For almost 30 years, the world's countries have been meeting at an annual global climate conference, the UNFCCC COP, to try to coordinate responses to the accelerating climate crisis. In Episode 2 of our podcast series on COP27, we'll delve into the conference itself. Hear from IATP experts Ben Lilliston and Steve Suppan about the history and significance of the COP, starting with the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio. We’ll introduce you to how the COP works, why the conference matters for agriculture, how COP agreements have been repeatedly undermined and why it’s so difficult to achieve real progress.
One of the things about these cops is that they're very much like a trade show in some ways. There's governments making announcements about what they're going to do. And then there's the actual negotiations taking place, kind of behind closed doors. But then there's also a lot of other interests there. So the corporate interests are very prevalent, of all different sectors. So you know fossil fuel industry is there. So is Agribusiness.
00:00:26 Lilly Richard
This is the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy's podcast Uprooted with a limited four part series: Talking COP 27.
From the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, I'm Lilly Richard, and over the course of this series, I'm speaking with some of the policy experts at IATP about what the upcoming United Nations Climate Conference, COP 27, means for the important transformations that need to take place at the intersection of climate and agriculture. In our first episode, we talked about some of the ways that industrial agriculture is driving climate change and, importantly, some of the ways it's also driving ecosystem collapse and food system vulnerability. In this episode, we'll turn our attention to the COP itself: its history and significance, how it works, why it matters for agriculture and why it's so difficult to achieve real progress.
So climate change. The problem of anthropogenic or human caused climate change has been a known threat for over a century. Things like burning fossil fuels for energy and industrial-scale agriculture have released large amounts of carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide into the atmosphere, increasing their concentration and amplifying the natural greenhouse effect that traps heat and influences weather patterns. The Earth's average temperature is now rising faster than at any other time in the planet's history, and with cascading effects all over the globe. In the past few years, we've seen climate impacts that are outpacing even the most dire predictions of scientists with massive flooding in Pakistan and Europe, mega fires in California and record-breaking heat all across Africa. And this is all happening at just 1.2 degrees Celsius of warming above preindustrial average temperatures. Combined with the interconnected Poly crises of biodiversity loss, chemical pollution, and ocean acidification, there's no question we're facing an unprecedented global catastrophe, one that can only get worse if we don't change course. So what do we do about it?
The simple answer is we need to stop emitting so much greenhouse gas. We need the countries of the world, particularly those developed nations like the U.S., that have been the biggest polluters historically to get as close to 0 emissions as possible. But we also need to protect and restore ecosystems and the Earth's adaptive capacity and stop releasing toxic chemical pollutants, and that's hard to do when the world most powerful economies are so deeply tide up in the extractive industrial system that's producing the emissions. But we'll get to that later. By 1992, countries had recognized that climate change was a major global threat that required a coordinated and cooperative response, which is where the U.N. comes in. The 1992 Earth summit in Rio launched the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, or UNFCCC, with the goal of “stabiliz[ing] greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system.” That set the stage for a yearly conference (the COP) where world leaders and scientific experts could gather to share information, strengthen their commitments, and coordinate their response to the climate crisis. I talked to IATPs, Ben Lilliston and Steve Suppan about how that's played out in practice.
00:04:12 Steve Suppan
I'm Steve Suppan. I'm a senior policy analyst at the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy.
My name is Ben Lilliston. I’m the director of Climate and rural strategies at the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy. So the process started really out at the Earth Summit in 1992, so you may remember, but that was in Rio in Brazil, a sort of historic series of environmental commitments. But this is where there was a recognition that we need to set up an international forum around climate change. And so there's a long history of them making different agreements and commitments over time and at each meeting they're looking at how far they've gone and what they need to do next.
Ben is talking about the long history of governments making and reviewing climate mitigation and funding commitments at each year’s COP. The conference itself is huge, with upwards of 20 to 30,000 people convening in one location, which changes each year. That includes delegates from almost 200 countries meeting to negotiate on an official joint agreement, but also scientists, activists and representatives from different industries and civil society organizations, also known as nongovernmental organizations or NGO's, from all over the world. There are hundreds of different meetings, presentations and side events, many of them happening simultaneously. These events are a chance for different groups to present the latest research on climate change, highlight mitigation and adaptation strategies, or draw attention to the ways climate intersects with other areas – like agriculture for example. participants are often hoping to influence the outcomes of the negotiations, but they also might be trying to connect with allies or gain attention and influence in other spheres like the media.
