By Vishrut Chatrath, MBA ’22
This article is Part 2 in a 2-part series written by MBA student Vishrut Chatrath as a reflection after his trip to the COP26 Summit in Glasgow, Scotland.
Post 2 of 2
In 1985, Carl Sagan, a planetary scientist, highlighted to the U.S. Congress that climate change is a global problem that a few nations cannot tackle; instead, it requires all countries to work together to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) to prevent the rise in the Earth’s surface-level temperature. Collective action is fundamental in tackling the challenge posed by climate change, as continued fossil fuel emissions from even one country can impact the entire planet.
History of collective climate action
In 1987, ‘The Montreal Protocol,’ a legally binding global environmental agreement, was adopted. It imposed hard reduction targets on countries to curtail their consumption of ozone-depleting chemical substances, i.e., chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs). The ozone layer shields the planet from the sun’s harmful levels of ultraviolet radiation.[i] The goal of the agreement was to regulate the production of CFCs to protect the ozone layer. The agreement was successful as countries imposed laws to comply; this set the stage for collective climate action.
In 1992, at the ‘Earth Summit’ in Rio De Janeiro, an international treaty called the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) was agreed[ii] and ultimately ratified by 197 countries. The treaty’s objective is the “stabilization of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system.”[iii] The treaty called for regular negotiations forming the basis of the annual climate conference. The Conference of Parties also known as COP is a decision-making body responsible for monitoring and reviewing the implementation of the UNFCCC.
The road from Kyoto to Paris
The first significant conference was COP3 in Kyoto in 1997; it operationalized the UNFCCC and committed countries to limit and reduce GHG emissions from 1990 levels. The Kyoto Protocol placed a heavier burden on developed countries than developing countries by setting legally binding GHG emission reduction targets. It recognized that developed countries are primarily responsible for the high levels of GHG emissions in the atmosphere.[iv] The Kyoto Protocol modeled on the Montreal Protocol imposed specific targets and was legally binding. However, Kyoto was unable to replicate the success of Montreal because phasing out fossil fuel use is more complicated than tackling CFCs.[v] The agreement excluded China and India, large GHG emitters, from the legally binding targets since their per capita emissions were much lower and both countries were growing. The free pass to China led the U.S., a leading GHG emitter, to reject the agreement[vi] , which ultimately resulted in the failure of the Kyoto Protocol.
Over the years, the U.N. tried to reach a consensus between developed and developing nations, most notably in 2009 at COP15 in Copenhagen. Unfortunately, ‘The Copenhagen Accord’ was considered a failure due to the lack of a binding commitment from countries to reduce their emissions. Two outcomes prevailed from COP15 (i) it recognized the objective to keep the maximum global average temperature rise below 2°C, and (ii) defined developed countries’ financial commitments to developing countries for adaption and mitigation starting with US$30B until 2012, increasing to US$100B p.a. by 2020.[vii] In 2010, David Victor and Robert Keohane published ‘The Regime Complex for Climate Change,’ which highlighted that the quest for a legally binding treaty proved an obstacle to progress.[viii] Negotiators in Paris took note of this analysis and adopted a different approach to succeed.
The defining moment in climate action
At COP21, the Paris Climate Agreement, an international treaty on climate change, was adopted. It set forth three key objectives: first, limiting the average global temperature increase to well below 2°C from pre-industrial levels, preferably to 1.5°C, and targeting Net Zero GHG emissions by 2050. The second, alignment of public and private financial flows consistent with a pathway to low greenhouse gas emissions and climate-resilient development. Lastly, each of the 196 countries to the agreement must submit non-binding national pledges to reduce emissions and outline actions they will take to build resilience to adapt to the impact of climate change. These plans, referred to as Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs), are voluntary pledges made by countries to achieve the goals outlined in the Paris Agreement. The voluntary, non-binding nature of the pledges was essential to achieve global participation, encourage ambitious goals without fear of failure, and avoid the drawback faced by the Kyoto Protocol’s binding agreement. It is important to note that there is a legal requirement to submit and update an NDC, but NDCs themselves are not legally binding[ix], a crucial difference from years prior. The NDC’s need to be updated every five years, with the first submission due at COP26. Hence, all eyes were on COP26 when countries would be expected to reveal their respective commitments to tackling climate change.