Alphabet Soup: The Significance of the UNFCCC and the COPs

The 1992 The United Nations Conference on Environment and Development was at the time the largest convening of nations in history. Better known as “Earth Summit”, this event galvanized the need for unprecedented transnational cooperation to ensure a healthy global environment and sustainable development as humanity fumbled into the 21st Century. 


A supremely important treaty to emerge from this meeting was the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) that stated the intention to stabilize “greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system.” Basically world leaders agreed we should work cooperatively towards stopping destructive climate change. Exactly what should be done by who and when was the subject of discussions at the yearly Conference of the Parties (COP) as member nations wrestled with the problems of decoupling economic prosperity with high carbon emissions.


Possibly the most famous proposal manufactured through the UNFCCC process was the Kyoto Protocol. Agreed upon in 1997 and taking effect in 2005, the Kyoto Protocol required emissions reductions by the world’s most developed nations who were at the time the leading CO2 culprits. The US Senate did not like the idea of the world dictating to the USA how much carbon it was allowed to emit and the US never signed the agreement. With the US out, the Kyoto Protocol has had minimal success in spurring its intended results.


The conversation is now more important that ever. Questions abound as to whether the Kyoto Protocol should be modified to be more inclusive for member nations such as the US or if we should graduate to a separate system. A major roadblock with keeping the KP alive is the once third world economies of China, India, and Brazil are undergoing monstrous growth and therefore have become monstrous emitters. Under the KP guidelines as they are now these countries would be immune to the binding commitments the US couldn’t stomach almost a decade ago. Another argument submits major polluters from the beginning of the Industrial Revolution such as the US and the EU should finance developing countries mitigation efforts so they could in effect “leap frog” over the high carbon development the first world utilized to raise its standards of living. Furthermore, all of this needs to keep to the paramount objective of leveling off greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.


Currently the 19th iteration of the COP is taking place in Warsaw, Poland where I am an observing delegate from American University. Countries are cautious to make bold commitments in the fear that hard action on climate change would mean jeopardizing economic development. Developing countries argue they are raising their populations out of poverty and need carbon intensive infrastructure to do so. Developed nations, arguably with the most responsibility and capability to act submit taking steps when no one else will is unfair to their prosperity.


The deadline was set in 2011 so by the year 2015 a new UNFCCC agreement will be reached that will take effect in 2020. Whether it is improved upon or altogether scrapped, the Kyoto Protocol as is no longer accommodates for the state of the global economic landscape and what that means for distributing responsibility fairly. Will countries be held to blanket commitments such as under the KP or will each country decide domestically what actions are appropriate for themselves? Who will provide the funds to the poorest countries and to what projects? What happens if we fail to act in time and climate change begins irreversibly altering weather patterns, livelihoods, and coastlines? We are living through a tremendously transformative period where for the first time countries are attempting to answer these questions and to cooperate in redefining the fundamentals of economic prosperity to safeguard the global environment from irreversible damage.