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COP17: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

March 4, 2012

Cop-out is a slang expression meaning “a failure to fulfill a commitment or responsibility or to face a difficulty squarely.”

Recently a question was asked “What impact did COP17 in Durban have on carbon prices?” An interesting question aimed at the heart or COP’s existence, which is to stabilize greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere and thereby mitigate anthropogenic induced climate change.

Carbon price is considered one of the most effective tools to reduce national greenhouse gas emissions. Carbon pricing is a market driven mechanism imposing a cost on the emission of greenhouse gases which cause global warming. Global Greenhouse Warming (13) explained “Paying a price for carbon spewed into our atmosphere is a way of motivating countries, businesses and individuals to reduce carbon emissions. It also provides an incentive to invest and deploy renewable energy technology that does not emit carbon to our atmosphere. Such a pricing mechanism would also act as a disincentive for electricity generators to use relatively more polluting coal, gas and oil fired stations.”

This discussion is all about The Conference of the Parties (COP) the governing body of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC or FCCC). COP is the supreme decision making body of the Convention. All governments that are party to the Convention are represented at the COP where they review and promote the implementation of the Convention and any other legal instruments that the COP adopts, including institutional and administrative arrangements.

Since 1995, the COP has been meeting annually to assess progress in dealing with climate change. The COP serves as the meeting of the Parties to the Kyoto Protocol, which also adopts decisions and resolutions on the implementation of its provisions amongst 195 member nations.(1)  The 17th Conference of the Parties (“COP17”) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) ended early December 2011.

Could COP17 be in fact a Cop-Out? Stripped of all its acronyms that rings the tutelage of a sanctimonious old professor, there lies the Good, the Bad and the Ugly;
the Good – nations are talking,
the Bad – nations are just talking, and
the Ugly – nations are talking while climate change is getting worse!

The COP is organized accordingly: Source: UNFCCC (2)

The COP includes (see Bodies for the function of each committee) (3):
• CMP – Conference of the Parties serving as the Meeting of the Parties to the Kyoto Protocol
• SBSTA – Subsidiary Body for Scientific and Technological Advice
• SBI – Subsidiary Body for Implementation
• AWG-KP – Ad Hoc Working Group on Further Commitments for Annex I Parties under the Kyoto Protocol
• AWG-LCA – Ad hoc Working Group on Long-term Cooperative Action under the Convention
• ADP – Ad Hoc Working Group on the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action
• Bureau of the COP
• Compliance Committee
• CDM EB – Executive Board of the Clean Development Mechanism
• JISC – Joint Implementation Supervisory Committee
• TEC – Technology Executive Committee
• LEG – Least Developed Countries Expert Group
• CGE – Consultative Group of Experts on National Communications
• Secretariat
• United Nations institutional linkage
• GEF – Global Environment Facility
• IPCC – Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change
• AFB – Adaptation Fund Board
• TC-GCF – Transitional Committee for the Green Climate Fund

Christiana Figueres, Executive Secretary UNFCCC stated in her closing remarks of the World Future Energy Summit: “There is no doubt that Durban (COP 17) delivered beyond expectations. And while much of its outcomes are complex and technical, two things stand out: 1) the universal political will to act on climate change is tangible and increasingly ambitious; and 2) even more so than the previous conference in Cancun, Durban has a loud and clear message for the world: the future is low-carbon!.” (4)

COP’s blog reported “A number of ground breaking resolutions were taken during the Durban meeting including the commitment to a second leg of the Kyoto Protocol and the establishment of the Green Climate Fund which government says is not just an empty shell.” A press release by UNEP concluded, “the Climate Talks (COP 17) Ended with Hope for a New More Comprehensive Legally-Binding Agreement.” (5)

In contrast, oversight groups such as The Adopt a Negotiator Project (6) concluded:  ”South Africa and across the globe after the flurry of green resolutions, accords and policies that were put in place before, during and after COP 17, faced with the reality of a hard economic year, filled with recession in many places, widespread poverty in others and both elsewhere, many may begin to see the green accords and the green economy, like many new year’s resolutions, as a noble aspiration but one that is disposable during tough times.”

COP’s report card on its impact on climate change is best illustrated by Brad Plumer’s article, “Global CO2 emissions rising faster than worst-case scenarios” (7) published by the Washington Post on November, 4 2011, which stated:

“….. new data from the Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Lab, global carbon-dioxide emissions just saw their biggest one-year rise, a 6 percent jump in 2010.”

“….. emissions are now rising faster than the worst-case scenarios envisioned by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in its 2007 report.”

