What is COP? A primer for Newcomers.

Global Greens Working Group: COP26 
Author: Elizabeth May

“Primer to Climate COPs: a guide for newcomers.” 

We expect a large number of strong Green Party members, leaders and elected representatives from all over the world to gather in Glasgow in November 2021 for COP26. There remains the global pandemic cloud of doubt over the physical reality of 10,000+ people gathering. COVID has already forced the postponement of COP26 from 2020 to 2021. We expect the COP to take place. We hope it will. And in that expectation, through the network of Global Greens, we have formed a preparatory COP26 Working Group. 

To help climate activists and Greens who have never before attended a climate COP, for those who cannot attend, but want to understand the cumbersome nature of the process and the goals we should fight to achieve, the Working Group offers this “Primer to Climate COPs: a guide for newcomers.” 

A. Background to help understand the larger context: 

Climate politics versus climate science 

Any climate activist looking at global “progress” in arresting the climate crisis through the multilateral, United Nations system is bound to become angry. 

How can it be that since 1992 , when all the world’s leaders gathered at the Rio Earth Summit and pledged to avoid “dangerous levels” of anthropogenic (human-caused) and now, human societies have emitted more warming gasses than between the beginning of the Industrial Revolution and the Rio Earth Summit? 

The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) is supposed to be “legally-binding.” So why didn’t it “bind.” 

Why are climate agreements weak? 

On the other hand, why are trade agreements effective? 

To answer these questions, it is useful to look at the last global environmental treaty that actually worked – the Montreal Protocol. 

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Definitions: 

A “Convention” is a treaty setting out broad goals. 

A “Protocol” is negotiated by countries that have signed and ratified a convention. A Protocol is a more specific set of commitments, within the overarching Convention. 

A “Party” to a Convention or Protocol is a nation that has signed and ratified the agreement. 

Every Convention and Protocol has its own “ratification formula” to determine when the agreement becomes legally binding. 

Once a convention “enters into force,” annual meetings take place to advance and monitor progress. These meetings are called a Conference of the Parties or “COP.” 

Once a protocol enters into force, its annual meetings are called a “Meeting of the Parties” – or “MOP.” 

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Montreal Protocol to protect the Ozone Layer 

In the late 1980s, science was increasingly demonstrating the massive danger from chlorofluorocarbons (CFC’s), a group of ‘miracle compounds’ used in a variety of household products from aerosol cans to refrigerators. Initially believed to be benign and indestructible, it became clear that CFC’s were breaking in the stratosphere, releasing reactive chlorine atoms that gobbled molecules of ozone. Stratospheric ozone plays a critical role in screening out the sun’s most harmful ultraviolet rays, and the loss of this protective layer, represented most visible by the massive ozone hole that developed over Antarctica, was thus cause for significant concern. 

While industrialized countries mobilized to develop a protocol leading to an effective ban on ozone-depleting substances, the developing world expressed concern that, as was felt about the 1972 Stockholm United Nations environmental conference, this was an issue for the rich countries of the world. In the global South, rotting food was a bigger issue than thinning ozone, and developing countries wanted to expand their use of CFCs, particularly freons for refrigeration. Even more uncomfortable was the reality that the skin cancer threat was highest for the pale Caucasian inhabitants of industrialized countries in North America and Europe. 

The CFC negotiations were very difficult and protracted. The first step was the negotiation of the Vienna Convention to protect the ozone layer. And that broad set of goals led to the more difficult matter of how we could actually stop producing ozone-depleting substances. 

The solution eventually emerged in September, 1987, during negotiations in Montreal. The key break-through was the acceptance that industrialized and developing countries had to be treated differently, under a novel principle of ‘common but differentiated responsibilities’. This new principle allowed all developing and industrialized countries to sign on to legally binding requirements. The industrialized countries committed to immediately begin reductions of ozone-depleting substances to 50%, while developing countries could increase their use by 15%. All parties to the convention agreed to base their actions on science, and modify their targets as the science required. They also agreed to enforce the targets through trade sanctions. Within a few years, both industrialized and developing countries were on board for the total elimination of ozone depleting substances. 

To this day, the Montreal Protocol remains one of the greatest success stories of the environmental movement. Its most recent success was in the 2016 negotiations at the MOP28 of the Montreal Protocol. In Kigali, steps were taken for legally binding further reductions of chemicals that both worsen the climate crisis and threaten the ozone layer. 

B. The Emergence of Global Corporate Rule 

The Montreal Protocol to protect the ozone layer worked. Why didn’t agreements to protect climate stability work? 

Far too often, journalists and observers remark on the failure of humanity to respond to the climate crisis, without any reference to the rise of corporate power. 

As Naomi Klein wrote in “This Changes Everything,” the climate crisis has experienced the problem of “bad timing.” The WTO and the rise of corporate power has a lot to do with our failure. Some, not all, of the major fossil fuel giants have spent hundreds of millions of dollars to mislead the public. Their strategy – taken from the annals of the cigarette lobby – has been to create doubt about science. 

