UN Climate Talks & Timeline

We explain the history and timeline of climate talks and negotiations under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). We describe the important COP conferences, the climate treaties and accords concluded, and the numerous agreements negotiated on all aspects of climate change mitigation and adaptation. We show how certain developed countries have blocked progress for years because of selfish economic motives and political lobbying from fossil fuel companies.
Planet Earth seen from the moon
UN Climate talks must succeed. There is only one Planet Earth. Image Credit: NASA

Climate change is the most critical global challenge of the 21st century. This is why UN climate talks are so important – because we are facing a genuinely global threat. One which requires worldwide climate action by all governments. The United Nations is the only body which is capable of conducting the preliminary international discussions and negotiations, and forging the necessary multilateral climate plan to avert catastrophe.

The Climate Crisis Unfolds

In 1965, more than twenty years before the first UN climate talks, President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Science Advisory Committee publishes its landmark report, entitled “Restoring the Quality of Our Environment”, which draws attention to the greenhouse effect and cautions against the harmful effects of greenhouse gases (GHGs) like carbon dioxide (CO2). Few scientists pay it much attention.

On July 20, 1969, American astronauts walk on the Moon. Photographs of Planet Earth lead people to perceive our world as a unique but fragile biosphere surviving in a harsh universe.

By the 1980s, it’s a different story. Climate science has made significant strides, aided by developing computer and satellite technology. Climatology as a discipline has moved away from its traditional focus on weather reports for farmers, to study global climate phenomena as well as past climates (paleoclimatology).

In 1981, an internal Exxon memorandum warns “it is distinctly possible” that CO2 emissions from the combustion of petroleum “will later produce effects which will indeed be catastrophic, at least for a substantial fraction of the Earth’s population”. 1

In 1985, a conference is hosted jointly by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) and the International Council for Science (ICSU) on the “Assessment of the Role of Carbon Dioxide and Other Greenhouse Gases in Climate Variations and Associated Impacts”. One of its key findings, is that greenhouse gases released during the burning of fossil fuels “are expected” to cause significant warming in the 21st century and that global warming is inevitable.

On April 26, 1986, No. 4 reactor in the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, in northern suffers a catastrophic meltdown, polluting a swathe of the European mainland. The disaster cripples plans to replace fossil fuels with nuclear power. 2 For more, see: Is Nuclear Energy A Replacement for Fossil Fuels?

In June 1988, NASA scientist James E. Hansen testifies before the United States Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources that NASA is certain (a) that global warming has already affected Earth’s climate, and (b) that the warming is caused by the accumulation of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, and not by naturally occurring fluctuations.

This testimony corroborates data provided by ice cores extracted at the Vostok Station in Antarctica, indicating that CO2 levels and temperature have fallen then risen together many times in past glacial and interglacial periods. In other words, the current rise in atmospheric CO2 levels will inevitably be accompanied by a rise in temperature. 3

In 1988, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) set up the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), an action endorsed by the United Nations General Assembly. Now seen as the accepted authority on the science of climate change, the IPCC continues to issue its detailed Assessment Reports (summarizing the state of scientific knowledge on Earth’s climate crisis) every 5-6 years. To date, the IPCC has issued 5 Assessment Reports – in 1990, 1995, 2001, 2007, and 2013.

Also in 1988, a confidential paper written for Shell’s environmental conservation committee states that emissions of carbon dioxide could raise temperatures by 1°C to 2°C over the next 40 years, involving changes that may be “the greatest in recorded history”. It strongly recommends rapid action by the energy industry, stating: “By the time the global warming becomes detectable it could be too late to take effective countermeasures to reduce the effects or even stabilise the situation.” 1

In 1989, fossil-fuel companies form the Global Climate Coalition (GCC) to downplay climate change in order to protect their economic interests.

In 1990, the IPCC issues its First Assessment Report, in which it warns: “emissions resulting from human activities are substantially increasing the atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases.” This leads to widespread calls for an international climate agreement. The UN General Assembly takes note of the report and initiates negotiations for a framework convention on climate change.

