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History of Climate Negotiations up to Paris COP21

By Nithin Coca
COP15 Copenhagen

Ready for Paris? The upcoming United Nations climate negotiations are shaping up to be the biggest, potentially most historic gathering of global climate and environment leaders in human history. But just what is going to happen in Paris? And why is the meeting called COP21?

In fact, Paris is the latest in a long series of international conferences and negotiations on climate change and environmental issues. Though climate change was highlighted by scientists as early as the 1950s, only in the 1990s did it begin to garner serious attention from governments across the world as a potential threat to the global economy. Since then, there have been regular meetings between high-level international diplomats nearly every year, though the outcomes of these meetings have, thus far, been mostly disappointing.  Hopefully that might soon be changing.

Here's a run-down of the prior U.N. talks on climate change and what we can expect in Paris.

1992: U.N. Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

Better known as the Rio Earth Summit, this historic event included many attendees who felt strongly that momentum was there for strong action to protect the world's environmental heritage now. More than 170 governments participated, with 116 sending their heads of state or government.

The conference was focused on more than just climate and included many other aspects related to environment and sustainability. This included toxins, water, transportation and clean energy. The Convention on Biological Diversity was opened for signature at the Earth Summit, and has turned into the premier global instrument to protect biodiversity globally.

One of the major outcomes of the Earth Summit was the development of the groundwork for the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC). The UNFCC would become the home for all climate-related negotiations globally. It was ratified in 1994, and it was decided that the framework would be followed by sessions of the Conference of the Parties (COP) and its subsidiary bodies to negotiate and agree upon further action.

One of the best moments to come out of the Rio Earth Summit was the below speech by 12-year-old Severin Suzuki. In a meeting that was dominated by white-haired diplomats and arcane negotiations, it was a sign that the future of the climate movement was in the hands not of government bureaucrats, but regular people, especially the youth who would face the brunt of climate change.

1997: COP3 in Kyoto, Japan

Five years after the Rio Earth Summit, it was becoming more and more clear that climate change could have catastrophic impacts on livelihoods across the world, especially as reports from the newly-formed Intergovernmental Panel on Climate (IPCC) began to form a scientific consensus on the problem.

The Kyoto COP led to the now-infamous Kyoto Protocol, which went into effect in 2005 and is set to run until the end of this year. As one of his final decisions as chief executive, United States President Bill Clinton signed the protocol. However, in order for the treaty to become binding, it needed to be ratified by the Senate. When Republican presidential candidate George W. Bush made removing the signature one of his key campaign goals, it became certain that the United States would not take part in Kyoto in any meaningful way.

The Kyoto Protocol was considered weak by many. Besides the glaring absence of the United States, and fellow major-polluter Australia, it put almost no limits on the ability of developing countries to emit CO2. This meant that, even as countries in Europe and Japan slowed down their emissions, they were more than made up for by the boom in emissions from the global South, especially the rising powerhouse China, who in 2007 overtook the United States to become the world biggest carbon emitter. Global carbon emissions continued to rise throughout the early implementation of Kyoto.

2009: COP15 in Copenhagen, Denmark

2009 was a year of hope and expectations. The election of President Barack Obama in the United States, who is a stated supporter of climate action unlike his predecessor George W. Bush, and a growing understanding that developing countries had to play a greater role in sharing the burden of emissions cuts led many to believe that this would be the year that a strong global climate agreement could be reached.

What resulted was seen by many as a disaster. Days of closed-door meetings that shut out environmental activists and community leaders led to a weak deal brokered by President Obama and Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao that was far, far below expectations. The U.S. committed to just a 4 percent drop from 1990 levels, and the deal made no obligations on developing countries to make cuts in greenhouse gas emissions. Some poor countries, like the Maldives, that were already facing land-loss due to rising sea levels, were angry, and scientists argued that this plan would lead to a 3.5 degrees Celsius temperature rise by the end of the century, an increase that would results in serious catastrophic impacts that could harm millions globally.

Since Copenhagen

There have been several meetings since 2009, though I wouldn't blame you if you didn't know anything about them. None of them have received nearly the attention and hoopla of Copenhagen, and all have been marred by lingering negativity from the failure of 2009.

Nevertheless, there have been strong steps made in the past five years -- most notably an expansion of the United Nations REDD program, which aims to provide funds to protect tropical forests from being cut down, a major source of climate-changing emissions. Moreover, greater data-gathering technology and more sophisticated scientific analysis has allowed the IPCC to produce better-researched reports that show what the impacts of climate change will be for countries around the world. Moreover, yearly weather patterns are showing that we are currently on the worst-case-scenario path -- as every year we hit a new record for the hottest year, again and again.

The road to Paris

The tide began to shift last year when hundreds of thousands of climate activists gathered in New York City for the People's Climate March in September, calling on global governments to take action on climate. It followed the historic U.S.-China climate deal, announced jointly by President Obama and his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jingping, earlier that month, which gave rise to the hope that perhaps the world was ready to tackle what is its biggest challenge.

This year, the world is coming to Paris to determine what will succeed the Kyoto Protocol which expires at the end of this year. Compared to 1992, or 1997, the movement is more diverse, and it is coming with ideas and solutions, not harbingers of disaster. Whereas in the past, businesses often opposed strong measure, today, many are firmly standing alongside climate justice advocates calling on governments to tackle climate change head-on.

Stay tuned to TriplePundit as we'll be covering the Paris Climate Talks from now until the end of negotiations. Share your thoughts with us on  Twitter at #NzymCOP21

Photo credit: CIAT/Flickr

Nithin Coca headshot

Nithin Coca is a freelance journalist who focuses on environmental, social, and economic issues around the world, with specific expertise in Southeast Asia.

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