Canadian scientist Dr. David Suzuki dubbed the ‘90’s the “Turnaround Decade.” And why not? The Rio Earth Summit had not only led to two major environmental treaties, the UNFCCC and the Convention on Biodiversity, it had adopted the non-binding pledges of Agenda 21, to end poverty and transfer technology to the Global South. At the same time, the Cold War and its massive waste of resources on the military was over. 

Unfortunately, the heady optimism of the Rio Earth Summit was blunted almost immediately. 

Perhaps more than any other development, it was the creation of the World Trade Organization (WTO) that ushered in a new world economic order, ending any hope for a “Turnaround Decade.” Over a period of seven and a half years, spanning the entirety of the negotiation of treaties signed in Rio, the same nations that sent environment ministers to negotiate the Rio agreements, sent their trade ministers to negotiate a new trade regime. 

The WTO was built on the post-war framework of The General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (the GATT), greatly expanding the scope of international trade and shifting the framework to increased corporate rights. While the GATT had focused on reducing barriers to trade of goods, the web of agreements in the Uruguay Round dealt with far more than goods. It set out global rules for intellectual property, services and a shift to corporate rights. 

The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) also came into force in this period, further entrenching corporate rights in trade negotiations. For example, Chapter 11 of NAFTA created – for the first time – the right for foreign corporations to seek damages when government action reduced their expectation of profits. These provisions applied to environmental regulations; compensation could be based on government actions to restrict the production and storage of toxic chemicals near drinking water, for example. In the language of NAFTA, such government efforts were “tantamount to expropriation.” The essence of these agreements is to give foreign corporations power over governments. 

Ironically, the Chapter 11 corporate rights of NAFTA were removed in the recent CUSMA negotiations, but it hardly matters. So-called “investor state agreements” have been accepted in the EU in CETA, in the TransPacific Partnership (TPP) and in hundreds of bi-lateral agreements. 

As the relative power of trans-national corporations increased under the protection of NAFTA, the rights of the nation state for environmental protection and other social benefits declined. Indeed, a WTO committee on Trade and the Environment was tasked not with examining potentially harmful environmental effects of trade, but with identifying environmental treaties that posed barriers to international trade. This approach set the stage for the emasculation of environmental treaties as global corporate rule was spread through an expanding web of investor-state agreements. 

What is astonishing is the degree to which the ascendency of the WTO was accepted without question. The GATT, upon which the WTO was built, had never set out such sweeping powers for corporate profit rights to trump governmental jurisdiction. Indeed, Article XX of the GATT created exceptions for government policy measures that were deemed necessary to protect human, animal or plant life, or the conservation of finite natural resources. These provisions still exist, but they have been all but ignored by the WTO. 

In 1997, shortly after the WTO was established, the Kyoto Protocol to protect climate stability was negotiated in Japan. Ten years earlier, the Montreal Protocol was successfully negotiated, using trade sanctions as an enforcement mechanism. 

While negotiating the Kyoto Protocol at COP3, the trade ministers of industrialized countries instructed the environment ministers that trade sanctions were not an option. Even Canada, which had led the way in the fight against CFCs, significantly changed its stance. The Canadian Environment Minister, Christine Stewart, went to Kyoto with a clear message, “if trade sanctions are included, Canada will not sign.” This sentiment was echoed by many other wealthy nations, with the result that the Kyoto Protocol was left with no effective enforcement mechanism. Like the 1992 UN Biodiversity Convention, and the UNFCCC, Kyoto had no teeth. 

Moreover, the very innovation that made the Montreal Protocol successful – “common but differentiated responsibilities” embedded in the Kyoto Protocol became a target for effective fossil fuel propaganda. In Kyoto, only the wealthy industrialized countries were committed to specific reduction targets, while all other nations committed to more general efforts. US President George Bush refused to ratify Kyoto, saying, essentially that it was unfair to the US; that it was unfair to the rich. 

The system is unfair, so we need to change the system: 

We have failed to arrest climate change when we had the chance to avoid the climate emergency we now experience. But we still have the chance to avert the worst. And the worst is nearly unthinkable – so we push it to the back of our minds. The worst is crossing a point of no return where human caused emissions trigger unstoppable, self-accelerating global warming. 

Before addressing the specifics of climate action to be discussed at COP26, Greens need to press to roll-back the supremacy of corporate rights over those of nation states, humanity and nature itself. 

We must deconstruct global corporate rule and put the global survival ahead of corporate greed. It is time to put large fossil fuel companies on notice. Governments around the world have to be prepared to revoke the corporate charter of any company that threatens the survival of a habitable biosphere. 

We can and should tweak the Uruguay Round to create a World Trade and Climate Organization to ensure survival. 

We must open a global dialogue to rescind all existing bi-lateral BIT’s and FIPPAs between and among all countries to rebalance corporate rights and domestic sovereignty. 