In November 1990, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher addresses the second World Climate Conference shortly after the IPCC report is published. She praises the IPCC’s work and calls for a global treaty on climate change.

UN Climate Talks: A Summary (1992-2020)

Since 1992, negotiations among countries have resulted in numerous accords, including: the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) (1992); the Kyoto Protocol (1997); the Doha Amendment (2012); and most recently the Paris Climate Agreement (2015-16).

The Paris accord signals a general readiness by most governments to face up to the climate crisis and reduce consumption of fossil fuels. However, to secure this climate agreement, UNFCCC negotiators allow countries to decide for themselves what climate action to take. The idea is that, next time, countries will increase their commitments. Except they haven’t. And the cuts in greenhouse gas emissions that countries have agreed to under the Paris agreement, aren’t enough to limit global warming.

Sadly, despite the seriousness of the situation, UN climate talks continue to be dogged by disagreements between the developed and developing world. These disagreements have caused several countries to pull out of (first) the Kyoto Protocol, and then the Paris Agreement. Can the United Nations inject more urgency into the negotiations when they resume after COVID-19? Will Joe Biden’s election as US President help to galvanize other leaders? Let’s hope so.

Why Are UN Climate Talks Always Breaking Down?

Essentially, there are two opposing forces. On one side are the wealthier ‘developed countries’ who are being asked to pay most of the costs of climate change. On the other, are the poorer ‘developing countries’, most of whom lack the money to pay for the necessary climate change adaptation measures.

On the face of it, the wealthier should definitely pay for the costs of global warming, especially since they are responsible for most of the emissions prior to 1960.

But it’s not that simple. The richer countries feel that many developing nations lack the good governance, infrastructure and justice systems needed to manage the climate financing that could be necessary. They say major reforms are needed before any large scale climate funding can be agreed. The recent $700 million 1MDB fraud involving the Prime Minister of Malaysia, is a case in point.

In addition, some so-called ‘developing countries’, like China and India, don’t quite fit the profile of the poor and blameless nation.

China, for example, used more cement in the three years 2011, 2012 and 2013, than the United States did in the entire 20th Century. 4 Cement happens to be a major contributor to climate change. In fact, cement emissions account for 8 percent of all man-made greenhouse gas emissions, annually.

At present China accounts for 28 percent of global GHG emissions; India accounts for 7 percent (about three and a half times more than Germany). In addition, China and India spend more on military equipment than any other country except America. These two countries may be relatively poor on a per capita basis but the optics aren’t good. Many Pacific Island states don’t understand, for example, why their nations should disappear under the waves because of China’s drive for prosperity and empire.

The issue of “Who pays for climate change?” is extremely complex. What’s more, there are huge sums of money at stake. Oil and gas companies have campaigned against the science of climate change for decades and they have the resources to influence politicians at the highest level.

On balance, the only rational approach must be for developed nations to pay up and get on with it before it’s too late. But the new wave of political populism is making heroes out of leaders who put national interests before global ones, so anything is possible.

Timeline of UN Climate Talks

1992 – The Rio Earth Summit

The so-called “Earth Summit” held in Rio de Janeiro, produces the first multilateral global agreements on climate change. Chief among them is the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), a treaty whose avowed purpose is to prevent “dangerous” human interference in the Earth’s climate system.

The UNFCCC treaty confirms that human activities contribute to climate change, which it describes as an issue of global concern. The UNFCCC does not impose legally binding obligations on signatories to reduce greenhouse gas emissions nor does it offer any international emissions targets or deadlines for climate action. Instead, it merely urges signatories to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels, by the year 2000. In addition, it calls for frequent meetings between the parties, known as the Conference of the Parties, or COP. 5

In due course, the UNFCCC is ratified by 197 countries, including the United States. In fact, the U.S. President George H. W. Bush affirms at the time: “The US fully intends to be the pre-eminent world leader in protecting the global environment.”

What’s the difference between a signatory and a party to a treaty?

A signatory is not legally bound by a treaty’s provisions. Signature is merely an expression of general support. But once a signatory has ratified the treaty in accordance with its own laws, it becomes a party to the treaty. Parties are legally bound by all the provisions and obligations laid down by the treaty, subject to legitimate reservations.

