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The UN climate talks have just started and I bet a load of people are thinking didn’t we just have those in New York a few months back, when Greta did that stare at Trump? So here’s a quick intro to WTF these talks are and how looooong they’ve been happening. (1/?)
They happen in a different country each year and have done since 1995. The first one was in Berlin. This one is formally hosted by Chile but got moved to Madrid at the last minute. Next year they are in Glasgow.
Autumnal UN climate summits like the one we had earlier this year are bonus extras to help build momentum. These formal ones are called the Conference of the Parties (or COP) the “parties” being sigs to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (or the UNFCCC).
The UNF triple C was signed at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, in June 1992. A body called the UNFCCC sits alongside the signed document, organising these meetings. It’s based in Bonn. They also have meetings there in the summer but theses tend to get less coverage.
Enviro journos cover these every year but they tend to run quietly behind other headlines. Some bumper COPs which are exceptions to this include Paris (2015), Copenhagen (2009) and Kyoto (1997). The 2020 Glasgow talks are set to be similarly big.
The 1992 Earth Summit wasn’t the first UN meeting on climate change. There were discussions of the issue in and around the 1972 Stockholm Declaration, though arguably they didn't talk about climate change nearly as much as they could have/ some scientists would have wanted.
(regular reminder that we’ve known the basics of climate change since the 1850s and people have been worrying about it seriously since the 1950s)
There were also World Climate Conferences in 1979 and 1990. Thatcher gave a famous speech to the UN in 1989 on the topic too. I recommend it for the steampunk Darwin ref alone: margaretthatcher.org/document/107817
Amongst other things, the 1972 conference gave birth to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) which, in turn, worked w other orgs to set up the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (the IPCC), an amazing project pulling together global expertise on climate change.
The IPCC issues reports every few years or so. They’re split into different working groups: WGI on the physical science basis (i.e. is it happening?), WGII on impacts (i.e. what’s happening/ will happen?) and WGIII on mitigation (i.e. can we stop it?).
Their first assessment report came out in 1990, the most recent was 2014, the next is 2021. The Paris talks asked the IPCC to do a special report on 1.5 C warming, which arguably precipitated the wave of climate activism we’ve had in the last year.
The 1992 Convention didn’t include any binding limits on carbon emissions for specific countries, nor any enforcement mechanisms (in contrast, for example, from some agreements on control of weapons).
Instead, it’s an agreement that we all want to avoid “dangerous” human-caused climate change and keep talking about how we might do that.
Still, they agreed to update and publish inventories of their emissions as well as developing promoting programes to both hault and adapt to climate change. They also agreed to promote public education about climate change and its effects.
At the first COP in 1995 they agreed their initial idea of stabilising emissions at 1990 levels by 2000 wasn't enough, so planned discussions around a larger challenge at the 1997 Kyoto talks. (If you think this sounds like someone putting off their homework you’re not alone)
This was adopted in December 1997, but wasn’t to come into force until February 2005 (by which point George W Bush had withdrawn the USA and it fell apart...)
The next attempt to give the climate talks teeth was Copenhagen in 2009. These ended in what’s at best described as a weak compromise. Or as Greenpeace put it: “Copenhagen is a climate crime scene tonight, with the guilty men and women fleeing to the airport in shame.”
With the Paris talks in 2015, the UN turned things around in many ways, rebuilding a sense that we could do this. They managed talks that didn’t collapse, and even got people talking about 1.5. So good news...?
But arguably the signatories have done f all about it theguardian.com/environment/20…
They have done stuff. E.g. that IPCC 1.5 report off the back or Paris. They’ve also brought people together - not just formally, there’s always an activist fringe too - and offered an annual event which helps stop politicians hiding the topic entirely.
Want the UN talks to matter? Keep an eye on them, and let your politicians know you’re watching. As well as places like the BBC, NYT and Guardian, @CarbonBrief and @ClimateHome are always good for news on the UN climate talks.
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