As the world gathers for the Paris climate conference in December 2015, a look at the goals, outcomes and Canadian contributions to five of the most significant previous United Nations climate conferences

AT TIMES, IT MIGHT SEEM like the world’s political leaders have been negotiating and debating on legally binding treaties to cut carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions forever. In fact, it’s only been happening for just over two decades.

COP 15 in Copenhagen, Denmark, in 2009

The process started in 1992 at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, an 11-day marathon led by Canadian Maurice Strong, then secretary-general of the UN Conference on Environment and Development, when 196 countries adopted the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. “Countries understood then that we needed to address climate change,” says Janos Pasztor, United Nations assistant secretary-general on climate change.

The convention, which took effect in 1994, was an agreement to stabilize atmospheric concentrations of GHGs at levels below those that might cause “dangerous” extremes of climate change. A year after that, Berlin hosted the ­first formal United Nations climate change conference (or COP, for “Conference of the Parties”). It was at COP 1 that member nations began negotiating speci­fic limits, obligations and processes to meet this goal. While each subsequent COP meeting has built on its predecessors, some have been more pivotal than others. This article focuses on five such meetings — their aims, achievements, stumbling blocks and Canada’s role — to give context for the results just seen at the recent COP 21 treaty meetings in Paris.

KYOTO, JAPAN (COP 3) DEC. 1-10, 1997

Focus: Even as the UNFCCC took effect, it was clear that countries’ initial pledges and financial commitments were inadequate to meet its goals. By the time of the third annual meeting in Kyoto, there was ample desire and momentum for a follow-up agreement.

Outcome: Members adopted the Kyoto protocol, under which 37 industrialized nations (plus emerging European economies) agreed for the first time to legally binding targets and timetables for lowering GHG emissions. Developed countries were singled out based on the principle that they were responsible for and had economic benefit from most of the GHGs added to the atmosphere in the past 150 years. Collectively, they agreed to cut annual emissions an average of five per cent below 1990 levels between 2008 and 2012.

Challenges: The Protocol would only take effect once 55 parties to the UNFCCC ratified it, provided that group included developed nations that together accounted for at least 55 per cent of 1990s-level CO2 emissions from developed countries. Also, the structure that bound developed countries to cuts while exempting developing nations was incomplete: developing nations omitted included China, India, Korea and Brazil. And even the means by which developed countries could meet reduction targets was eased — largely because of pressure from the United States — to include forestry and farming practices that provide carbon “sinks” (e.g., planting trees to absorb atmospheric carbon instead of just cutting emissions). “Countries have long been worried that taking climate action would put them at a competitive disadvantage in the global market,” says Pasztor.

Canada’s role: “In the early days, Canada was very productively engaged,” says Melissa Harris, project manager for climate change mitigation and energy with the International Institute of Sustainable Development. This was true under Conservative and Liberal governments. In fact, Canada played a central role in the negotiations that created the Kyoto Protocol, while backing the U.S. position on carbon sinks.


Focus: Four years after Kyoto, the objective at COP 7 in Marrakesh was clear: finalize the operational details for reducing GHG emissions as set out in the Kyoto Protocol.

Outcome: The meetings ended with the signing of the Marrakesh Accords. These set out the rules on previously disputed issues — penalties for failing to meet reduction targets, financial assistance to developing countries, and the use of carbon sinks to meet reduction targets, a position opposed by European Union nations — as well as the market mechanisms that countries would follow in implementing the Protocol. This marked a sea change for business, according to Gray Taylor, principal at Gray Taylor Law and veteran in climate change and carbon trading. “The business community could now say, ‘Okay, we understand how this thing is going to work.’”

Main challenges: Finding common ground was welcome, but it took formal withdrawal by the U.S. from the Kyoto Protocol to achieve it. This happened in early 2001, under newly elected President George Bush. As a result, the U.S. delegation held observer status until after Marrakesh.

Canada’s role: Absent a U.S. presence, Canada, Japan and Russia carried on the campaign to entrench carbon sinks in the deal, winning even more flexibility than in previous agreements. Satisfied with the outcome, our Parliament ratified the Protocol in 2002.

COP 11 in Montreal in 2005

COP 11 in Montreal in 2005

MONTREAL, CANADA (COP 11) NOV. 28-DEC. 9, 2005

Focus: After eight years, the Kyoto Protocol had just taken effect following ratification by Russia in 2004. Russia’s vote literally saved the day, lifting treaty support above the critical threshold required for implementation of 55 per cent of the developed world’s GHG emissions.