“If emissions keep growing at their current pace, then the average prediction from MIT’s modeling is that the world could heat up 5.2°C by 2100. But that’s just the average. There’s a 9 percent chance that global surface temperatures could rise more than 7°C — truly uncharted territory. And as we keep adding carbon-dioxide into the air, the odds that we’ll be able to dodge a drastic rise in temperatures become very, very low.”

This has been confirmed by “recent figures released by the International Energy Agency (IEA) that showed carbon emissions from energy production reached a record high in 2010. The IEA figures were particularly significant because emissions had been expected to fall as a result of the economic downturn. As a result of the recession, emissions fell in the UK and globally during 2009, leading some to suggest that the world had been given “breathing space” to start a shift to low-carbon infrastructure. The resurgence of carbon emissions makes it clear that this hasn’t happened.” (8)

Source: US Energy Information Administration (EIA) global human CO2 annual emissions from fossil fuels estimates vs. IPCC SRES scenario projections.

Another startling view of the exponential growth of Greenhouse Gas emissions is illustrated by the following graph from the EIA (14). This chart presents data on the major global sources of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions by country, from the beginning of the Industrial Revolution to 2006.  Emissions are from fossil-fuel burning, cement manufacture, and gas flaring.

Then what has COP being doing since its inception in 1995? A brief summary of all previous COP meetings is as follows, excerpts from Wikipedia (9), and Conference of the Parties (10):

• COP 1 (1995): Berlin, Germany – voiced concerns about the adequacy of countries’ abilities to meet commitments under the Body for Scientific and Technological Advice (SBSTA) and the Subsidiary Body for Implementation (SBI).

• COP 2 (1996): Geneva, Switzerland –  accepted the scientific findings on climate change proffered by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in its second assessment (1995), rejected uniform “harmonized policies” in favor of flexibility; and called for “legally binding mid-term targets”.

• COP 3 (1997): Kyoto, Japan – adopted the Kyoto Protocol, which outlined the greenhouse gas emissions reduction obligation, along with what came to be known as Kyoto mechanisms such as emissions trading, clean development mechanism and joint implementation.

• COP 4 (1998): Buenos Aires, Argentina –  expected that the remaining issues unresolved in Kyoto would be finalized; the complexity and difficulty of finding agreement on these issues proved insurmountable, and instead the parties adopted a 2-year “Plan of Action” to advance efforts and to devise mechanisms for implementing the Kyoto Protocol.

• COP 5 (1999): Bonn, Germany –did not reach any major conclusions.

• COP 6 (2000): The Hague, Netherlands – talks collapsed, meeting suspended without agreement over the United States’ proposal to allow credit for carbon “sinks” in forests and agricultural lands, satisfying a major proportion of the U.S. emissions reductions in this way; disagreements over consequences for non-compliance by countries that did not meet their emission reduction targets; and difficulties in resolving how developing countries could obtain financial assistance to deal with adverse effects of climate change and meet their obligations to plan for measuring and possibly reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

• COP 6 Part II (2001), Bonn, Germany – negotiations resumed with little progress having been made in resolving the differences that had produced an impasse in The Hague. The United States rejected the Kyoto Protocol.

• COP 7 (2001), Marrakech, Morocco – set the stage for nations to ratify the Kyoto Protocol. The United States declined to participate actively in the negotiations.

• COP 8 (2002), New Delhi, India – marked by Russia’s hesitation, stating that the government needs more time to think it over (ratification of the Kyoto Protocol).

• COP 9 (2003), Milan, Italy – agreed to use the Adaptation Fund established at COP7 to support developing countries better adapt to climate change.

• COP 10 (2004): Buenos Aires, Argentina – discussed the progress made since the first Conference of the Parties 10 years ago and its future challenges, with special emphasis on climate change mitigation and adaptation.

• COP 11 / MOP 1 (2005): Montreal, Canada – the first Meeting of the Parties (MOP-1) to the Kyoto Protocol since their initial meeting in Kyoto in 1997, event marked the entry into force of the Kyoto Protocol and enacted a plan to “extend the life of the Kyoto Protocol beyond its 2012 expiration date and negotiate deeper cuts in greenhouse-gas emissions

• COP 12/MOP 2 (2006): Nairobi, Kenya – reporter Richard Black coined the phrase “climate tourists” to describe some delegates who attended “to see Africa, take snaps of the wildlife, the poor, dying African children and women”. Black also noted that due to delegates concerns over economic costs and possible losses of competitiveness, the majority of the discussions avoided any mention of reducing emissions. Black concluded that was a disconnect between the political process and the scientific imperative.

