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Do UN Climate Talks Matter?   12/01 06:20

   Does the current UN climate conference process need major reforms?

   DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) -- Ask most people what the annual U.N. 
climate talks are and the likely answer will be: "Huh?" Ask those who do know 
and the answer may be: "Why should I care?"

   The negotiations, called Conference of Parties, are nearly two weeks long 
and in their 28th iteration in Dubai. Delegates use wonky terms like "NDCs" 
"1.5 degrees" and "loss and damage," not exactly conversation starters at 
parties. Any final decision is non-binding, meaning countries can agree to 
something and then not follow through. And when tens of thousands of people 
travel to the event, a lot of greenhouse gas emissions are produced, which is 
contrary to the entire point of the conference.

   So why bother?

   Even many climate watchers sometimes ask that question, and there is a 
growing debate about whether the current process needs major reforms. But 
viewed with a long lens -- and with the proviso that progress is often more of 
a slow trickle than a dramatic event and impact -- there are many reasons that 
the talks can prove worthwhile.


   The push for compliance (in a public forum) is a key part of COP -- in the 
form of the development of "Nationally Determined Contributions," referred to 
as NDCs.

   These are plans by individual countries to reduce their use of oil, gas and 
coal, which produce greenhouse gas emissions that cause climate change, and lay 
out how they plan to adapt to impacts of extreme weather events.

   The plans are required by all nations that signed on to the 2015 Paris 
Agreement, arguably the most significant Conference of Parties to date. The 
plans are public, setting broad targets that industries and individuals in 
respective countries can see while also providing a chance for other countries, 
and news organizations, to scrutinize them. Countries are encouraged and 
expected to update and "raise ambition" in their plans, creating a level of 
peer pressure for nations to keep promises.


   That's something that individual entities sometimes have trouble doing.

   The Paris agreement established a defining goal that has guided climate 
discussions ever since: Cut emissions from the burning of fossil fuels to make 
sure average global temperatures don't go beyond 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees 
Fahrenheit) since preindustrial times, and ideally not over 1.5 degrees Celsius 
(2.7 degrees Fahrenheit). Currently, temperatures have increased about 1.2 
degrees Celsius (2.2 degrees Fahrenheit).

   As extreme weather events driven by climate change have increased and 
intensified, climate scientists have pushed to limit warming to 1.5. These 
days, just about every discussion about climate change has 1.5 in mind.

   For example, that 1.5 guide is at the heart of the Biden administration's 
climate goals, which include the Inflation Reduction Act in the United States, 
the largest climate legislation in U.S. history that is pumping billions of 
dollars into green energy transition.

   It's also used as the lens by which many decisions are seen. When oil 
companies announce plans to launch new drilling projects that will lock in oil 
and gas production for decades, policy makers can and do criticize the plans as 
not keeping within the 1.5 goal. That doesn't necessarily stop oil companies, 
or anybody, from making decisions that go against the goal. Still, it provides 
a frame of reference, which is powerful.


   Deciding how to talk about something can be an important part of getting 
things done.

   Last year's climate talks, COP27 in Egypt, produced a landmark agreement for 
rich countries to contribute to a fund to help developing nations adapt to 
climate change. For decades, environmental activists had argued that a "loss 
and damage" fund was necessary because rich nations, which industrialized with 
fossil fuels, were largely responsible for climate change while developing 
countries were being hit the hardest, as they didn't have the resources to 
withstand floods, heat waves, prolonged drought and other manifestations of a 
warming world.

   Early discussions of loss and damage at COPs were always on the fringes, not 
even on the official agenda. That changed last year, as the topic, and thus the 
decision, ended up being the centerpiece of the summit.

   In a larger sense, today many discussions of climate, from reducing 
emissions to paying for a transition to green energies like wind and solar, are 
framed around the idea that rich countries are historically responsible for the 
current situation and thus have a moral imperative to pay more to confront it.


   The glacial pace of discussions, with no binding decisions or ways to 
enforce agreements, may seem like a formula for failure in a world accustomed 
to visible, sometimes splashy resolutions.

   However, seen over the course of nearly 30 years of summits, the outcomes 
could be called cautiously optimistic successes. For example, 10 years ago the 
level of greenhouse gas emissions had the world on track to warm 4 degrees 
Celsius (7.2 degrees Fahrenheit) by 2100, which scientists say would create 
devastating extremes.

   Today, models have the world warming by 2 to 2.5 degrees Celsius. That is 
still significantly beyond the 1.5 target and poses threats to humans; tenths 
of a degree matter a lot when it comes to extremes.

   But overall, humanity is on a much better path. While many factors have gone 
into lowering the curve on emissions -- technological advances, environmental 
laws in many countries, a move toward electric vehicles, among others -- U.N. 
climate negotiations have undoubtedly been a central factor.


   Ultimately, COP is the only game in town.

   Even if none of the above is convincing, the reality is there is currently 
no other way for the world to collectively address climate change. Consider how 
difficult it can be for two people to agree on anything. How about 200 

   The Conference of Parties process gives every nation in the world, whether 
rich or poor, large or small, a seat at the table to discuss how climate change 
is impacting them and how they believe the world should confront it. They also 
give a forum to people of all walks of life to exchange ideas, from young 
environmentalists and Indigenous activists to bankers and leaders of many 

   The wonky speeches, lots of discussion and disagreements will continue, all 
with the hope of combatting climate change. That is worth a conversation 
starter at parties.

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