As COP28 reaches its mid-point, B P Collins’ environment partner, Simon Carroll looks back on some key moments in COP history to help assess where we stand now, the landscape coming into COP28, and what we might expect from the end of this year’s discussions in the UAE.

The United National Framework Convention on Climate Change (“UNFCC”), which provided a framework for international co-operation to combat climate change by stabilising greenhouse gas emissions in the atmosphere to prevent climate damage, was negotiated at a UN conference in 1992 in Rio de Janeiro, known as the ‘Earth Summit’.

The first official annual ‘conference of the parties’ to the UNFCC (or “COP”) took place in Berlin in 1995 (COP1), and in 1997 (COP3), at a meeting in Kyoto, Japan, the parties adopted the Kyoto Protocol, which (significantly, for the first time) imposed a binding obligation on 37 developed countries to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 6-8% below levels in 1990 and set time periods for those commitments to be achieved.

Ratifying the Protocol proved problematic, requiring 55 countries including those responsible for 55% of the developed world’s CO2 emissions, because of disagreement from some of those largest gas emitters. Those disagreements, and various domestic political agendas, slowed further progress considerably.

In 2015 (COP21), at a meeting in Paris, significant progress was made. 196 countries adopted the Paris Agreement, a binding treaty on climate change with the principal goal of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees compared to pre-industrial levels. The Agreement works on a 5-year cycle, and requires countries to rachet-up climate action with each submitting yearly climate plans (‘nationally determined contributions’ or “NDCs”) showing increasing (and long-term) actions to reduce gas emissions. It also affirmed a need for developed countries to provide financial assistance (‘climate finance’) to others, such as to help with long-term investments needed to reduce emissions, to the tune of $100bn annually by 2020.

Much work since 2015 has focused on implementing the aims of the Paris Agreement, and the postponed 2021 meeting in Glasgow (COP26) was significant for being the first 5-year anniversary at which the Paris commitments were reviewed. Among others, the Glasgow meeting also led to the ‘Accelerating to Zero’ coalition, to speed up the phase-out of fossil fuel vehicles, and the ‘Glasgow Climate Pact’ to “phase down” use of coal-fired power stations – proposals to extend this to all fossil fuels were ultimately not agreed.

Although criticised for not adequately delivering on key areas, like action not going far enough to reduce emissions in line with the 1.5 degree target, COP27 in Sharm El-Sheik, Egypt ended with the establishment of a ‘Loss and Damage’ fund to compensate vulnerable countries impacted by extreme weather events – significant, as it was 30 years after the idea was first proposed.

Ultimately, however, many commentators felt that COP27 had not delivered progress toward emission reductions, and left corporations with limited legislative guidance beyond the UN’s ‘Integrity Matters Report’ but with responsibility for much of the action needed to meet the Paris Agreement’s obligations.

With the first Global Stocktake to track countries’ progress, the agenda for COP28 in Dubai was also anticipated to focus on fast-tracking of energy transition and cutting emissions by 2030, delivering on climate finance promises, putting nature, people, lives and livelihoods at the heart of action, and building inclusivity.

Whilst COPs, operating at international level, do not produce legislation which directly governs individuals, they undoubtedly drive the legislative agenda for countries. Businesses, especially larger ones, will no doubt want to see more clarity around their own obligations, such as sustainability and wider ‘ESG’ disclosure requirements and implementing strategy aimed at reaching net zero. It seems clear businesses will continue to face greater scrutiny, whether from stakeholders or otherwise, and a clearer picture of their obligations will help them stay ahead of the curve.

With detailed discussions still on-going, including difficult conversations over the language used when dealing with fossil fuel phase-out; aspects of the mitigation ambition and implementation programme established in Glasgow, and a shortfall on loss and damage contributions, means that any conclusions are unlikely to emerge until the very end of the process, so we will have to wait and see.

Simon Carroll, who recently attended COP28 in the UAE, is a partner in B P Collins’ environment practice. If you would like to speak to him about a legal matter in the environmental sector, please contact or call 01753 889995.

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