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Canada and the United Nations

Three Decades of Climate Cooperation

By: Eric Murphy

Eric Murphy

Historical Contributor

Eric Murphy earned his combined honours degree in journalism and history at Carleton University in 2014. Since then, he has worn a variety of hats as a journalist, copyeditor, and non-profit communications writer. These days, Eric mostly writes about climate change and the paths to best solve this looming crisis. He is currently writing a monthly newsletter with Climate Legacy – feel free to visit their site to find more of his work.

When he’s not writing, Eric loves to explore new places on foot or by bike, and is dedicated to preserving our natural environment so it can be enjoyed by everyone.

From the onset of the coal-powered Industrial Revolution in the 18th century, wealthy countries have a long history of sacrificing their citizens’ health, and the health of our planet, for wealth and comfort. To combat this runaway process, for more than 35 years the United Nations (UN) has gathered the world’s biggest polluters to determine how we can halt this destructive trend and better safeguard our environment. Increasingly, climate impacts are being viewed through a human rights lens, thanks in part to the influence of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Canada has often been a vocal leader in these conversations, even if our actions haven’t typically lived up to our words.

Unfortunately, decades of conversation doesn’t mean decades of progress. The UN’s environmental work was initially buoyed by major successes combating acid rain and pollutants that degraded the ozone layer. When the UN shifted its focus to climate change, progress was far more elusive. This article traces the uncertain path from the UN’s early environmental successes through a decades-long plateau that may have finally led to climate commitments that countries are prepared to realize.

1987: The Montreal Protocol on Substances That Deplete the Ozone Layer

Before climate change emerged as a global issue, the UN’s top environmental concern was the depletion of the ozone layer. The ozone layer keeps the amount of ultraviolet (UV) light reaching humans at a healthy level, but by the late 1970s it began to weaken, increasing millions of people’s exposure to sunburn and some cancers.

Compared to later actions directed at tackling climate change, the UN responded to thinning ozone levels at a blistering pace. By the 1980s, scientists had already isolated many chemicals responsible for ozone decline. In 1987, Canada hosted the Montreal Protocol on Substances That Deplete the Ozone Layer and was one of the first 24 countries to sign the agreement. The Montreal Protocol, which required signatory countries to phase out the chemicals that were most harmful to the ozone layer, is still held up as one of the UN’s most successful multilateral agreements. Today, all UN member countries have signed the agreement, and it’s been strengthened over the years to target more and more chemicals that affect the ozone layer.

Thanks to this quick action and to countries sticking to their commitments, the concentration of ozone-depleting substances in the atmosphere is declining, and it’s expected that the ozone layer should return to its pre-1980s health as early as 2050. It’s the sort of result that contemporary climate activists can only dream of.

1988: The World Climate Change Conference

Hosted in Toronto by Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, the World Climate Change Conference helped introduce climate change as a global issue. The event’s official title was The Changing Atmosphere: Implications for Global Security, and it addressed climate change (typically referred to as “the greenhouse effect” at the time) on a roughly equal standing to issues like ozone depletion and acid rain.

Although the conference took place nearly 40 years ago, it’s startling how relevant many of the recorded statements would be if spoken today. Even in 1988, participants recognized that human action was behind rising temperatures – a fact that has since been routinely debated – and they addressed the need for action as urgently as many activists and leaders do decades later.

“Among the serious problems facing industrial society, none is more acute than the deterioration of our environment. One of the most pressing responsibilities of modern governments is to recognize this problem and to work to restore the integrity of the environment.”

An excerpt from Prime Minister Mulroney’s opening address, 1988

The World Climate Change Conference is a glimpse of global climate action before the climate beliefs of politicians and individuals were drawn across partisan lines. Similar to the Montreal Protocol, the World Climate Change Conference was supported by conservative-leaning leaders such as UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and US President Ronald Reagan.

Where the World Climate Change Conference failed was that it recommended actions instead of demanding commitments. Industrialized nations were strongly encouraged to dial back emissions and create climate-resilient industry and infrastructure. Polluting corporations were encouraged to develop more sustainable practices and technologies. But encouragement can accomplish only so much. This mistake, made in the glow of post-Montreal Protocol optimism, would be repeated many more times in the decades to come.

1992–2016: Strong Recommendations, Stalled Actions

The years between the World Climate Conference and 2016’s Paris Agreement easily blur into a sort of climate déjà vu. In 1992, nations gathered in Rio de Janeiro for the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, now commonly known as the Earth Summit. There, world leaders declared that climate change was a potentially existential threat and that we must reduce carbon dioxide emissions to near zero. The leaders of the world’s most polluting countries were in attendance, including US President George H. W. Bush.

Canada, represented by Mulroney, consumed and produced energy at a rate roughly equal to other high-income countries at the time. However, in a trend that continues to this day, our per-capita energy consumption going into the 1990s was amongst the worst in the world, only surpassed at that time by the United Arab Emirates. Attendees signed the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, a body that would steer future efforts to reduce CO2 emissions and define global climate actions.

Tracking global CO2 Emissions up to 2022 – despite some brief dips, emissions have been trending upwards regardless of major UN climate commitments. 