Outcome: The conference was short on big achievements and long on first steps, collectively dubbed the Montreal Action Plan. Central to this was the creation of a working group to discuss future commitments for industrialized countries beyond the Kyoto Protocol’s 2012 expiry. The event also had a large business focus as the protocol’s enactment gave impetus to emissions trading and clean development work.

Challenges: The event went smoothly, while future obstacles echoed familiar themes: how to take UN action on climate change beyond 2012 with major developed nations like the U.S. and Australia on the sidelines, and how to bring developing nations, exempt under Kyoto, more squarely into the global effort. Canada’s role: With more than 10,000 delegates and federal environment minister Stéphane Dion as president, the event marked Canada’s high point in the entire COP process.

Canada’s role: With more than 10,000 delegates and federal environment minister Stéphane Dion as host chair, the event marked Canada’s high point in the entire COP process, says Gray Taylor.



Focus: In the run-up to COP 15 in Copenhagen, the goal was that of a new global climate agreement — more ambitious, more expansive and more inclusive than Kyoto — to kick in after Kyoto expired in 2012. This hope lay in a two-track action plan that was intended to simultaneously address the global emission-cutting objectives of the 1994 UN convention while updating the developed countries’ obligations under Kyoto.

Outcome: Measured against pre-conference expectations, Copenhagen was a failure. But seen in review, much was achieved. It was a death knell for Kyoto’s unworkable two-tier structure, says Gray Taylor, a lawyer specializing in emissions trading. “[Developing countries] were saying, ‘Common but differentiated responsibilities means we don’t do anything, while you developed countries do it all.’ We had to get off that track.” The most noteworthy document drafted was the Copenhagen Accord, a list of principles that reflected strong political will to control carbon and address climate change, including a commitment to limit the maximum global average temperature increase to 2 C. For the first time, too, developed countries (including the U.S., which had returned to negotiations in 2007) pledged concrete dollar amounts — US$30 billion between 2010 and 2012 — to reduce GHGs and address climate change adaption in the developing world.

Challenges: Although the new commitments were impressive, there was no agreement on specific measures or methods to achieve them. While the Copenhagen Accord was eventually endorsed and recognized by the COP, the process that produced it was deeply flawed; it was drafted in private by just five countries (the U.S., China, India, Brazil and South Africa).

Canada’s role: Canada ultimately signed the Copenhagen Accord and in the process pledged to reduce its GHG emissions by 17 per cent from its 2005 levels by 2020. When measured against the 1990 base-level year used in the Kyoto Protocol, however, that represented just a three per cent cut — half of the six per cent Canada was legally required to achieve by 2012.


DOHA, QATAR (COP18/CMP8) NOV. 26-DEC. 8, 2012

Focus: In 2011, in Durban, South Africa, delegates had agreed on a new, legally binding deal including all countries that was to be finalized no later than the 2015 Paris COP21 meetings. The focus in Doha was setting a timetable to reach this deal by 2015, while also finalizing an agreement on a second phase of the Kyoto Protocol that would bridge the gap from 2012 until the new all-country climate deal takes effect in 2020.

Outcome: A set of actions, under the umbrella of the Doha Climate Gateway, set the stage for the Paris 2015 agenda. Heading the list: amending the Kyoto Protocol to establish a second, 2012-2020 commitment period as planned. With this done, countries would be able to focus solely on working towards the new global deal in 2015.

Main challenges: Many details, disagreements and commitments remained to be ironed out before 2015; the parties were also required to announce their planned emission cuts in advance of COP21. Due to a higher number of countries not committing to (or withdrawing entirely from) Kyoto, the treaty’s scope was limited to countries responsible for just 15 per cent of global emissions.

Canada’s role: Canada had announced its withdrawal from the Kyoto Protocol in 2011. Doing so allowed Canada to avoid paying the penalty for failing to hit our pledge targets, but it set us apart as the only country to ratify Kyoto and then later withdraw. Since then, notes Harris of the International Institute of Sustainable Development, while the country’s official position has been that we’ll have nothing to do with the second Kyoto Protocol, we remained a party to the UNFCCC, submitted Intended Nationally Determined Contributions in the lead-up to Paris, and took an active role in negotiations for the agreement.

This article was originally published in the January 2016 issue of Energy Exchange magazine (Pollution Probe). Photos courtesy of United Nations (top), International Institute for Sustainable Development