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What the COP?

Edward A. Reid Jr.
Posted On:
Jan 21, 2020 at 6:00 AM
Climate Change

“A conference is a gathering of people who singly can do nothing, but together can decide that nothing can be done. A committee is a group of the unprepared, appointed by the unwilling to do the unnecessary.”, Fred Allen


The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was established jointly by the UN Environmental Programme and the World Meteorological Organization in 1988.

“The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is the United Nations body for assessing the science related to climate change.”

The IPCC reviews climate change research in three Working Groups (Working Group I (The Physical Science Basis), Working Group II (Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability), and Working Group III (Mitigation of Climate Change). The Assessments produced by these Working Groups are then summarized in the Summary for Policymakers.


The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change is an international environmental treaty. It was authorized by the UN in 1992 in anticipation of the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil and adopted in 1994 upon ratification by 50 nations.

“The UNFCCC objective is to "stabilize greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system". The framework sets non-binding limits on greenhouse gas emissions for individual countries and contains no enforcement mechanisms. Instead, the framework outlines how specific international treaties (called "protocols" or "Agreements") may be negotiated to specify further action towards the objective of the UNFCCC.” (Wikipedia)

The Conference of the Parties is the decision-making body of the UNFCCC. These conferences have been held annually, beginning in 1995.


The first Conference of the Parties focused primarily on organizational issues.


COP3 in Kyoto Japan produced the Kyoto Accord, which represented the initial commitments of the developed nation parties to efforts to stabilize and reduce CO2 emissions. Vice President Gore signed the Kyoto Accords on behalf of the Clinton Administration. However, the accords were not submitted to the US Senate for ratification, because the Administration knew the Senate would not ratify them.


COP15 in Copenhagen, Denmark was to have been the next major step toward emissions reductions. However, the release of the Climategate e-mails shortly before the beginning of the COP made substantial progress exceedingly difficult. The primary effect of COP15 was to expose the division of the parties into three distinct groups: developed countries with technology and money; developing countries which want access to the technology; and, not-yet-developing countries which simply want the money. This fundamental division made agreement on substantial actions difficult.


COP23 in Paris, France produced the Paris Accords, which were intended to become a treaty which would impose enforceable emission reduction goals on the parties. However, the US Administration lobbied to assure that the accords were not binding, since the Administration knew they would not be ratified as a treaty by the Senate. Instead, the parties offered widely varying Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs). Many of the parties appear unlikely to meet their commitments under the accords. The US has formally announced its intention to withdraw from the accords, which will become effective in November 2020. Regardless, the US has been a leader in emissions reductions.


COP25 just concluded in Madrid, Spain. The parties failed to agree on any significant increases in emissions reduction “ambitions”, as well as about issues related to UN-administered funding for climate change mitigation, adaptation and reparations for “loss and damage”. Those issues were all deferred to the next COP (a COPout?).

COP25 involved representatives from 197 nations totaling about 25,000 attendees. The larger a committee, the more difficult it is to accomplish anything of substance. Attempting to lead a committee of 197 is like “herding cats”. Attempting to lead a committee of 25,000 is a fate worse than death, especially when the attendees have very different focuses.