The UN climate change conferences are the official meetings of the Conference of the Parties, or ‘COP’ for short. The COP is the supreme decision-making body of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). The UNFCCC is an international treaty to address climate change. The treaty effectively includes every nation, with a total of 197 ratifications.

Every year since 1995 (except 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic), leaders from all over the world have come together to discuss and agree international climate policy. Many of the most significant international climate commitments, agreements and laws have emerged from these summits over the years, including the Kyoto Protocol and the Paris Agreement. Many representatives from civil society, business and academia also attend COP every year to observe and participate in proceedings and host ‘side events’ to engage policymakers.

The significance of annual preparatory talks

While the UN COP is a key date in the political calendar, formal and informal discussions surrounding it are ongoing during the year. The formal negotiations that form the basis of the decisions at the conference normally take place months ahead of the annual meeting at a ‘Pre-COP’. Inter-sessional meetings take place too, where many of the technical decisions are negotiated and prepared for adoption. The two-week conference then provides the space to finalise and formalise the outcomes of these discussions.

Important milestones from past UN climate change conferences

COP3, Kyoto, 1997

The Kyoto Protocol was the first major international climate agreement to call for country-level reductions in greenhouse gas emissions in industrialised nations. The Protocol was adopted at the COP3 conference in Kyoto, Japan, in 1997 and entered into force on 16 February 2005. The agreement recognised that the responsibility for greenhouse gas emissions, and the ability to mitigate them, varies between nations, and that developing countries should not bear the same responsibility for limiting emissions that applies to advanced industrialised economies.

In 1997, 39 developed nations committed to targets for cutting or slowing their emissions. Targets varied by country but averaged at a 4.2% reduction by 2012 below 1990 levels. The agreement established several market-based mechanisms that allowed developed countries to meet part of their commitments through investments in emission reductions in developing nations. It also led to the introduction of low-carbon policies and mechanisms across Europe, and by 2012 the EU had reduced its CO2 emissions by 24% on 1990 levels. However, other factors contributed to emissions falling in this period too, including the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the subsequent restructuring of its economy.

COP15, Copenhagen, 2009

The Copenhagen summit of 2009 failed to adopt an agreement as part of the formal UN process. However, on the final day of the conference, the United States and BASIC countries (Brazil, South Africa, India and China) brokered the Copenhagen Accord – a non-binding agreement containing several important elements that have since been built upon in subsequent agreements, including the 2°C warming limit and reference to the 1.5°C goal, as well as the notions of developed countries providing funding for mitigation and adaptation, and establishing new bodies for REDD-plus, implementation of financial provisions, the Copenhagen Green Climate Fund, and a technology mechanism.

COP16, Cancún, 2010

At COP16 the Cancún Agreements formalised the pledges of the Copenhagen Accord and established financial and technological mechanisms to support developing nations to reach their emissions and development goals. The Mexican presidency operated an open-door policy and emphasised the need for a transparent and inclusive process.

COP21, Paris, 2015

COP21 in 2015 produced the Paris Agreement – a legally binding international treaty to limit global temperatures to below 2°C, and preferably below 1.5°C. It was adopted by 196 Parties on 12 December 2015 and entered into force on 4 November 2016. Building on the UNFCCC and the Kyoto Protocol, the Agreement recognises the obligation to act on climate change by all countries, developed and developing. It requires all countries to identify and implement their best efforts on climate change and to communicate them to the UNFCCC through Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) or ‘country pledges’. The Agreement works on a five-year cycle of increasingly ambitious climate action carried out by countries.

The inclusion of 1.5°C as an aspirational goal was largely a result of lobbying in Paris by the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS) and its importance for avoiding the worst impacts of climate change has since been stressed by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

See our separate Explainer on the Paris Agreement for more.

COP26, Glasgow, 2021

COP26 took place in 2021 in Glasgow, Scotland. One of its main outcomes was the Glasgow Climate Pact. A landmark commitment was also made to “phase down” the use of coal (albeit this language was weakened from “phase out” late in the negotiations) and to phase-out “inefficient fossil fuel subsidies”. Specific goals were set for doubling adaptation finance from 2019 levels by 2025. The Global Methane Pledge was also launched at COP26.

The COP26 Presidency established the Glasgow Financial Alliance for Net Zero, a global coalition of currently 500-plus financial institutions, to coordinate efforts across the financial system to accelerate the transition to a net zero economy. On the energy transition, the US$8.5 billion South Africa Just Energy Partnership was established and could be a blueprint for emerging economies.

COP26 also had a large focus on nature, with countries committing to halt and reverse forest loss and land degradation by 2030. 

COP27, Sharm El-Sheikh, 2022

COP27 took place in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt in November 2022. The main outcomes of the conference include the establishment of a Loss and Damage fund to channel increased financial support to developing countries that are vulnerable to damages from climate change. On adaptation, the Adaptation Fund, which seeks to alleviate the worst impacts of climate change among the world’s poorest communities, received $230 million in new pledges and contributions, and the Sharm El-Sheikh Adaptation Agenda was agreed, which aims to through raising up to $300 billion a year from private and public investors, and sets 30 global adaptation targets to achieve by 2030.

Initiatives that gained traction at COP27 include the Bridgetown Initiative, championed by Prime Minister of Barbados Mia Mottley, which seeks to reform the international financial system to better address the impacts of climate change, particularly in the developing world.

COP28, United Arab Emirates, 2023

At the time of writing, COP28 is due to begin on 30 November 2023 in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. The presidency will be held by Sultan Al-Jaber, whose position as CEO of the state oil company has generated some controversy due to perceived conflicts of interest between this role and the aims of the COP. As part of the full programme of events and discussions, the summit will mark the conclusion of the first Global Stocktake, which will evaluate progress made against the goals of the Paris Agreement to guide next steps for national and international climate action.

See our publications, commentaries, news and events related to COP28 on this webpage – which will be updated throughout the conference.

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