These agreements must be replaced with a new Multilateral Agreement on Corporate Rights and Responsibilities. The effort from 1995 to 1998 to negotiate a Multilateral Agreement on Investment in the OECD failed as it lacked balance. Green Parties around the world will press for new global negotiations to create a level playing field for multinational corporations and uphold countries’ sovereignty. The template will be based on the European Union’s (EU) in which no country’s environmental and labour laws can fall below the most rigorous of any EU state. By ensuring that all corporations in the world must adhere to minimum standards to protect children, the environment, health and safety standards, consumer standards and labour rights, no company could gain competitive advantage by trampling on these fundamental elements of responsible corporate citizenship. 

C. COP26 – the “Last Chance COP” 

There will be, as ever at COPs, a multitude of events, formal negotiations and demonstrations. Think of a COP as taking place in three concentric circles – like a bull’s eye. 

In the centre are the formal negotiations. These always run over a two week period. The first week is for officials – diplomats – negotiators. They often work around the clock to produce a draft text. Usually the UNFCCC system has been working through these negotiations for months before the COP begins. The second week is called the “High Level” negotiations when ministers and political leaders take over the negotiations. 

Only those with official accreditation from the UNFCCC can attend the formal process. The “badges” from the UNFCCC come in different categories. Many NGOs will have “Observer” status, a greyish badge. Observers are allowed in plenary, but generally not allowed in closed door negotiations. 

Only those from government delegations have a pass into (almost) every room. The PARTY badge is a bright pink. There are also credentials for UN staff – BLUE badges, and for Media (YELLOW). 

The next band in the concentric circle is for SIDE-EVENTS. To attend a side-event you also have to have a UNFCCC credential. The seminars and panels in the SIDE EVENTS have influence. New approaches, innovative technologies, government efforts are profiled in these sessions. Also on the inside of the official areas are vast areas of booths and kiosks like a giant trade show. 

The outer big circle in COPs are the citizen mobilizations. Marches, faith-led Sunday services for thousands, workshops, conferences, protests all are organized by and for civil society. 

D. What is the official agenda for COP26? 

Considering how close we are to the point of no return, the reality of the official agenda is a bit of a shock for any COP newcomer.. 

The “Paris Rulebook” is still not completed with rules around carbon ricing and markets still unfinished. The discussions of adequacy of the NDCs and calls for more “ambition” will be heard in the plenary, but the official moment for checking in with whether the nations of the world are making a dent in reducing emissions under Paris is not officially until 2023. 2023 is the first year for a Global Stocktake.” 

This summary from the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit in the UK is useful. https://eciu.net/analysis/briefings/international-perspectives/what-is-cop26-who-will-attend-it and-why-does-it-matter 

“There are several technical issues to be finalised at COP26, this includes some difficult sticking points which were carried over from COP26 in Madrid in 2019. Issues which will be brought to COP26 include: 

  • Carbon market mechanisms, which would allow countries to purchase carbon credits (reductions) from another country to allow the purchasing country to continue to emit within its borders. Carbon markets may also include trade in ‘negative’ emissions such as carbon absorption through forestry. There are very diverse views from Parties on the extent and rules for these markets. 
  • Funding for Loss and damage: While Loss and damage is a core part of the Paris Agreement there is no mechanism as yet within the UNFCCC to fund responses when vulnerable countries experience loss and damage. This is viewed as a critical factor by LDCs to unlock the negotiations but is resisted by many wealthy nations. 
  • Discussions over the delivery of the $100 bn finance target are likely, and again will be a critical factor for less developed countries. Additionally, COP26 is likely to set the next target for climate finance to be achieved by 2025. 
  • An increasingly important aspect of the climate debate is around ‘nature-based solutions’ (NBS). That is how nature (forests, agriculture and ecosystems) can become a climate solution for absorbing carbon and for protecting against climate impacts. COP26 will start to discuss how to integrate NBS into the Paris implementation strategy.” 

E. What is the Global Greens’ bottom line? 

“One Point Five to Stay Alive!” was the chant of protesting delegates from all of the African nations as they staged a walk out of the failing Copenhagen negotiations at COP15 in 2009. 

That is still our rallying cry. 

We are committed to telling the truth about the global peril. 

The harsh truth is that governments around the world have stalled in the necessary effort to deliver on the Paris Agreement commitment to attempt to hold global average temperature to 1.5 degrees C. Commitments are generally too weak. And the promised actions are moving too slowly. 

Meanwhile, 2020 was a year of unprecedented climate events- from forest fires in Siberia, fire storms in the Western US, warming and melting Arctic, intense hurricanes driven by warmer ocean temperatures, collapsing ice shelves, retreating glaciers, droughts, and devastating floods. The signals could not be clearer. 

The COVID pandemic gave governments an unprecedented opportunity for rapid transformation of our economies away from fossil fuels. 

Despite some encouraging pledges for Green Recovery and despite the USA rejoining Paris, overall, the world is on track to runaway global warming. We are not meeting the goals of Paris in holding global average temperature increase to no more than 1.5 degrees C. 

At COP26 and beyond, Global Greens will mobilize to demand all governments to face the facts, redouble efforts and do what is necessary to preserve a healthy biosphere for millions of species and human civilization. 

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this document are the responsibility of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of other members of this organization.

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