UN Conference on Climate Change 23rd Session
25 years ago, a UN conference in Rio de Janeiro agreed the Framework Convention on Climate Change “ as a framework for international cooperation to combat climate change by limiting average global temperature increases and the resulting climate change, and coping with impacts that were, by then, inevitable.” The ambition was to achieve, through a negotiated process, the stabilisation of greenhouse gases at a level that would prevent a dangerous anthropogenic rise in global temperature. 
Since 1995 those countries that have ratified the Convention – 197 to date, have met annually to monitor progress and to map a course of action to achieve the stated ambition. The 23rd session of these ‘Conference of the Parties’ [COP 23] is now in session in Bonn; those delegates who are able to look beyond the comfortable confines of the conference venue and consider both the last 25 years and the future prospects, might have cause to ask what really has been achieved.
Since the mid 1990’s global concentrations of Carbon Dioxide – the main but certainly not the only greenhouse gas, have steadily risen and are now more than 60% higher at 403 parts per million compared with a reference figure of 285ppm for the pre-industrial world.  Global temperatures have continued to climb and are now 1C above the pre-industrial average. Sea levels are 83mm higher than in 1993 and 200mm higher since 1870. 
In Paris 2015, the COP 21 unanimously adopted the ambition to limit average total global warming to ‘well under 2C, aiming for a limit of 1.5C’ . 2C has been accepted by all governments as the level beyond which any changes to the global climate will have ‘dangerous consequences’. These include: prolonged drought, more violent storms, longer heat waves, accelerated ocean acidification and ice-melt, leading to food and water shortages, fire risk, property damage, rising sea levels and greater tidal surges, and increased threats to human health and welfare. As an understanding of the consequences of current climate trends has deepened, so it has become apparent that even a 2C average rise will have severe consequences in many parts of the world, hence the ambition for 1.5C maximum.
The Paris Conference was supposed to signal a new determination to get to grips with carbon emissions and to take the risks of climate change seriously. Yet CO2 levels continue to rise and rates of emissions hit a record high in 2016. What chance therefore of keeping below the agreed ‘dangerous’ threshold of 2C?
A UN report in 2014  calculated that to keep within the 2C limit, total human generated emission of CO2 would need to be limited to 29,000 Gigatonnes. This is the carbon budget that the human population of the planet has to ‘spend’ before entering the territory of ‘dangerous climate change’. We have to date spent about 74% of this budget and still emissions are rising. If we are to keep below 2C we have about 19 years of emissions left – at current average rates, before we enter the relm of dangerous climate change. That is the amount of time we have to stabilise emissions to be balanced by the rate of absorption of CO2 by seas and forests. We are a long way from achieving that balance
In 2012 Fatih Birol, the IEA’s chief economist, concludes ominously that current emission trends are “perfectly in line with a temperature increase of 6 degrees Celsius, which would have devastating consequences for the planet”. Devastating puts it mildly. Such a rise would make most land areas uninhabitable, not only for humans but also for most other species including those we rely on to feed us. Commenting on the record temperatures of 2012, Christine Lagarde head of the IMF said: “Make no mistake: without concerted action, the very future of our planet is in peril.” Since 2012 matters have not improved.
All this begs the question whether the UN COP process is a complete waste of time. In terms of what is happening in to global climate, weather systems, the oceans and ecosystems, its achievements seem limited. High on rhetoric, low on delivery. But is is the only global forum that is addressing this as a global problem, a problem that can not be solved at any local or national level. Only through cooperative international effort will adequate measures be put in place.
COP is a ‘Conference of the Parties’ that is a government level forum for negotiation. We have now come to a position where it is clear that Governments on their own can not and will not deliver the action needed to avoid an existential threat to civilisation. As the COP has matured, more non-governmental organisations and ad-hoc groups have become associated with it. Their original purpose was to apply pressure to the assembled governments through lobbying and sheer presence, witnessing and reporting on a sorry catalogue of compromise and failure. The so called ‘civil society’ presence at the COP has now grown to significant proportions, bringing opportunities for networking and initiating actions at ground level to combat the realities of a changing climate that some are experiencing now and in time we will all have to face. It is this global forum of people that is perhaps the real success of the COP and the real hope for the future of our planet.
Written by Mike Shipley on behalf of the East Midlands Green Party