• COP 13/MOP 3 (2007): Bali, Indonesia – agreement on a timeline and structured negotiation on the post-2012 framework (the end of the first commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol) was achieved,

• COP 14/MOP 4 (2008): Poznań, Poland – negotiations on a successor to the Kyoto Protocol.

• COP 15/MOP 5 (2009): Copenhagen, Denmark – goal was to establish an ambitious global climate agreement for the period from 2012 when the first commitment period under the Kyoto Protocol expire, President Obama and other world leaders have decided to put off the difficult task of reaching a climate change agreement, conference did not achieve a binding agreement for long-term action.

• COP 16/MOP 6 (2010): Cancún, Mexico – the conference ended with a nonbinding accord rather than a legally binding agreement to combat climate change.

• COP 17 / MOP 7 (2011): Durban, South Africa – agreement to negotiate a new and more inclusive treaty and the establishment of a Green Climate Fund.

• COP 18 / MOP 8 (2012) – Doha, Qatar will be the host of COP 18 which will take place from 26 November to 7 December 2012

A Bonn Climate Change Conference is scheduled for May 2012. The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change reports “The 36th sessions of the Subsidiary Body for Implementation (SBI) and of the Subsidiary Body for Scientific and Technological Advice (SBSTA), the fifteenth session of the Ad Hoc Working Group on Long-term Cooperative Action under the Convention (AWG-LCA), the seventeenth session of the Ad Hoc Working Group on Further Commitments for Annex I Parties under the Kyoto Protocol (AWG-KP) and the first session of the Ad Hoc Working Group on the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action (ADP) will take place concurrently from 14 to 25 May. All sessions will be held at the Maritim Hotel in Bonn.” (11)

In closing, if COP’s objective is to stabilize greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system, then COP can be looked at as a dismal failure. This is not to say that COP alone is a failure.  The world is a big place, where self-interest and politics more often prevail over common sense and wisdom. The failure rests with all the industrialized and newly industrialized nations of the world to walk the talk.

In a time of global economic carnage and trade disputes, companies in free economies are forced to look at quarterly earnings and stockpile capital. Sadly, many of the countries that support these companies are comprised of legislators more interested in “COPPING” votes than thinking beyond the next election and how to slow the heating of our planet.

Surely if left as is one day in the not so distant future the global thermostat will be stuck on “High,” the winds and rain will ravage places often untouched by such catastrophes and more fertile land will be turned into deserts.

Having taken a brief look at COP and the current environmental landscape, it is now possible to return to the topic of this discussion– “COP17’s impact on carbon prices!” The answer lies in the immiscibility between a powerless regulatory body and a P/L driven market.  COP has failed to produce a legally binding treaty covering all parties. From a micro perspective the marker reacts to supply and demand. Similar to the Solar Renewable Energy Certificate (SREC) market in the U.S., the price of the certificate needs to be lower than the compliance penalty or in the case of carbon trading the cap. If not, it’s more economical to buy a carbon certificate than comply. Solutions such as lowering the cap or creating a price floor are politically unacceptable. Until countries jointly internalize the goal of reducing carbon emissions, the impact of COP on carbon prices will be light years away.

Ultimately it is not the failure of COP, but as John M. Broder reported for The New York Times: “There is a fundamental disconnect in having environment ministers negotiating geopolitics and macroeconomics. The issue of remaking of energy production, transportation and agriculture around the world is too big to be negotiated by environment ministers, and perhaps can only be done at regional and city level.” (12)

(1) COP17 / CMP7 United Nations Climate Change Conference 2011, Durban, South Africa,
(2) United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change,
(3) Bodies, United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change:
(4) Statement by  Christiana Figueres, Executive Secretary United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, and
(5) COP17 – Climate change talks in Durban 2011,
(6) A Post-COP 17 New Year’s Resolution Reality Check by Alex Lenferna, January 10, 2012,
(7) “Global CO2 emissions rising faster than worst-case scenarios,” posted by Brad Plumer, Washington Post, 11/04/2011,
(8) The Carbon Brief, “Latest emission figures show world on track for 4 degrees,” June 7, 2011,
(9) Wikipedia, United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change,
(10) Conference of the Parties,
(11) United Nations Conference on Climate Change,
(12) John M. Broder, NY Times: “Climate change too big for current architecture,” December 11, 2011,
(13) Carbon Prices, Global Greenhouse,

(14) EIA, Global Greenhouse Gas Data,

3 Comments leave one →
  1. March 6, 2012 12:42 PM

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  1. The COP holiday scheme | Lars P Blikom

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