1995 – The First Meeting of UNFCCC Parties

Parties and signatories to the UNFCCC meet for the first Conference of the Parties, in Berlin – known as COP1 – in March/April 1995. They fail to agree on any legally binding targets or timetables, but agree to negotiations with a view to strengthening commitments on limiting greenhouse gases (GHGs). A compromise deal, known as the Berlin Mandate, is agreed unanimously on the final day. It concedes that the existing convention is too weak in merely urging signatories to reduce greenhouse gases to 1990 levels. To remedy this, it lays down a two-year process of negotiations to set up legally binding targets and timetables for greenhouse gas emissions after 2000. Climate and environmental activists condemn the agreement as ineffective.

1997 – Major U.S. Oil Company Denies Climate Change

Two months prior to the Kyoto climate conference, Mobil – the major American oil company that merged with Exxon in 1999 to form ExxonMobil – takes out an advertisement in The New York Times, which reads: “Let’s face it: the science of climate change is too uncertain to mandate a plan of action that could plunge economies into turmoil.”

1997 – COP3 Adopts Kyoto Protocol

COP3, the third Conference of the Parties, is held in Japan, in December 1997, where it adopts the Kyoto Protocol, a landmark climate agreement which formalizes the principles of the UNFCCC. It is the world’s first legally binding climate treaty, and has taken several years of intense international negotiations to achieve. It is eventually ratified by 192 parties.

The Kyoto Protocol requires all developed countries to lower their emissions of six key greenhouse gases, by an average of 5 percent below 1990 levels. The treaty targets four individual gases – carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4), nitrous oxide (N2O), and sulphur hexafluoride (SF6) – plus two groups of gases – hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) and perfluorocarbons (PFCs). (See also: Montreal Protocol (1987) ).

However, the Kyoto Protocol doesn’t oblige developing countries – including China and India – to make any reductions. This does not go down well with developed countries.

In addition, the protocol establishes a carbon market – an emissions trading scheme (ETS) known as “cap and trade” – which enables signatories to trade emission ‘allowances’. It’s a market-based approach to regulating carbon emissions whereby buyers (of emission-allowances) pay for excess GHG emissions while sellers gain a financial reward for having reduced emissions.

In the United States, Congress fails to ratify the Kyoto Protocol after intense opposition from oil companies and the GCC. Subsequent talks in November 2000 get nowhere, and in March 2001 the United States withdraws completely, claiming that the treaty is not in the country’s best economic interests.

2000 – COP6 (The Hague) Controversy

COP 6 takes place in The Hague, Netherlands, in November 2000. A major controversy erupted during the negotiations, over a US proposal to offset its CO2 emissions by counting the carbon capture and storage performed by carbon “sinks” in its forests and croplands. The proposal allows the U.S. to discount a major proportion of its emissions, and not surprisingly is rejected. The talks in The Hague then collapse. It is later announced that the Hague COP6 meetings (dubbed “COP 6 bis“) will be resumed in Bonn, Germany, in the second half of July 2001.

2001 – COP6 (Bonn) Achieves Kyoto Consensus

At the sixth Conference of the Parties, held in July 2001, in Bonn, Germany, agreement is reached on a range of revisions to the Kyoto Protocol, which make the climate treaty more workable, after 4 years of inactivity following its initial drafting. They include improvements to the “cap and trade” emissions trading scheme, and to how carbon sinks (like forests) can be used to offset emissions.

A joint implementation program, overseen by an international U.N. regulatory panel, is established, allowing developed countries to claim credit for investing in sustainable energy projects in developing countries.

Also, two climate change funds, including one for “least developed countries,” are set up to promote the switch to cleaner technologies. Additional monies are earmarked for the monitoring of emissions, and to encourage OPEC countries to develop renewable energy alternatives to their fossil fuel energy systems.

In October, countries agree on the final rules for meeting targets laid down by the Kyoto Protocol, paving the way for its implementation in February 2005.

