Kyoto, Paris, Glasgow – Three Decades of Climate Summits: What Have They Brought? – Knowledge

US scientists warned as early as the 1960s that the burning of large quantities of fossil fuels such as coal, oil and gas would have an impact on the climate.

And indeed, in the following years it becomes increasingly clear that the amount of greenhouse gases such as CO2, methane or nitrous oxide must be stabilized so that the global temperature does not continue to rise.


In 1992, military police sealed off access to the environmental summit in Rio de Janeiro and prevented a letter of protest from the indigenous peoples from being delivered.

AP Photo/Eduardo Di Baia

In 1992, at the environmental summit in Rio de Janeiro, the “United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change” was therefore adopted.

In it, 154 countries set themselves a common goal: to use the planet in such a way that future generations will have the same opportunities as past generations.

But how? In order to negotiate this with each other, the contracting countries have come together every year since 1995 at a climate summit. It quickly becomes clear there that concrete commitments are needed.

Why is the Kyoto Protocol so famous?

The commitments are made in 1997 at the third world climate conference in the Japanese city of Kyoto. The countries agree for the first time to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions.

38 industrialized countries, the main causes of global warming, set themselves the goal of reducing CO₂ emissions by at least 5.2 percent compared to 1990 in a first period. For a second period up to 2020, these targets will be tightened even further.

“Kyoto is often badmouthed. But it worked – all countries have achieved their goals,” says Axel Michaelowa, an expert on international climate policy at the University of Zurich.

The problem: Only the industrialized countries commit themselves. The emerging and developing countries of the time are not held accountable, although the CO2 emissions of China, Brazil and India, for example, are constantly increasing. “At that time, an iron curtain was drawn between industrialized and developing countries, which is still problematic today,” says Michaelowa.

Global climate protection only works if everyone participates.

Why «Hopenhagen» turns into a disaster

At the 15th climate conference in Copenhagen in 2009, the Kyoto agreement is to be extended to all countries. Hopes are high, Copenhagen becomes “Hopenhagen”. But the conference turns into a disaster.

“Back then, the big emerging countries said, ‘No, we won’t go along with that. The fight against climate change is a problem for industrialized countries ›», says Axel Michaelowa. But the definition of who is an industrial country and who is not dates back to 1992. Some of these countries are no longer emerging countries. Above all China.

The crux of the 2°C target

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A year after Copenhagen, at the 2010 summit in Cancun, the UN climate conference agreed after a tough struggle on the 2°C target: 193 countries agreed that the earth should not warm up by more than two degrees Celsius by the end of the century. The IPCC report was the basis for this decision at the time. “We needed a target that could be easily communicated politically,” says climate researcher David Bresch.

According to Bresch, instead of using temperature as a target variable, a CO₂ budget could have been set, but this would have been more difficult to communicate. “Whether it’s a CO₂ budget or a target range for warming: It was and is important that a target was set.”

This stalemate is the end of «Kyoto». A follow-up contract is needed. Much has to be put together again before the next major conference in Paris.

The Paris Agreement – ​​is it still valid?

The 21st climate summit in Paris in 2015 finally brought the agreement that is still valid today: 197 countries pledge to keep global warming “well below 2 degrees Celsius” and “to make efforts” to limit it to 1.5 degrees. This time, industrialized, emerging and developing countries are equally on board.

Not everything is unproblematic: the world should be climate-neutral by 2050. However, the use of coal, gas and oil is still permitted. In addition – in contrast to Kyoto – no binding targets are set. Instead, the contracting states set their own targets in so-called NDCs – the “Nationally Defined Contributions”. A global stocktaking takes place every five years.

And then Greta came

In 2018 in Katowice, Poland, the concrete implementation of the Paris climate agreement is to be promoted. This peak is considered the most important since Paris.

The urgency to act is becoming more and more noticeable: Extreme weather events are becoming more frequent, glaciers are melting rapidly, heat waves are increasing and public perception is changing. Climate skeptics are fewer and fewer.

In this environment, the then 15-year-old Swedish student Greta Thunberg called on the politicians at the conference to finally do something. And their message is heard – worldwide.

Greta Thunberg inspires and politicizes an entire generation. “It was the birth of the ‘Fridays for Future’ movement and had a major impact on the election results in western industrialized countries,” says Axel Michaelowa. This contributed to the climate summit in Glasgow three years later being a success.

We need a win now

2021 in Glasgow, not only the 100 states with the world’s largest forest areas agree to stop deforestation from 2023.

Also presented for the first time is an explicit plan to end the use of coal, which is responsible for 40 percent of the world’s annual CO₂ emissions. No new coal-fired power plants are to be financed – but there are no specific exit dates.

“Unfortunately, the Ukraine and energy crisis has now intervened,” says climate policy expert Axel Michaelowa. “I’m afraid that will weigh on us for many years.”

What next?

The 27th climate conference in Sharm El-Sheikh is the largest to date. Experts already doubt that it will go down in history. But one thing is new: the financing of climate damage, “Loss and Damages”, is officially on the agenda for the first time.

The industrialized countries have long been demanding that the poorer countries should help in the fight against global warming – but how exactly the money will flow is now being discussed.

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