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COP26 and climate change: A journey that began in 1992 with Rio Earth Summit

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COP26, or this year’s United Nations climate summit, formally began in Scotland’s Glasgow on Sunday. The two-week conference comes at the high point of a journey that started about 30 years ago in the famous Brazilian city of Rio de Janeiro, one of the biggest carbon emitters on the planet.

COP stands for the Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change.

At Glasgow, leaders from almost 200 countries will discuss how to tackle the challenge of global warming to slow down the pace of climate change and formulate a plan to deliver what was considered crucial at Rio de Janeiro for the survival of humans in particular and life in general on the earth.

Though the COP was first held in 1995, it flowed from the 1992 Earth Summit held at Rio de Janeiro. A milestone was reached in Japan’s Kyoto in 1997 when a protocol was laid out to fight climate change. Eighteen years later, the famous Paris accord was signed in France to set a target for limiting global warming to 2 degrees Celsius.

Here’s a look at the journey.

The 1990s were momentous in the world’s history. The economies were just about to explode. The internet revolution was turning the world into a global village where physical barriers of time and space were being breached in a pleasantly shocking way.

It was also when a segment of researchers and scientists was issuing warnings over the health of the globe. By 1990, theories such as Limits to Growth had got world intellectuals and some political leaders thinking.

The pace of growth was viewed as unsustainable. It was damaging the environment, and consequently, the earth. This pushed the world leaders into the first such big huddle in Brazil.


The Earth Summit of Rio set what is viewed as the architecture for international cooperation to fight climate change. The UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) came up as a result. This convention became the mother agreement laying down objectives and principles for future climate change accords.

The Rio summit was significant as it was possibly for the first time that the international leadership agreed that the developed world disproportionately exploited the earth’s resources to make unbridled economic progress. Along the way, the rich countries polluted the earth to such an extent that a course correction was necessary.

The Earth Summit agreed that the developing and poor countries had fewer obligations as well as economic and technological capabilities to curtail carbon emissions.

On their part, the developed countries agreed to a commitment to adopt all measures to reduce their emission levels. Though the commitment was non-binding.


The first COP meeting was held in Berlin, Germany, in March 1995. The parties decided to meet every year to check the progress of the fight against climate change.

1997: COP3, KYOTO

This was a breakthrough event in the fight against global warming and efforts to slow down climate change. It adopted what is called the Kyoto Protocol. It is considered as the bedrock for the Paris Agreement of 2015.

The Kyoto Protocol for the first time assigned specific emission reduction targets for developed countries. The deadline was decided to be 2012. The developing economies were encouraged to take voluntary actions to reduce emissions. The principle was called CBDR common but differentiated responsibilities.

2007: COP13, BALI

By now, China was emerging as a challenger to the world’s biggest economies. They were getting uncomfortable with the Kyoto Protocol based on the existing CBDR. China had become the world’s leading carbon emitter.

The developed bloc at this summit in Indonesia gunned for China and India, demanding that fast-developing economies take part in carbon emission reduction in a targeted manner for an effective fight against climate change. Some developed world leaders even threatened to walk out of the Kyoto Protocol if their concerns were not addressed.


This climate summit in Denmark was acrimonious in a sense and failed. The developed and developing blocs were sharply divided over who should do how much to check global warming and thus slow down climate change.

The good thing at the Copenhagen summit was that the developed countries agreed to contribute $100 billion every year in climate finance to help the developing countries from 2020.

2015: COP21, PARIS

A successor accord to the Kyoto Protocol was signed as the Paris Agreement. With this, the Kyoto Protocol expired as the Paris Agreement took effect in 2020.

The Paris Agreement, unlike the Kyoto Protocol, does not assign emission reduction targets to any country. It calls for individual and collective steps to be taken by the COP members in such a manner as to limit the global rise in temperatures to 2°C from the pre-industrial revolution.

2021: COP26, GLASGOW

The Glasgow summit has been delayed by a year due to the Covid-19 pandemic. The summit is likely to finalise the rules for the Paris Agreement’s implementation. This is being held when divergent views are being voiced by individual countries over the creation of future carbon markets.

Concerns have been raised that rich countries might use carbon credits to turn the poor and developing countries into a carbon-dumping ground with cash incentives. This goes against the basic idea that the earth is one body, and any part of it, if diseased, would spread the illness to the whole body.

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