2001 – COP 7

COP7 is held in Marrakesh, Morocco, in October/November 2001. The conference settles the work of COP4 (Buenos Airies Nov 1998) and paves the way for signatories to ratify the Kyoto Protocol. The final details of the Kyoto treaty are adopted and called the Marrakesh Accords.

For example, the Special Climate Change Fund (SCCF) is agreed, for projects involving adaptation, technology transfer, energy transport, industry, agriculture, forestry and waste management. The Least Developed Countries Fund is also created to support a work programme to assist LDCs develop national adaptation programmes of action (NAPAs). The United States did not ratify the Kyoto Protocol and so its delegation only has observer status at the conference, and declines to get involved in the negotiations. 6

2004 – COP10 Focuses on Climate Adaptation

COP10 takes place in Buenos Aires, Argentina, in December 2004. It focuses largely on climate change adaptation options, to help make developing countries more resilient at coping with the effects of climate change. The “Buenos Aires Plan of Action” includes a range of proposals on land use, technology transfer, and climate response measures, as well as climate education, training and public awareness. It also examines the specific needs of least developed countries (LDCs).

2005 – Kyoto Protocol Takes Effect

In February 2005, the Kyoto Protocol comes into force, following its ratification by countries accounting for at least 55 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. Alarmingly, the treaty does not include the United States, the world’s No 1 carbon emitter.

The Protocol’s first commitment period runs from 2008 to the end of 2012. During this time, countries are obliged to reduce emissions according to their national commitments. The EU commits to reduce emissions by 8 percent below 1990 levels, Japan by 5 percent, while Russia commits to maintaining emissions at 1990 levels.

2007 – Negotiations Begin for Kyoto Part 2

An international meeting of environment ministers held in June 2007, calls on the COP13 conference (held in December 2007) to agree a timetable for the negotiation of Kyoto 2.0, to cover the period 2012 to 2020. The need for climate action is also boosted by the publication of the IPCC’s Fourth Assessment Report, which states that climate change is “most likely” the result of anthropogenic activity and details some of the growing effects of global warming on the environment. (See also: Anthropocene Epoch.)

During COP13, discussions reach an impasse after the USA rejects a widely backed proposal recommending that all industrialized nations cut GHG emissions by specific targets. U.S. delegates counter this suggestion by insisting that developing countries should also commit to reductions. In the end, the United States backs down and the parties adopt the Bali Action Plan, under which a new climate agreement is to be drafted by 2009.

2009 – UN Pledges of Climate Action

Three months prior to the final negotiations on Kyoto 2.0, world leaders voice their support for climate change mitigation during a UN summit on climate action, hosted by Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.

Chinese President Hu Jintao proposes to cut emissions in China by a “notable margin” by 2020. This is the first announcement of emissions cuts by the Beijing leadership. Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama promises to cut emissions by one quarter. U.S. President Barack Obama declares that the United States is determined to act and lead, but offers no details.

2009 – COP15 Disappointment

COP15, held at Copenhagen in December 2009, is supposed to finalize agreement on a new climate treaty to succeed the Kyoto Protocol. But world leaders including German Chancellor Angela Merkel, U.S. President Barack Obama and French President Nicolas Sarkozy, aren’t able to reach a deal. As a result, the so-called Copenhagen Accord – which recognizes that the increase in global temperatures should be kept below 2 degrees Celsius – is not legally binding and therefore does not commit countries to anything.

The Accord also acknowledges the critical impacts of global warming and stresses the need to establish a comprehensive climate adaptation program backed by international support. It accepts that deep cuts in global emissions are required and agrees that a low-emission strategy is essential for sustainable development.

It recommends urgent action to reduce climate vulnerability, especially in least developed countries (LDCs), and small island developing states (SIDS), and agrees that developed countries will provide adequate, predictable and sustainable financial resources and technology to achieve these goals. Meantime, the 2009 ‘State of the Climate’ report issued by the American Meteorological Society (AMS) forecasts a 3.5°C to 7.4°C rise in global temperature by 2100.