So with the Conference of the Parties, you have a certain amount of access to the delegates, more so at the inter-ministerial meetings, you have to be an accredited, in this case an accredited NGO. And there are simultaneous meetings held pretty much from 10:00 AM until 8:00 PM, sometimes later. For the developing countries, they have very small delegations compared to that of the United States and the European Union and a few other countries, and so one of the functions of NGO's is to go to these meetings and take notes and do kind of short meetings with the developing country delegates to tell them what is going on in these meetings, because the Secretariat’s summary of the meetings is sometimes diplomatic to a fault. There are also at these meetings some important side meetings that are official. So for example, the World Meteorological Association will do a report the International Oceanic Administration will do a report. And then there are a lot of industry side events. For example, the International Emissions Training Association. And then there are also civil society events.
Yeah, well, one of the things about these COPs is that they're very much like a trade show in some ways, there's governments making announcements about what they're going to do, and then there's the actual negotiations taking place, kind of behind closed doors. But then there's also a lot of other interests there. So the corporate interests are very prevalent, of all different sectors. So you know fossil fuel industry is there. So is Agribusiness. So they're making all kinds of announcements, usually about, you know how their technology is the solution to climate change. So there will be a focus on things like “we've bred new genetically engineered crops to withstand drought.” “We have new data sources and data management that can plug right into your tractor that will help you be more precise in your fertilizer use.” “We have large methane digesters that you can attach to your manure lagoons, and we can capture that methane and keep it from being released into the atmosphere and turn it into gas – renewable gas.” So these are the kind of things that they will be pitching both to countries, to say “hey we got you on this. Allow our technology to take over.” And also to the media – there'll be a huge amount of media there, and then there'll be civil society organizations like ours who will be there talking about what we would say are more real solutions, which are more focused on agroecology. We see a lot of those tech solutions pushed by agribusiness as really reinforcing the existing system of industrial agriculture that is increasing emissions. And so as long as we sort of tweak that, we're not really getting to where we need to go. We really need to be looking a little deeper at how do we change the whole agriculture system? And that requires a lot of moving away from outside inputs like excess fertilizer and thinking about more farmer ownership and control in responding to the crisis and those supporting farmers on that.
As the side events and presentations happen, so do actual negotiations, mostly behind closed doors with official delegates from each country focusing on a series of UNFCCC work streams such as climate, finance, loss and damage mitigation and adaptation. It's a fraught negotiation. Countries whose economies depend on fossil fuels want to buy time to extend the industry betting on technological solutions like carbon capture and storage that don't exist at scale rather than cutting fossil fuel use. Many countries in the Global South, which are still suffering the effects of colonialism and are now facing intense climate impacts despite being responsible for only a tiny percentage of emissions, are seeking loss and damage funding, as well as more funds for adaptation and sustainable development. Wealthy countries and historic high emitters try to balance their climate commitments against their own economic interests and internal politics.
Yeah, usually there will be a declaration at the end of each COP, and that declaration will usually be pretty broad, but it will be significant. And included within that declaration will be references to different more specific agreements. So you know at the end of the Glasgow meeting countries did pledge to try to strengthen their commitments for emissions reductions by 2030. So there will be probably some reference in the declaration about whether that is adequate enough, whether countries collectively have done enough to meet the 1.5 degree goal that is outlined in the Paris Agreement, so there'll be some reference to that. There will be reference to climate finance. There will be statements around loss and damage which would be related to the harm that the climate crisis is causing. This COP is in Egypt, on the continent of Africa, significantly, and so it will probably make some reference to the location and the particular burden that countries in Africa are facing with regards to the climate crisis. So, it'll set the tone for the next COP and say “this is what we’re going to, you know, these will be priorities moving forward.”
