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Responsible banking Updated: 02 Dec 2019

The climate summits that came before Madrid

Climate summits date back to the 1990s, when concern over greenhouse gases led to a commitment to address the problem. We review key moments from these events.

Madrid is hosting the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP 25), with Chile presiding this year. Chilean Minister of the Environment Carolina Schmidt Zaldivar will preside over the 25th edition of this annual event. With a quarter-century of experience, can we say that we have learned something from all of them? We ask expert Luis Robles Olmos, the director of the climate change strategic consulting firm Liken Carbon Hub.

“The Convention was adopted at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in June 1992”, explains Robles. “The star measure was to reduce greenhouse gases.” This was the result of concern from the international scientific community over the effects of human activity on the Earth’s climate. Since then, 194 countries have signed and ratified this convention, in addition to Palestine and the Vatican. Moreover, there is an additional part of the convention to which the EU, as a supranational body has also subscribed.

The first Conference of Parties (COP 1) took place in Berlin and an agreement was reached to hold an annual meeting to control global warming and reduce emissions from polluting gases. Germany is one of the countries with the greatest commitment to the environment, but the first year of the conference was only an initial contact with reality for the countries and their policies. “The road traveled since COP1 in Berlin in 1995 is long and profound, but despite the failure to reach agreements in the following summits, they all contributed elements that helped us to find ourselves at the end of 2019 on the verge of the Paris Agreement entering into force.

Sometimes COPs are blamed for their lack of usefulness, pointing to their role as a source of expenses and emissions stemming from 25,000 people traveling to participate, without reaching an agreement on the solutions needed to combat climate change. Robles is optimistic, although he notes that: “Some countries and their ruling classes have interests that go against the public interest.”

COP3 in Kyoto served to adopt the Kyoto Protocol, in which industrialized countries committed to reduce greenhouse gases, and laid the foundations for the carbon market. Robles explains that: “Following the success at Kyoto, another fundamental milestone was reached at COP7 in Marrakech (2001), with the rules for the functioning of the Kyoto Protocol’s project mechanisms: the Clean Development Mechanism and the Joint Implementation Mechanism.”

Later on, COP13 in Bali established a negotiation timetable for a new international agreement including all countries - not just the developed countries covered by Kyoto. This was rounded out two years later at COP15 in Copenhagen. “The need to extend the Kyoto Protocol in terms of countries and validity put the international community in a position to reach an agreement at COP15 in Copenhagen (2009),” explains Robles. The goal was to keep global warming below two degrees Celsius and finance developing countries. It did not accomplish the desired results. “The lack of willingness to reach an agreement and the U.S. blocking the negotiations at the heart of COP led to the biggest failure in the history of climate change summits,” Robles added.

COP16, hosted by Mexico in Cancun, was a key element in overcoming this situation. There, the Cancun agreements were written, which formalized what had been discussed at Copenhagen. The Green Climate Fund was also created to support climate measures in developing countries. The following year, in Durban, the countries at COP17 agreed to reduce emissions, including the U.S., China, India, Brazil and South Africa. It was the first time a time frame was set: 2020. At COP18 in Doha, an agreement was reached to extend Kyoto to 2020, but the U.S., China, Canada and Russia did not support the extension. COP20 in Lima was the first time the countries agreed to elaborate and share their commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

The next summit was COP21 in Paris in 2015. An agreement was finally reached to keep global warming below two degrees Celsius, with a goal of not surpassing 1.5 degrees. The Paris Agreement is much more extensive in its content and development than Kyoto, as it establishes that the efforts to reduce or limit emissions belong to all countries, under the principle of common, but differentiated responsibilities. “It contains specific provisions on adaptation to climate change, international financing and long-term goals, without setting an end date for the validity of the agreement. Its format was agreed upon by consensus to allow for its ratification by the countries, taking into account the legal peculiarities of many of them (U.S., China, etc.). Therefore, its adoption is voluntary and compliance is mandatory,” says Robles.

Paris was followed by COP22 in Marrakech. The Paris Agreement was ratified days before the start of the summit and three documents surfaced in line with the Paris commitments. However, at the same time, the U.S. started to express its wariness of all the changes. At COP23 in Bonn, progress was made on how the Paris Agreement would work in practice (the so-called Paris Rulebook) and the countries agreed to share best practices in the so-called Talanoa Dialogue. Furthermore, a platform was launched to promote the participation of and dialogue with local communities and indigenous groups, and gender policies and women’s relationship with climate change was on the agenda.

Last year, COP24 was held in Katowice. Two months before the event, the IPCC published its devastating report on global warming. And that is where Chile took the baton. The countries will attempt to reach an agreement on issues in the Paris Rulebook that remain pending or unresolved from COP24 in Katowice, Poland. Specifically, the rules for Article 6, which will allow the country to comply, partially, with the national mitigation targets through market-based mechanisms like the international carbon market and projects to reduce greenhouse gas emissions (renewable energy, fuel replacement, energy efficiency or electric vehicles) to generate so-called “carbon bonds”.

There is a long list of commitments to address at this summit, but experts are optimistic. The conditions are not easy and consensus will be difficult, but the goals are clear. One objective that will be proposed at the Madrid summit is limiting the average global temperature increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius as well as striking a balance between greenhouse gas emission and absorption in the second half of the century.