Global climate change conferences: sending an important signal

18.12.2017

The sociologist Stefan Aykut has explored the negotiations during the 21st United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris. What he’s found: the agreements produced by these conferences aren’t the only key to their success.

The opening ceremony of the 23rd United Nations Climate Change Conference in Bonn.

Can global conferences slow climate change? Following the failure of the 15th United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP15) in Copenhagen in 2009, the negotiations seemed to have reached a standstill. But the COP21 in 2015 produced a new global climate agreement, the Paris Agreement, which was hailed as a major victory. And just a few weeks ago, the COP23 in Bonn drew to a close, without a binding agreement but with a sea of happy faces. How can we measure the success of climate conferences?

Together with international colleagues, in 2015 I closely followed the negotiations for the COP21 in Paris and analyzed them from a sociological perspective. With more than 30,000 participants and 150 heads of state at the opening ceremony, the conference was characterized by many superlatives. Our focus wasn’t on the outcome, the Paris Agreement, but on the negotiations and the diverse events that took place during the conference.

The main work done at the conference in Paris was surprisingly unspectacular: in groups, the text was broken down clause by clause. Every suggested amendment was discussed and subsequently implemented in the text – or wasn’t. Given the diverse range of interests, this was a lengthy undertaking. And the resulting Paris Agreement is fundamentally different from its predecessor, the Kyoto Protocol from 1997. First of all, it defines two common goals: helping poorer countries adapt to the impacts of climate change, and limiting global warming to less than two degrees Celsius. Yet it leaves the question of how to achieve these goals up to the individual states, relying on voluntary commitments and regular progress reports. In contrast, the Kyoto Protocol clearly delineated the required emissions reduction for each respective country.

Yet, as important as they are, the resulting agreements alone don’t make for successful conferences. The effects produced by climate conferences also concern the negotiating process itself: different countries work together to find a mutually acceptable text, while vying with NGOs, environmental protection and business associations over whose interpretation has the most weight. As a result, year after year a large community sends governmental and business actors a clear signal that they’ll need to adjust their future plans accordingly. Ideally, this promotes climate-friendly developments. For example, some of the countries that met in Bonn have now announced plans to abandon coal energy.

The most important outcome of our analysis: it’s only when thousands of people with disparate backgrounds come together to discuss and work on new resolutions that a meaningful basis is formed for identifying shared problems and potential solutions. Climate conferences serve to network the relevant actors, and to reinforce the importance of climate change in our collective awareness. At these events, we can witness the first steps toward forming a global society.  

But is that enough? Of course not. The Paris Agreement shows a potential way forward, but is based on voluntary participation. And we can quite readily see from lessons recently learned in Germany – e.g. with plans for sustainable mobility or phasing out coal-based energy production – that such plans can provoke major resistance. Major changes like making our economy a more sustainable one clearly can’t just be dictated “from the top down”; without constant grass-roots pressure, global pledges will remain nothing more than empty promises. As such, if we hope to mitigate climate change to a tolerable level, it’s civil society that has to now step up to the plate.

This content was first published as a guest article in the newspaper Hamburger Abendblatt on 11th December 2017.

Stefan Aykut is a Junior Professor of Sociology at Universität Hamburg.

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