COP27: Do these climate conferences ever achieve anything?

COP27 is taking place in Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt. Credit: AP

By ITV News Digital Multimedia Producers Elisa Menendez and James Gray

COP27 is set to be one of the most pivotal in the history of the international climate change meetings.

The Egyptian conference, taking place over the course of nearly two weeks (November 6-18), will be the 27th time world leaders have come together to discuss how best to reduce climate change across the globe.

In recent months, a number of countries have been forced to face up to growing energy security pressures brought about by Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

As a result the topic of moving towards cleaner sources of energy has become louder and more profound.

But after almost three decades of COP meetings, has much changed for the planet - and what can we expect from the latest round of talks?

Do COP meetings achieve much?

Each meeting is an opportunity for world leaders to take stock of progress and increase their ambitions in tackling climate change with the backdrop of scientists' latest findings.

An agreement or declaration on how countries should unanimously reduce greenhouse gas emissions comes out of every meeting, with the Paris Agreement hailed as the greatest advancement in COP history.

While experts widely agree the meetings achieve a lot, there is often a lot of bureaucracy which delays action.

"COP meetings are frustrating because they are so procedural and slow, with many veto players," Professor Sam Fankhauser, a professor of climate economics and policy at the University of Oxford, told ITV News.

"At the same time, it is essential to have this global framework and an agreed platform to negotiate. 

"The difficulty, as with all international agreements, is the lack of enforcement power. If countries don’t like it they don’t sign up - viz the US under Trump".

Executive Director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, Asher Minns, echoed his comments: "The meetings absolutely do deliver, but probably at a slower pace than anybody would really like, including the negotiators as well I think - and certainly environmental groups, scientists and the general public now they're more conscious." 

The COP27 climate conference - what you need to know

What is COP27? When and where will it be?

Each year, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) meets at what is called the Conference of the Parties (abbreviated as COP) to discuss the world's progress on climate change and how to tackle it.

COP27 is the 27th United Nations Climate Change Conference of the Parties summit which will be held in Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt from November 6-18.

Who is going?

Leaders of the 197 countries that signed the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) - a treaty that came into force in 1994 - are invited to the summit.

These are some of the world leaders that will be attending COP27:

  • UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak is attending the conference, after initially saying he wouldn't as he was too busy focusing on the economy within his first weeks in office.

  • US President Joe Biden and his experienced climate envoy, John Kerry, will appear at the talks.

  • France President Emmanuel Macron will also be among the heads of state from around the world staying in Egypt.

King Charles III will not be attending COP27, despite being a staunch advocate for the environment. The decision was made jointly by Buckingham Palace and former prime minister Liz Truss.

Elsewhere, Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping will not attend the talks just as they decided to do for COP26.

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What is it hoping to achieve?

1. Ensure full implementation of the Paris Agreement and putting negotiations into concrete actions - included within this is the target of limiting global warming to well below 2C.

2. Cementing progress on the critical workstreams of mitigation, adaptation, finance and loss and damage, while stepping up finance notably to tackle the impacts of climate change.

3. Enhancing the delivery of the principles of transparency and accountability throughout the UN Climate Change process.

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Rishi Sunak has attended the COP27 conference despite initially saying he wouldn't go. Credit: AP

What have past COPs achieved and have promises been followed through?

In 1992, a mass United Nations treaty aiming to reduce greenhouse gases came into force, after it was signed by 196 "parties" or countries - a near-universal membership.

The first COP was hosted by Berlin in 1995 and was presided over by then-environment minister Angela Merkel. The Berlin Mandate was a milestone first agreement, which established a process to strengthen the climate commitments of developed countries.

Since then, a COP meeting has taken place annually, apart from in 2020 due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

It wasn't until the third meeting in Japan in 1997, that the world's first agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions was adopted - known as the Kyoto Protocol. But it would take another eight years before it would come into force.

Then environment minister John Prescott watches as Ritt Bjerregaard, of the European Commission, signs the Kyoto Protocol in 1998. Credit: AP

The next biggest achievement to emerge from the meetings came almost two decades later - the 2015 Paris Agreement.

Other declarations, agreements and plans emerged from the COPs in between, such as the 2009 Copenhagen Accord which made high-income countries pledge $30 billion towards efforts, and the 2010 Cancun Agreement to help developing nations in tackling climate change.

But Kyoto and Paris are considered the biggest agreements to ever emerge.

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What was the Kyoto Protocol?

It was adopted in December 1997, but due to a complex ratification system it didn't come into effect until years later, in February 2005.

The Protocol required wealthy, industrialised countries - which are largely responsible for high levels of emissions - to limit and reduce greenhouse gases. The targets varied per country, but the average was a cut of 5% relative to 1990 levels by 2012.

The Kyoto Protocol is a binding agreement to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions. Credit: PA

Though it was hailed as a great advancement, the Protocol had a number of issues. The biggest being that the US would not take part under President George W. Bush's administration because major emerging economies like China and India were not required to be part of it.

The Kyoto Protocol ended last year and it produced mixed results as many countries did reduce emissions, but others didn't. However, there are considered to be a greater number of successes than failures.

What was the Paris Agreement?

18 years after the Kyoto Protocol, 196 countries signed up to the 2015 Paris Agreement pledging to limit global warming to well below 2C, but preferably 1.5C above pre-industrial levels.

Almost every country was involved, including China, India, and initially the US, and was welcomed with great optimism from world leaders and scientists.

But four years after president Barack Obama signed up, his successor Donald Trump made the US the first nation in the world to withdraw - a move that was seen as a big blow to the agreement as a whole.

The US pulled out of the Paris Agreement after Donald Trump took office. Credit: AP

The former president said the agreement was unfair to the US and had made leaving Paris a key part of his election pledges, in line with his plans to revitalise the energy sector by ramping up coal and oil productions.

In February 2021, the US officially re-joined Paris just hours after President Joe Biden took the oath of office.

Professor Fankhauser said what is different about the Paris Agreement is that it is about each country deciding "what they want to do" and "not binding commitments as Kyoto tried" to enforce.

"Paris has changed the narrative and the way countries go about climate change," he added.