So once the Conference of Parties agrees on the text, then there is a lot of implementation to do. The COP works through subsidiary bodies and two of the main ones are the Subsidiary Body on Implementation and then there is the subsidiary body on Science and Technical Assistance. And there you have an attempt, essentially, to assist developing countries who do not have the budget to determine measures in mitigations of reducing greenhouse gases, or at adapting to climate change. They may or may not, but at any rate they can present their viewpoints. They can present their needs to this subsidiary body. And then through the funding mechanisms, they may or may not be able to get some funding. There's two main funding mechanisms right now: the United Nations Adaptation Fund and the Green Climate Fund. And both of these funds, and especially the Adaptation Fund, are notoriously underfunded. The commitment in 2010 that there would be $100 billion in that fund by the year 2020, and it's nowhere near 100 billion.
So as Ben and Steve described, the COP usually ends with a declaration that builds upon previous years agreements, hammering out specific goals, implementation strategies, and funding commitments by different parties, most of whom have failed to live up to their promises year over year. Some years there will be a major agreement, like in 2015, when the historic Paris climate agreement was signed: a legally binding treaty with the goal of keeping global warming below 2 degrees Celsius, and preferably below 1.5 I had Steve and Ben walk me through some of the history of these conferences and what their outcomes have actually looked.
The Kyoto climate agreement was also historic. That was in 1997, and that was where countries really did start to make firmer commitments about how they're going to reduce emissions. It also sets forth a framework around carbon markets and carbon pricing, but particularly sort of market based approaches to addressing the climate crisis. Then-Vice President Al Gore was a big player in making that commitment.
So the Kyoto Protocol is a proposal mainly by the United States and the theory of the Kyoto Protocol was that by developing, you know, projects that would reduce emissions, especially in developing countries, this would enable them to meet their mitigation targets and it would generate some funds for them. And the Kyoto protocol created something called the Clean Development Mechanism that was supposed to be the, kind of the overall oversight body in the clearinghouse for the trading of these emissions offset credits. However, the U.S. Senate didn't ratify the Kyoto Protocol, so it was underfunded. There was a lot of scandal about emissions offset projects that were either fraudulent or that they misrepresented the emissions reduced. And the Clean Development Mechanism credits have been traded at a very low price in a very low level.
Another big COP was in Copenhagen in 2009 that was under President Obama here and they struggled to, basically trying to take the Kyoto commitments and go further, and they really struggled to reach agreement there. It's just you know, all the geopolitical challenges that we face in the world between rich countries, poor countries, kind of countries rising like China or Brazil or India play out in the middle of a climate, negotiation. But one agreement they did reach there was around finance, and the idea that rich countries were going to commit to an annual $100 billion in finance by 2020 and make sure that that goes to developing countries who are really struggling the most with the impacts of climate change.
I'm curious, are those loans, or is that like directly paying for things and have those countries lived up to those commitments?
Yeah, so that's one of the things about that commitment is they didn't spell out exactly what type of finance it would be, and so it every COP that it's debated. Is it direct loans? Is it a grant, so just sort of in the form of aid? Or is it in the form of a carbon market where a country or company buys an offset in another country? All these different variants are things that have been hotly debated. They have not met their commitments on time. They did not meet it by 2020, woefully short.
But that really set the stage for the 2015 Paris climate agreement. Because they struggled in 2009, they decided to take a very different approach in 2015, and they basically said every country set your own targets. But you need to publish them. You need to make them clear and we will continually, over time, try to ratchet up those commitments. Make them tougher, increase your emissions reductions, and increase your climate, finance commitments. And so that was a very different approach. It's almost like a peer pressure approach where you're going to say “we're reducing this much. How much are you reducing?” I think there was some skepticism around that, but it felt like that was really the only way they could get some kind of agreement. And it left a lot of flexibility for countries of different sizes or different types of economies.
But is there any sort of accountability mechanism that makes these commitments enforceable?
No. And that is one of the major challenges with these U.N. climate meetings, is that commitments are made, but there's no enforcement mechanism to say “hey, you didn't meet your commitment. Now you will suffer some penalty.” This is the difference between a U.N. climate agreement like this and trade agreements, which is something that IATP follows very closely. Every trade agreement has some kind of enforcement mechanism, so kind of adjudication process and then they'll be penalties and financial penalties or restricted access to another country. And so that it definitely has been one of the criticisms of this U.N. system. That would be great if we could all cooperate and just, you know, our word was bond, but in fact many time countries go back on their agreements and they're slow to meet them, and so you know, that's one of the things that really relies on peer pressure. Each country is sort of supposed to feel some shame when they don't meet their commitments, and feel like they're falling behind. And then you have countries that are doing real well that hopefully put pressure on other countries.