2010 – Temperature Target Set in Cancun

Following the impasse at Copenhagen, and the announcement by NASA that 2000–2009 was the warmest decade on record, pressure builds to reach a deal in Mexico during the COP16 conference at Cancun in December 2010.

The Cancun Agreements are largely symbolic. Countries commit to keep global temperature increases below 2°C. And around 80 countries, including the United States, China and India, as well as the EU, submit national emissions reduction targets, and also establish stronger mechanisms for monitoring progress. Also, a $100-billion Green Climate Fund is set up to help developing countries adapt to climate change.

But experts warn it’s not enough to stay below the 2°C target. What’s more, there is no sign of Kyoto 2.0 covering the 8-year period 2012-2020. To add insult to injury, as of 2020, the much-vaunted Green Climate Fund has received a mere 3 percent of its proposed $100 billion funding.

2011 – COP17 New Accord to Apply to All Countries

COP17 is held in Durban, South Africa in December 2011. It gets off to a wobbly start, when the world’s three worst carbon-emitters – the United States, China and India – reject an accord drafted by the European Union. But things eventually calm down. In the end, the conference agrees to organize the drafting of a new, legally binding agreement by 2015, to cover the post-Kyoto period from 2020 onwards. Unlike the Kyoto Protocol, the new agreement will apply to both developed and developing countries. Since the Kyoto Protocol only has a few months left, the parties agree to extend it until 2017.

Climate scientists and other environmental experts condemn the agreement at Durban as being incapable of limiting global warming to 2 °C, and warn that more urgent action is needed.

2012 – COP18 in Doha

Qatar is the host country for COP 18 which takes place in Doha, in November/December 2012. In a series of documents known as the Doha Climate Gateway, the conference agrees to extend the Kyoto Protocol until 2020, but this decision is of little significance. The United States was never a party; Canada has withdrawn; Russia objects to any further commitments, as do Belarus, Japan, New Zealand and Ukraine. What’s more, neither China, India nor Brazil are subject to emissions reductions under the Kyoto treaty. As a result, the Doha Amendment to the Kyoto Protocol only covers about 15 percent of global carbon dioxide emissions.

While governments are making feeble attempts to breathe life into the Kyoto treaty, Typhoon Bopha, a category-5 super-typhoon – the strongest tropical cyclone on record to affect the southern Philippines – slams into the island of Mindanao, illustrating the growing ferocity of extreme weather events brought on by global warming.

The one positive of Doha, is that industrialized countries agree to assist developing countries reduce and adapt to the effects of global warming. Although little progress is made towards the funding of the Green Climate Fund.

2013 – COP19 Inconsequential

COP19 is held in Warsaw, Poland, in November 2013. It doesn’t start well. A collection of developing countries, called the Group of Seventy-Seven or G77, plus China propose the establishment of a new funding system to help vulnerable countries cope with the financial damage caused by climate change.

The proposal is rejected by developed countries leading to a partial G77 walk-out. Subsequently, negotiators agree to a mechanism that satisfies some but not all of G77’s demands. The conference also agrees on an initiative to help end deforestation in the Americas, Africa and Asia, known as REDD+.


Effects of Deforestation
Deforestation in the Amazon Rainforest
Deforestation in Southeast Asia

World leaders at the Paris Climate Agreement in 2015. Photo: Arnaud Bouissou (CC0 1.0)

2015 – Paris Climate Agreement Reached

The landmark COP21 conference takes place in Paris, in Nov/Dec 2015. It is preceded by the publication of an additional synthesis of the IPCC’s gloomy Fifth Assessment Report, reporting the increasing effects of ocean warming, as well as the effects of global warming on humans around the world.

Note: In August 2020, glaciologists report that ice-melt in Greenland and Antarctica is consistent with worst case scenarios of the IPCC Fifth Assessment Report. 7

Greenland Ice Sheet: The Facts
Antarctic Ice Sheet: How Fast is it Melting?

The so-called Paris Climate Agreement is agreed to at COP21 by 196 countries. The treaty is described by climate experts as the most significant global climate agreement in history.

