Last week, Donald Trump announced he’d be withdrawing the US from the Paris Agreement. This month, it’s also the 25th anniversary of the signing of the UNFCCC — the larger system which gave birth to the Paris Agreement — so it seemed timely to trace some of its history.
The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (or the UNF-triple-C to its friends) was signed at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, in June 1992.
As Boutros Boutros-Ghali, then UN secretary-general, said at the start of the event: “Ultimately if we do nothing, then the storm will break on the heads of future generations. For them it will be too late.”
Before the event, there were the now-familiar rumblings from the US that all this climate change stuff was a waste of time/ communist plot.
It wasn’t the first UN meeting on climate change. There had been discussions of the issue in and around the 1972 United Nations Conference on the Human Environment (aka the Stockholm Declaration) though arguable, they didn't talk about climate change nearly as much as they could have, or some scientists would have wanted.
Amongst other things, this 1972 conference had given birth to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) which had, in turn, worked with the International Council of Scientific Unions (ICSU) and the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) to set up the (IPCC, no not that IPCC, the other IPCC, the one that shared a Nobel Prize with Al Gore). This collects global expertise on climate change, issuing regular reports assessing what we know about the issue. The first came out in 1990, helping prepare the ground for the 1992 summit, the most recent was 2014, part of the drum-beating before the Paris talks at the end of 2015. It's split into different working groups: WGI no the physical science basis (i.e. is it happening?), WGII on impacts (i.e. what’s happening/ will happen?) and WGIII on mitigation (i.e. can we stop it?).
Small diversion: the point in history where climate change starts inspiring UN conferences is also the point it starts to turn into an alphabet soup of acronyms. And it only gets worse as the meetings get going and thy start talking about stuff like AOSIS (the Alliance Of Small Island States), LULUCF (Land Use, Land Use Change, and Forestry), BAU (Business as Usual), or DAI (Dangerous Anthropogenic Interference with the climate system… aka we’re screwed).
There were also World Climate Conferences in 1979 and 1990. Politicians were increasingly talking about the issue, and it was picking up press coverage. I highly recommend reading Margaret Thatcher’s 1989 speech to the UN, if only for the steampunk image of Charles Darwin in a spaceship. It should be noted, however, that the growing media interest in climate change included a fair bit of sceptical coverage, stressing uncertainty and lack on climate consensus, and Thatcher herself ended up rather on the sceptic side as she got older. Climate politics was slightly different back then, but a lot of the seeds of our current situation were already sown in the early 1990s, indeed in some areas they’d already grown some pretty sturdy roots by then too.
In the end, the 1992 Convention didn’t include any binding limits on carbon emissions for specific countries, nor any enforcement mechanisms (in contrast, for example, from some agreements on control of weapons). Instead, it’s an agreement to “stabilize greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system.”
Or, in human language, they agreed to take action on greenhouse gas emissions so we might stop climate change really kicking our bottoms sometime in the future, but they put off agreeing a precise definition of what such a kicking might look like, or whose bottoms they were going to worry about in particular, and didn’t really build in any way to keep anyone accountable, other than plan to have more meetings about the topic.
Still, they agreed to update and publish inventories of their emissions as well as developing, co-operating in and promoting programes for both mitigating climate change and adapting to it. These are all important first steps to more. They also agreed to promote public education about climate change and its effects, and public participation projects for tackling climate change (a point often forgotten, especially when government science and climate comms budgets get cut). Another important part of the convention was the principle of “common but differentiated responsibilities” with responsibility largely on the shoulders of developed countries. So the EU, for example, was expected to dramatically cut emissions, but India was not.
With the signing of the UNFCCC, they also kicked off annual UN climate conferences. They’re also called the Conference of the Parties or, colloquially, a COP the “parties” being the signatories to the convention). These were meetings for representatives of the countries that had signed up to the convention, and they’ve happened roughly once a year since. The most famous of these COP events recently was the Paris talks, but you might well have heard of the Copenhagen one too, or Kyoto.
A body called the UNFCCC sits alongside the signed document, organizing these meetings. It’s based in Bonn in Germany. The current head of the secretariat is Patricia Espinonsa, who succeeded Christiana Figureres in July last year (more on her in a bit).
These regular COP meetings have lead to the UNFCCC being criticised as a bit of a talking shop. In some ways, this is a very fair criticism, though it’s also fair to say that something as big as action on climate change will take a fair bit of talking. And these meetings have offered up the necessary space to do the sorts of diplomatic work necessary to build the sorts of action we need.
They can get dramatic too. Venezuelan delegate Claudia Salerno lifted a bloodied hand to the UN and Danish hosts at the 2009 talks. At COP13 in Bali in 2007, Yvo de Boer — then head of the UNFCCC — had to be led away from the chamber in tears and at COP19, in Warsaw in 2013, Philippines lead negotiator Yeb Sano broke down in the middle of his address. He also added an unscripted pledge that — in solidarity with his country people who were struggling to find food in the wake of super-typhoon Haiyan — he would be fasting for the duration of the talks.