In the United States, we can say one of the challenges has always been that we have one political party that is sort of in climate denial and really resists any kind of international aid around climate change. And of course, the Trump administration actually removed itself from the Paris climate agreement. So for four years we were sort of out of those international negotiations, even though we were present. And now the Biden administration has re-entered and rejoined the Paris climate agreement. But there are some limits into how much president can commit in terms of international dollars without the approval of Congress. So that's been a limiting factor. Or just U.S. politics and U.S. sort of not setting the tone and not being a role model internationally has been a real problem in terms of climate finance.
In case you haven't noticed, a pattern here, the goals of COP agreements have been repeatedly undermined by unwillingness on the part of wealthy high emitting countries like the United States to meet climate finance promises for poorer countries and an inability to meet emission reduction targets.
And then last year was the COP 26 in Glasgow. So in sort of during a pandemic. So it had a lot of challenges. But there one of the major outcomes was around something called Article 6, where there is an agreement to try to move forward to set rules around carbon markets and around offsets in particular. And this has been one of the most hotly debated issues going back to Kyoto, is this idea that polluters in one industry can offset their pollution, often through forestry or agriculture production. It's enormously complicated to set up those kinds of rules, not to mention the science which continues to evolve and indicate that it's very difficult to sequester carbon in a permanent way. And then the climate crisis itself is causing all these uncertainties and difficulties to keep carbon sequestered. So that's a very controversial issue about offsetting, but they did agree to move forward to try to establish some rules around that.
So at this Glasgow COP, the 26th COP last year, there was an agreement to do two things that were quite significant for carbon market legitimation. One was to, in Article 6 you have an agreement to set up what is essentially kind of an intergovernmental clearinghouse for the trading of credits, so that after the emissions offset credits have been verified and they have been purchased then they are retired. And in theory those credits can never be used again. And, the U.S., EU, others interested in expanding carbon markets as private financial markets, they got three additional words in the Article 6.4 agreement: “and for other purposes.” So, “and for other purposes” is sort of the key that opens the door. Now following the Glasgow COP, you have an expansion in the trading of voluntary carbon markets. So voluntary in this sense means that there is no environmental performance requirement.
As we saw at last year’s COP, and going back to Kyoto in 1997, COP outcomes, influenced by U.S. interests have also focused on market-based strategies like carbon offsetting as a mechanism for reducing total emissions and paying for mitigation activity. It's an appealing strategy for wealthy nations that want to be able to pay to cancel out their emissions without making fundamental changes to the system that produces them. And it's appealing to many of the industry groups in attendance on either end of the carbon offset market. But as we'll cover more in our next episode, this is a flawed and ineffective approach – a false solution – that fails to reduce real emissions and often incentivizes harmful practices, especially when it comes to using agricultural land and practices to offset emissions. The good news is that in recent years, climate commitments, whether by countries or companies and the methods used to meet them, are coming under further scrutiny. At COP 27 a high-level panel on the Race to Zero will issue a report on improving commitments to reduce emissions; limiting loopholes and creating greater accountability.
Given the challenges of the COP, it's no wonder that some of the most vital and impactful climate action is taking place far outside of the conference, at the grassroots level: like frontline and Indigenous activists blocking new fossil fuel infrastructure, and peasant farmers restoring soil and ecosystems and feeding their communities through agroecological practices. But with some of the world most powerful actors convening at the COP – not just nation states, but industry representatives putting forth false solutions – it's an important site for determining the trajectory of global climate action. Which is why it's vital for civil society groups like IATP to be present there as well; advocating for true solutions, drawing attention to issues of global justice, and playing a role in steering the outcomes. In the next episode, I'll be speaking with IATP’s Sophia Murphy and Shefali Sharma, both of whom will be attending this year's COP, about all of that and what we expect to see this year in Sharm El Sheikh at COP 27.
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