Negotiations for the Paris Agreement began at COP17 in Durban, South Africa, with the setting up of the “Ad Hoc Working Group on the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action“, commonly known as the “Durban Platform“. A working group was then tasked with negotiating “another legal instrument by 2015, to come into effect in 2020. Four years on, the goal is finally achieved.

Significantly, unlike all past accords, the Paris Climate Agreement obliges nearly all countries — developed and developing — to set emissions reduction targets. The agreement aims to reduce GHG emissions in order to keep the rise in global temperatures to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels, and to pursue efforts to keep it below 1.5°C.

It seeks to do this through national measures – known as Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) – which are reviewed regularly. But countries are allowed to choose their own targets and there are no legal enforcement mechanisms to ensure compliance. Each Party agrees to provide regular information on man-made emissions, as well as the removal of emissions by forests, wetlands, mangroves and other carbon sinks.

Although the Paris Agreement breaks new ground by involving all nations in the quest to stabilize Earth’s temperature, analysts say that much more stringent action is needed to achieve this goal. They are probably right. According to the Germany-based nonprofit organizations Climate Analytics and New Climate Institute, current policies and NDCs will result in a rise of nearly 3°C by 2100.

“The Paris Agreement is not enough. Even at the time of negotiation, it was recognized as not being enough,” says CFR’s Hill. “It was only a first step, and the expectation was that as time went on, countries would return with greater ambition to cut their emissions.”

Negotiations lead to the adoption of the Paris Agreement on 12 December, regulating climate change reduction measures from 2020 onwards – the end of the extended term of the Kyoto Protocol. It comes into force on November 4th, 2016, shortly after 55 Parties, accounting for an estimated 55 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, ratify the treaty.

2017 – USA Announces Withdrawal from Paris Agreement

On June 1, 2017, United States President Donald Trump announces that the U.S. will cease all participation in the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change mitigation. He says that the Paris accord will undermine the U.S. economy and put the country at a permanent disadvantage.

This withdrawal represents an answer of sorts to analysts and other observers who said the terms of the Paris Agreement were insufficiently robust to deliver global warming of less 2°C. As we say above, their assessment is probably correct. But would major emitters, like the USA, China and India, have accepted their stiffer conditions? It seems doubtful.

Coincidentally, five months prior to the announcement of America’s withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, the oil companies BP, Chevron and Exxon each donate at least $500,000 for the inauguration of Donald Trump as president.

2018 – COP24 Agrees Detailed Rules for Paris Agreement

COP24 takes place in Katowice, Poland, in November/December 2018. Shortly beforehand, the IPCC Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C is published. It warns in strong language of the devastating consequences — intense heatwaves, including marine heatwaves and a complete loss of coral reefs, as well as dangerous sea level rise — if the rise in global temperature exceeds 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, which it predicts could happen by 2030.

Despite the report, countries do not agree to more stringent targets. But they succeed in agreeing most of the detailed rules for implementing the Paris Agreement.

The Importance of Climate Justice

The issue of climate action is fraught with ethical problems. Who is to blame for emissions before 1950? Who should pay for the damage being caused by these historical emissions? Who should pay for the effects of today’s climate change? Should developed countries pay for climate change adaptation projects in a poor country if it’s ruled by a corrupt clique of politicians? For more on this, see our article: The Ethics of Climate Change.

2019 – July – Opec Frightened by Greta Thunberg

The Nigerian politician Mohammed Barkindo, now Secretary General of Opec, which represents Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Algeria, Iran and several other oil states, states that climate campaigners and student climate protesters are the biggest threat to the oil industry. He claims they are misleading the public with unscientific warnings about fossil fuels and climate change. 1

2019 – September Climate Action Summit

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres hosts the UN Climate Action Summit for world leaders in New York. Parties to the Paris Agreement have agreed to submit new NDCs by 2020, thus the conference is a chance for leaders to share ideas. But those in charge of the world’s top carbon-emitting countries, including China and the United States, do not show up. At the summit, the UN Secretary-General urges countries to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 45 percent by 2030, and attain carbon neutrality by 2050.

