What is a COP, Anyway?

November 27, 2015

A illustration of the world in starry skies

CMP, UNFCC, CO2, GHG… When it comes to climate change, there are more shorthand descriptions than we can keep up with. But the one we’re here to explain is possibly the most important acronym of 2015— COP, or, Conference of the Parties. 

What is a COP?

A Conference of the Parties is the governing body of an international convention, and the “COP “refers to all the parties involved, and to the decision making process of reviewing and putting the rules of the convention into effect. This year, France is hosting the 21st United Nations Framework Convection on Climate Change COP, aka COP21. With their goal of making lasting and broad decisions on how to solve climate change, this could be the most significant COP yet. 

How Does the COP Limit Emissions?

Previous COPs' track record of making emissions limitations “legally binding” has been pretty murky (as is the true nature of “legally binding” when you’re talking about nearly 200 different countries). Realistically, you might want a lawyer to help you parse the nuances of how past COP agreements were enforced— in some cases, it’s been up to individual parties to ratify the agreements within their own countries before they can implemented into law globally.

And at any rate, an agreement doesn’t apply when a country drops out. For instance, President Clinton signed onto the 1997 Kyoto Protocol (the first major COP decision to reduce CO2 emissions), but US congress didn’t ratify it, and in 2001 the Bush administration rejected the protocol entirely. Meanwhile, even when the Kyoto Protocol was put into effect (minus the US), countries that didn’t meet their emissions limitations had no repercussions leveled against them. Across the entire history of the COP, environmentalists have been calling for a much stronger enforcement of emissions limitations. The 21st time is no different; making this a sticky point we’re watching closely in Paris.

Why is it So Complicated?

Right from the start, the UNFCC principles called for action on climate change that reflected "common but differentiated responsibilities" from the parties involved. In plain speak, by the time the UNFCC set out it’s principles, highly industrialized countries like the US had been emitting carbon dioxide for around a century and a half— by comparison, countries just starting to grow their economies accounted for a much smaller proportion of the carbon pollution causing climate change.

However you look at the extremely complex analysis of which country accounts for what percent of carbon emissions, the negotiations around how much each countries should limit their emissions— and how much resources should be available to developing countries to adapt to climate change problems “caused” by developed countries— were fraught throughout the history of the COP. This time around in Paris, activists from around the world are hoping that support for adaptation will be explicitly written into the agreement.

Has There Been Any Progress?

The short answer is yes, but it’s taken almost 20 years. Under the Kyoto Protocol, developed countries were allowed to continue emitting and growing their economies, with the burden of reducing emissions on the more developed countries. With the US bailing out, and a quickly growing Chinese economy beginning to emerge as the biggest source of carbon pollution in the world, it was clear another framework was needed.

A new tact was set forth in 2007 in Bali, with the US agreeing to further negotiations. By 2009 in Copenhagen, for the first time, all the parties involved agreed to limiting emissions— with the globe’s largest economies uniting with a shared goal. What didn’t get decided upon, and is still being negotiated, is just how the parties will effect the emissions limitations that were agreed upon in 2009.

What Will COP 21 Decide On?

The science on climate change is clear.  Every year we experience new record high temperatures around the world, and more and more studies warn of the public health and economic impacts of climate change. But now that the COP countries have submitted their Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDC’s, the acronyms just keep coming!) outlining their emissions reductions, the picture still hasn’t gotten clearer. Current INDCs will only keep the warming from boiling over for another 5-10 years, meaning we may have to start the whole process over again soon!

We have a little wishlist for what we hope COP21 will resolve (look for this soon!), and the niggling issue of making sure we keep ramping up emissions reductions comes in number one. We’re also looking for a financing mechanism for the $10 billion-a-year support that’s been pledges to support developing countries struggling to reach their own emssisons goals while adapting to volatile climate-changed weather.

What Can We Do To Influence the COP?

No matter what, we should keep pressure on world leaders to commit to 100% renewable energy by 2050— and you can do just that by signing the Avaaz petition below.