What are the UN ‘COP’ climate change conferences?
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 changed 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.
At the time of writing, COP27 is due to take place in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt in November 2022. It will “seek to accelerate global climate action through emissions reduction, scaled-up adaptation efforts and enhanced flows of appropriate finance”. The main areas of discussion in what has been billed as the ‘African COP’ will be mitigation, adaptation, finance and collaboration, recognising also that ‘just transition’ is a priority for many developing countries.