Also, during September, the IPCC publishes two special reports. The first is its Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate (SROCC). The report highlights the effects of global warming on the oceans, and warns about the growing problems of marine heatwaves, ocean acidification (causing mass bleaching of corals) and ocean deoxygenation (causing breathing difficulties for larger marine animals, such as tuna, swordfish and sharks). The possible slowing down of the thermohaline circulation is another potential consequence.

The second report is the IPCC’s Special Report on Climate Change and Land (SRCCL), also known as the “Special Report on climate change, desertification, land degradation, sustainable land management, food security, and greenhouse gas fluxes in terrestrial ecosystems.” It highlights the effects of deforestation as well as the consequences of inappropriate land use change, as well as the benefits of tree planting for CO2 absorption.

2019 – COP25 Stalemate

COP25 is due to take place in November, in Brazil. But when elected as President of Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro withdraws Brazil from hosting the conference. Chile takes over as host but cost-of-living demonstrations make this arrangement impossible.

In the end, COP25 is held in Madrid, Spain, in December 2019. Despite an intensification of the climate crisis, with vast expanses of Australia going up in smoke in the some of the worst Australian bushfires ever recorded, as well as numerous warnings from meteorological research institutes and other scientific forums, as well as worldwide street protests, the conference ends without an agreement.

Negotiators are unable to agree over whether to give financial assistance to those developing countries who are grappling with rising sea levels and extreme weather. Furthermore, the conference fails to urge countries to increase their commitments under the Paris Climate Agreement. UN Secretary-General Guterres criticizes the Madrid climate talks as a wasted opportunity.

2020 – COVID-19 Pandemic Disrupts Everything

COP26, due to take place in Glasgow, UK, in November 2020, is postponed until November 2021 because of the coronavirus outbreak. The good news is that the global shutdown has driven the largest annual fall in carbon emissions ever recorded, estimated to be about 2.4 billion tonnes, or 7 percent of total emissions. 8

In contrast, the ending of World War Two witnessed a drop of about one billion tonnes. That said, experts are already predicting that the reductions won’t last, pointing – among other things – to the rebound performed by the Chinese economy. See also: Effect of COVID-19 on Climate Change.

The Future of Climate Negotiations

While some observers bemoan the lack of effective climate action at the UN or at multilateral COP conferences, others say that the most meaningful climate action is occurring outside of the governing hierarchies or at bilateral meetings.

“Progress is going to happen not globally with all countries joined together, but in smaller groups and by sector,” says David Victor, an international relations professor at the University of California, San Diego. It could happen, he says, within industries, such as the aviation or car industries; bilaterally, such as between China and the United States; or through select intergovernmental groupings, like the Group of Twenty (G20).

The truth is, no one knows what is going to happen next.

Will President Joe Biden rejoin the Paris Agreement and make America a world leader once more? How many coal-fired power plants will China and India build over the next decade? How much of the Amazon Rainforest will be allowed to go up in smoke? How long before renewables like solar power and wind energy make a significant impact in the global energy market? Will nuclear energy make a comeback?

The answers to these questions are likely to determine the future of UN climate talks and the success of any climate action they propose. Because although the UN is the most suitable forum for climate discussions, only our political leaders have the power to make things happen.


  1. “Half a century of dither and denial.” The Guardian. [][][]
  2. “The Discovery of Global Warming.” []
  3. “A 150,000-year climatic record from Antarctic ice.” Lorius, C., Jouzel, J., Ritz, C. et al. Nature 316, 591–596 (1985). []
  4. “How did China use more cement between 2011 and 2013 than the US used in the entire 20th century?” Independent []
  5. See this invaluable article on UN climate negotiations by the Council on Foreign Relations. []
  6. “A Brief Overview of COP Decisions.” Environmental and Energy Study Institute. []
  7. “Ice-sheet losses track high-end sea-level rise projections.” Slater, T., Hogg, A.E. & Mottram, R. Nat. Clim. Chang. 10, 879–881 (2020). []
  8. “Global Carbon Budget 2020” Friedlingstein, P. et al. Global Carbon Budget 2020, Earth Syst. Sci. Data, 12, 3269–3340. []
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