This year’s COP23 conference in Bonn (essentially a conglomeration of different countries, both participants and observers) aims to effect positive change in the habits, minds and policies of world leaders that will be translated into actions affecting us all and the future of our planet. Despite all the good intentions, does COP actually result in much difference? Whilst a meeting of scientific minds in one place is bound to be highly generative in the ideas it produces, the actual change resulting from these summits is nearly always voluntary, with countries signing up to emission targets, waste reduction goals and energy saving protocols that rarely result in any negative repercussions or punishments. Furthermore, in the collation of efforts to tackle global climate change, the differing abilities of MEDCs and LEDCs to make large scale changes in their pollution or energy uses is often overlooked, with perhaps unfair benefits to more developed Western economies, who have already progressed through the industrial growth stages of the DTM.
A recent COP conference (21, in 2015) was in Paris, and gave rise to the Paris agreement, which will officially begin in 2020, and aims to mitigate or offset greenhouse gas emissions, a leading cause of global warming. It is also Twitter-famed as the point where the US withdrew from the policies set by the UNFCCC and the Paris agreement itself, and Donald Trump was christened a certified Climate Change DenierTM (however, insights into environmental legislation reveal that this doesn’t actually remove the US from all commitments straight away, and that it may in fact be a highly politicised move). The Paris agreement itself is based around the principle of Nationally Determined Contributions, where countries set themselves ‘ambitious’ targets to cut emissions- however these will not be binding by international law, and there is no real way in which they can be enforced. There is also an underlying fear that the US withdrawal may prompt a mass-exodus of countries from the agreement, causing it to collapse.
The Kyoto Protocol was an international agreement (linked to the UNFCCC) in place from 2008-2012 that aimed to reduce international emissions. This was enforced through monitoring of emission targets and self-reporting by the parties involved, however even the ‘main’ countries (Japan, Canada, much of the EU) weren’t able to meet the reduction targets set. Despite its segregation of developing and developed countries, which recognises the differing needs of different places, Kyoto also failed to realise the need for all countries worldwide to cut emissions, even if developing countries are less heavily penalised or have lower targets- a perhaps more valuable approach would be to have an incentive to develop new types of sustainable energy alongside continuing industrialisation in LEDCs? Overall, the Kyoto protocol is widely recognised as a failure in terms of what it achieved with emissions figures themselves, but a win in terms of setting the ball rolling.
Copenhagen, home of the COP 15 conference in 2009, reached even less of an agreement than the Kyoto COP due to the fact that no global agreement was reached at all. This was in part due to reluctance of key governments to enter a global deal where they would have to negotiate with each other (potentially causing conflict).
On the whole, climate based agreements, whilst ultimately a catalyst for change and a step in the right direction (not just in the physical changes they bring about, but also in the attitudes they shape along the way), still have a long distance to go before they are fully effective and provide the right sorts of political incentives to either force or encourage countries into compliance. Whilst the Paris agreement is certainly flawed, it is leaps and bounds ahead of the Kyoto protocol, which in turn completely knocks the lack of an agreement from the Copenhagen summit out of the park. The continuing COP summits hold out hope for a future of discussions and further changes, but until a cohesive strategy for actually effecting these changes is in place, violations and failure to uphold them seem to be a continuing risk. With an increasingly segregated world, where countries are withdrawing not only from these independent frameworks but also from major political bodies such as the EU and UNESCO, what hope is there of this cohesive solution? Only the Bonn COP will tell.