There’s always been a bit of a fringe too — arts, and protest. The more official ends of things allowing local engagement with climate action, the less official sides being a great opportunity for global networks of climate activists to network. As activist and writer Kevin Smith argues, COP 6, held in the Hague in 2000 was a bit of a milestone in that respect. A series of direct actions took place around the conference, including activists occupying one of the main beams over the great hall and scattering fake carbon credits over the delegates below. Hot on the heels of the World Bank/IMF mobilizations in Prague in September of that year, Smith argues this was influential in developing a coalition of climate activists who sought to highlight the role of corporate lobbyists and the marginalization of the global south.
Back to official business. At the first COP (in Berlin in 1995) they agreed that their initial idea of stabilising their emissions at 1990 levels by 2000 wasn't going to cut it, and planned discussions around a larger challenge at the 1997 Kyoto talks, which lead to the Kyoto Protocol.
This was adopted in December 1997, but didn’t come into force until February 2005. To come into force, it needed to be ratified by at least 55 countries, and that their emissions must account for at least 55% of global emissions. Most countries signed the Protocol at the time, but signing was the easy step – a basic nod of support. If you were going to ratifying the Protocol, however, you had to take action, and that proved too much for some key players, namely George W Bush who famously withdrew the US in 2001.
The next attempt to give the UNFCCC more teeth was Copenhagen in 2009. These were accompanied by a massive “Hopenhagen” PR push (yes, really, they called it Hopenhagen, you might be able to still find some of the more cringe-worthy vids on YouTube) and it’s fair to say that climate action was, with or without the UN, picking up momentum at this point. It was more accepted, more normal, even fashionable to want to tackle climate change. The kids who’d watched Rio on television in 1992 were now adults, some with kids themselves — voting, taking a lead in their communities, teaching. It felt as if, finally, something meaningful might happen. And the President of the US wasn’t called George Bush. It was Obama, who was still basking in the glow of the hopey changey election rhetoric.
But the talks ended in what was at best described as a weak compromise, if not complete collapse. Indeed, arguably, Copenhagen left much of the environmental movement in a state of despondency which lasted for years after. At least part of the climate community had pinned a fair bit of their hope on a UN agreement sorting things. As the ambition in this agreement crumbled, so did their optimism.
We also now know, via Edward Snowdon, that the USA spied on climate negotiators before and during the conference, potentially giving the American delegation an edge in discussions. In 2014, the UN announced it was to investigate the UK for doing similar. Naughty.
Six months on. Enter Christina Figueres, a Costa Rican diplomat who had worked on Kyoto as well as Copenhagen. (Fun Figueres facts: she has different coloured eyes, she did her masters at the LSE and picked up a taste for British-style tea, her Dad was as President of Costa Rica three times, she received the French Legion of Honor, and though she owns a Prius, she generally takes the tram to work).
Figueres was appointed Executive Secretary of the UNFCCC in July 2010. As she describes her first few days in office, a journalist asked if she thought a climate change agreement was possible, and she responded - to despair of her press officers - “Not in my lifetime.” But she soon realised that if the were going to change things, they'd have to get out of the post-Copenhagen despondency, and get some of the optimism back. Building a new climate agreement would be, at least in part, a matter of changing the tone.
As Figueres puts it, “impossible is not a fact, it’s an attitude. And I decided, right then and there, that I was going to change my attitude, and I was going to help the world change its attitude on climate change.” Drawing on the technological and economic shifts in wind and solar energy, she worked with others across the UN to construct a sense that the move to clean energy was unstoppable.
Arguably, this idea that clean energy is ‘unstoppable’ is more than rhetoric, and this is one of the reasons why Trump pulling out isn’t game over for climate change. According to a report out today, 31k solar panels were installed every hour last year. 31k per hour.
Another shift we can trace between Copenhagen and Paris is greater networking of mayors and local leadership on climate, and more leadership from large business too. With this, we’ve seen climate power move away from the leaders of nation states, and with it, a slightly smaller (or at least different) role for the UN. It’s also true that more people are consciously experiencing the effects of climate change, and reading about it happening to others. It’s all a lot less far off than it was back in 1992.
So we end up with things like the We’re Still In Group — a letter to the UNFCCC signed by mayors of Los Angeles, New York, Atlanta and more, alongside companies like Apple, Google, Microsoft and Facebook alongside university presidents all stating that, whatever Trump does, they’re all still signed up to the Paris Agreement, and they’re taking the 120 million Americans and $6.2 trillion of the US economy they represent with them.
The US — the nation, as a nation, not just people in it as individuals, or via their city, university or company — participating in a global agreement would still help though. It could help a lot if they not only stayed in, but upped their ambition loads too. If nothing else, it’s a big budget loss to the Climate Fund. Plus, as a report from the International Energy Agency issued just today argued, clean energy technologies might be unstoppable, but lack of support from policy at a national government level is really slowing them down. Still, it’s a long way from game-over. Both climate action at large, and the UN in particular are way more powerful than that.