A Quick History Of Global Climate Treaties…and their failures

By now, it has been instilled in you that if humans allow the climate to exceed a 2C temperature increase, we sign our death sentence. We’ve heard politicians, grassroots activists, and children plead with everyone from lobbyists to a regular shmuck to reduce their carbon footprint. We’re pleading for our lives. But, to what end?

Is there hope for our future? Will we be able to save ourselves? Can all humans come together to save our planet? If only we could get a quick preview of the next millennia to see if we survive our undoing.  

Well, we can’t. There is no easy way out of this mess. I mean, you can just shut your eyes to the whole thing. That’s what climate-change deniers are doing, and they seem happier than us believers. Yet, we can’t just wish this away. We need real, systematic, political change. We need to put the climate and our planet at the forefront of our legislative decisions. 

The good news is, that is already happening. It has been happening for many years through the UN climate treaties; legally binding agreements between all countries to reduce their climate impact. 

You may be wondering about the history of these climate treaties, and if they have had any real effect. Even if you weren’t wondering, let’s journey back together to 1987, when the first global, legally-binding treaty was signed to save our Blue Planet. I’m talking about the Montreal Protocol, of course. Around this time, humans were hit with the first major realization that they could tip the Earth’s delicate balance between catastrophe and life.

Most manufacturers at this time had been using CFCs in products ranging from refrigerators to packing materials. Slowly but surely, the use of CFCs had stripped the protective ozone layer surrounding our Earth. I won’t explain the science, but it happened. Scientists started singing songs of cancers and climate consequences that would result from losing this protective layer (Elkins, 1999). 

So, our world leaders took immediate action. And, by immediate, I mean scientists had started to track ozone depletion around 1974 and the world leaders didn’t convene until 1987. I’m sure you can imagine how bureaucratic red tape can slow these things down. 

At any rate, the Montreal Protocol of 1987 had countries successfully phase out the use of CFCs. It was also the first real demonstration of world leaders putting in a collective effort to protect the Earth. 

With this success under their belt, world leaders believed they could make similar global treaties to tackle climate change. So, the first global treaty, The Kyoto Protocol, was signed in 1997. 

The treaty had several nuances attached to it. For one, it was only legally binding for developed countries. Everyone agreed, developed nations were the main culprits of climate change and thus, the ones to shoulder the burden. Developing countries were given leniency so their economies could use fossil fuels to further industrialize and develop. (UN, n.d.).

The treaty was not perfectly drafted the first time around and had several amendments made throughout the years. For example, the Dorhan Amendment of 2013 added limits to more GHG categories, changed a few dates for reporting, new targets, and boring legal jargon I won’t bother you with (UN, n.d.). 

The main driving factor of the Kyoto Protocol was using market mechanisms to reduce GHG emissions through the trade of emission credits. This essentially told countries to start reducing carbon where it made the most financial sense. It was meant to encourage green investments in developing countries, have developed nations cut and keep their emissions at a steady level, and promote leap-frogging—skipping the use of older, dirtier technology for the cleaner and more advanced version (UN, n.d.). 

So with all these processes, amendments, and targets in place, the Kyoto Protocol was ready to be actioned. So what happened when the treaty was brought home by world leaders? It failed. Catastrophically. 

The US Senate refused to make the legislative changes required by the treaty. They complained that China wasn’t legally restricted in its fossil fuel emissions. So obviously, they stomped their feet and threw a child-like tantrum until it was agreed that they would pull out of the agreement. That is not an accurate depiction of what happened, but I would like to think that is how it went down. Soon countries like Canada failed to meet their targets. The few countries that did meet their target couldn’t compensate for the others (Plumer, 2015). 

So back to the drawing boards the world leaders went. The Copenhagen gathering of 2009 was meant to be a meeting to come up with a successor to the Kyoto Protocol. That also was a disaster. Developed countries wanted developing countries to be restricted in their emissions, and the developing countries stood their ground on not being responsible for a problem that developed countries caused (UN, n.d.). No new treaty came from this meeting. 

In 2014, world leaders started drawing up more plans for a global treaty in Lima. They agreed on new terms. Most importantly, it was agreed that all nations were to pledge a contribution to climate change efforts. As well, countries were to be transparent about how they’re reaching their emissions targets, countries were asked to make education curricula that included climate change awareness, and the role of women in the fight against climate change was recognized (how nice) (UN, n.d.). 

 Then, in 2015 the Paris Agreement was drafted and 196 countries signed the (hopefully) more effective successor of the Kyoto Protocol. The difference between the two? The Paris Agreement was essentially voluntary. I mean countries signed a legally binding treaty, but they got to choose their targets and their methods of reaching those targets (Plumer, 2015).

So, has the Paris Agreement been any more successful? Honestly, I don’t have an answer for you right now. The idea behind the Paris Agreement is basically peer pressure. Maybe if countries had to cough up their targets, they might want to impress their world leader friends and set harsh targets they stick to. Yet, if you’ve tuned into the news recently, children are still protesting for their futures, natural disasters are still ravaging continents, and we still pump gas into our cars. 

Work cited

Elkins, James W. “NOAA Global Monitoring Laboratory – Chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs).” Global Monitoring Laboratory, 1999, https://gml.noaa.gov/hats/publictn/elkins/cfcs.html.

Plumer, Brad. “Past Climate Treaties Failed. so the Paris Deal Will Try Something Radically Different.” Vox, Vox, 14 Dec. 2015, https://www.vox.com/2015/12/14/10105422/paris-climate-deal-history.

UN, United Nations. “History of the Convention.” Unfccc.int, https://unfccc.int/process/the-convention/history-of-the-convention#eq-2.

About the author: Melika Faramarzian is a Univesity of Guelph Alum with a degree in Geography and Ecology. Besides her avid interest in all things sustainability, she is also keen on learning and sharing knowledge on the world around her through the intersectional lens of an immigrant woman.

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