pledged that world leaders would come up with legally binding climate targets in five years. The third Cop conference saw what some climate campaigners believed to be a breakthrough in the adoption of the Kyoto Protocol.
This protocol put binding individual emissions targets on 37 industrialised nations to reduce their emissions and for developing countries to monitor theirs.
Despite lofty promises the protocol made, those at Cop were in no rush to implement it. The protocol was only ratified in 2005 and entered its first commitment period in 2008—over a decade after it was adopted.
From 1990 to 2010 emissions were allowed to rise by 32 percent and only dipped slightly due to the financial crash of 2007-08. Those at the top are likely to say the Kyoto Protocol was slow to be implemented due to complicated bureaucratic processes.
In reality, the protocols were designed to delay the action that developed countries needed to take. These years of inaction debating the failing protocols were nine years lost in the fight against climate change.
Inaction after Cop events is common. The entire Cop process is constrained and limited by trying to work within the limits laid out by continued capitalist accumulation.
Cop pay lip service to necessary action—so long as it doesn’t their lust for profit and accumulation.
In 2007 the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a damning report about the climate crisis’s immediate threat to humanity.
Contributors to the report found that “Evidence for global warming was unequivocal and most likely due to human activities.” But the report from that year also made it clear that with cooperation between nations, there was hope.
Scientists calculated that “effective adaptation” to combat the crisis would cost “no more than 0.12 percent of global GDP a year up to 2030.”
Scientists had handed world leaders and policymakers a warning and a lifeline, but those in power ignored it.
That same year Cop13 in Bali, Indonesia saw, as usual, much squabbling between nations.
The only real takeaway from the summit was that binding agreements would be made two years later.
Two years passed, and Cop arrived in Copenhagen, Denmark. There have been many “big ones” in Cop history, and Copenhagen was one of those “big ones”.
It was received with real hope from the climate movement and civil society, who believed a legally binding agreement could finally be made.
But these hopes were dashed again.
The battle to even get nations to come to any kind of binding agreement has been a long and arduous one.
The Kyoto Protocol showed this. Despite moves to renew the protocols in 2012 it was all but abandoned the following year. But after 21 years of quarrelling, world leaders finally came to a supposedly binding agreement—in the form of the Paris Climate Accords.
The Paris climate accords were adopted by 196 parties at Cop21 in 2016 to keep global temperatures rises below two, preferably 1.5 degrees.
States were to submit their first report on targets they would set to cut down on emissions by 2030 every five years.
Of the countries that signed up, only 75 managed to submit their report on time in 2021, and only 16 countries devised a climate action plan good enough to meet their pledges.
After decades of pointless conferences, a supposedly binding agreement ended up being just as flimsy as those that proceeded it.
Despite this, world leaders patted themselves on the back for the Paris Accords and attended three more conferences where those in attendance proposed little concrete action.
Some have described Cop26 in November as another “big one”.
The conference will be the first since the latest IPCC report warned many of the processes set in motion by global warming are “irreversible”.
Prime minister Boris Johnson has described the approaching conference as a “critical moment for our planet and our people.”
But with over 20 years of broken promises and inaction Cop26 will likely fail to address the urgency of the climate crisis.
How protesters have defied many sell outs at the COPs
The history of Cop is a history of inaction and stalling by world leaders that have positioned themselves as climate champions.
But this has not gone unnoticed by ordinary people.
Cop throughout the years has served as an opportunity for protesters to not only rage against climate inaction but the very system we live under.
Conferences in lavish resorts have been met with anger by those pushed into poverty by the world leaders in attendance.
And the divide between what goes on inside the conferences is often contrasted to state violence protesters are met with outside.
Socialist Worker reported on the repression protesters faced at the time.
It wrote, “The Danish riot police managed to divert many of the protesters onto different roads. There they ‘kettled’ and arrested almost 1,000 people—1 percent of all the protesters—under new ‘pre‑emptive arrest’ laws.”
At Cop17 two years later in Durban, South Africa, protests were smaller but just as lively.
Over 10,000 protesters took to the city’s streets to demand more than what the conference could offer. Activists were even able to breach one of the conference halls to wave signs that warned the climate crisis would mean death across Africa.
Moving to Cop21, thousands of protesters defied a state ban to take to the streets of Paris.
The climate movement in recent years has swelled owing, in part, to the 2018 IPCC, which called for urgent action to keep temperatures below 1.5 degrees.
Those at the top inside Cop have acknowledged the movement—inviting climate activist Greta Thunberg to speak a the 2019 Madrid conference.
World leaders such as president Joe Biden are now under increasing pressure to appear as climate leaders to satisfy millions in the US who are concerned about the environment.
But the point of protests is not simply to make policymakers enact reform. They are an opportunity to say that a different kind of system is possible.
A system that wouldn’t use state repression to separate ordinary people from decision-making processes or destroy the planet in the pursuit of profit.
At Cop26 in Glasgow, hope for a better world will lie outside the conference walls, not inside.
How big powers sabotage talks
The world’s biggest polluters have a long history of sabotaging talks at Cop summits.
An example of this was at Cop13 in 2007 when tensions ran high as the US delegation used stalling tactics to block progress.
Famously the delegate from Papua New Guinea, Kevin Conrad, told the US that year, “ If you cannot lead, leave it to the rest of us. Please get out of the way.”
But US tactics worked, and it effectively blocked a proposal to cut emissions by 40 percent by 2020.
At Cop conferences, the most powerful nations jostle to delay pledges and make commitments as small possible. Shockingly, China and the US only promised to reduce greenhouse gas emissions at all in 2014.
Sometimes these nations have worked together to form powerful blocs to ram through what they want, and other times they have worked against each other.
In 2001 the US decided to retreat from the Kyoto Protocol. It complained that the agreement did not include developing countries that could one day produce higher emissions.
A new pact, led by the US, was signed in 2005 called the Asia-Pacific Partnership on Clean Development and Climate (APP). Its signatories included Australia, Canada, China, India, Japan and South Korea.
According to US officials, the creation of the APP was not to replace the Kyoto Protocol but formed as an alternative strategy. This alternative strategy placed no mandatory enforcement on member nations to commit to climate targets, making it worthless.
Former US president George W Bush called the APP a “new results-oriented partnership that will allow our nations to develop and accelerate deployment of cleaner, more efficient energy technologies to meet national pollution reduction, energy security and climate change concerns in ways that reduce poverty and promote economic development.”
The creation of the APP was another way for the US and other states to dodge making binding promises to lower emissions—to appear greener but do nothing.
All of the most polluting countries signing the binding Paris Accord may seem like a break from this.
But it’s important to note these countries signed because less developed countries were also mandated to cut down on emissions. And the US had a three-year break from accords after former president Donald Trump pulled the country out in 2017.
The pursuit of profit has always been put first on the floor of Cop, especially by the most powerful nations in the world.
For them, economic dominance and imperialist competition have always been more important than preserving the planet. There cannot be substantial progress under a capitalist system that’s dominated by national rivalries and competition.
Maintaining both economic growth and imperialist rivalries means that the Cop process doesn’t “go wrong”, it is inevitable that it will be inadequate.