Future UN climate gatherings were called Conferences of the Parties (COPs). The first COP took place in 1995, and the gathering has reconvened annually. Each year, world leaders restated the dire need to get climate change under control, and each year global C02 emissions only increased – from 22 billion metric tons emitted per-year by 1992, to 24 billion during the Kyoto Accord in 1997, to 32 billion during the Copenhagen Accord in 2009, to 35 billion in 2015, leading up to the Paris Agreement. All the while, a revolving door of outwardly optimistic global leaders announced their intentions to finally get climate change under control.

Hence the climate déjà vu.

Despite these conferences making no progress in reducing greenhouse gas emissions (the one measurement deciding whether human action is causing the climate to warm, and how quickly), it’s not accurate to denounce the gatherings from 1992 to 2015 as entirely unproductive. Each conference created new committees, signed new commitments, and built new frameworks that formed a small part of the foundation that, later, binding action would be built on.

2015: The Paris Agreement

Heads of delegations at the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris.

In 2015, world leaders met for the 21st COP, with global C02 emissions sitting at 35 billion tonnes per year – a more than 13-billion-tonne increase over what nations were producing when they met for the Earth Summit in 1992. However, there was finally some reason for optimism. From 2013 to 2015, global CO2 emissions had plateaued, and the cause appeared to be greater adoption of renewable energy, especially in China. This wasn’t the net reduction in emissions leaders had been committing to since the 1990s, but the needle was inching in the right direction.

This fledgling progress imbued COP21 with a sense of optimism. In his closing remarks, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon stated that “when historians look back on this day, they will say that global cooperation to secure a future safe from climate change took a dramatic new turn here in Paris.” COP21 culminated in the Paris Agreement, the most binding COP agreement to date.

What sets the Paris Agreement apart from previous, typically failed agreements such as the Copenhagen Accord is that more countries signed on to it (196 total), it requires clearer targets and more detailed plans, and it’s more legally binding than earlier treaties, although just how binding the Agreement is has been the topic of legal debate.

 It also benefits from having a clearer goal: to cut greenhouse gases to the point that the global average temperature increase is limited to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels.

An increase of 1.5°C over a period of more than 100 years may sound insignificant, but on a global scale even small increases can have massive consequences. An increase of 1.5°C, now practically inevitable, will exacerbate extreme weather events as well as droughts and climate degradation. An increase of 3°C would be catastrophic, with larger areas of the Earth becoming entirely uninhabitable by humans. An increase of 4 to 7°C could be apocalyptic.

Armed with a new 1.5°C target, many leaders left COP21 with a greater sense of optimism. Canada signed on to reduce emissions by 40% to 45% before 2030. This was a highly ambitious target because, unlike many countries that signed the Paris Agreement, including leading global polluters like the United States, Canada had never achieved any lasting reductions in GHG emissions.

2023: COP28 in Dubai

By 2023, the optimism that infused COP21 had all but washed away. The brief GHG emissions pause from 2013 to 2015 gave way to another significant jump. By 2019, global annual CO2 emissions were up to 37 billion tonnes, a nearly two-billion tonne increase compared to 2015 when the Paris Agreement was signed. Additionally, in the years following the signing of the Paris Agreement, the real-life impacts of climate change were becoming much more visible.

By mid-2023, the effects of climate change had become impossible to ignore.

Adding to 2023’s downturn in optimism was the host country selected for COP28: the United Arab Emirates. Despite being geographically smaller than many Canadian provinces, the UAE is a leading global oil exporter that has fought to squash global climate legislation. COP representatives from petrostates and oil and gas companies had long been a controversial topic, but with the UAE hosting COP28, other representatives felt that in this case the fox wasn’t just in the henhouse; it was in charge of it.

Many politicians, journalists, and climate activists went to Dubai expecting the worst, but when COP28 concluded in December 2023, the results were unexpectedly positive. World leaders openly recognized that progress under the Paris Agreement was too slow and that new measures needed to be adopted to have any chance at limiting warming to 1.5°C. Their final agreement not only renewed GHG reduction targets to be met by 2030, but for the first time it explicitly stated the need to reduce reliance on fossil fuels to achieve that goal. This might seem like an obvious conclusion, but it’s the first time oil and gas have been included in the text of a COP agreement and signals a potential loosening of fossil fuel companies’ grip on climate decision-making.

COP28 also broke with tradition in that Human Rights took a more central role in the discussions. Leading up to the conference, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Türk called for rights-based climate action and stressed the significance of COP28 falling on the 75th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Following a familiar pattern, COP28 wrapped up with positive quotes from national leaders and UN officials, although that optimism was perhaps more tempered than in 1987 and subsequent gatherings. In his closing speech, UN Climate Change Executive Secretary Simon Stiell declared that “whilst we didn’t turn the page on the fossil fuel era in Dubai, this outcome is the beginning of the end.”

Conclusion

After more than 35 years of climate gatherings, it’s perhaps overly bold to declare any new beginnings or endings. Instead, we appear to be in a protracted middle, where new climate commitments are signed each year, slowly chipping away at countries’ inaction.

Since the most recent spike in 2019, global CO2 emissions have stayed relatively steady. Some nations, such as Sweden, Norway, or Denmark, have successfully reported year-over-year decreases in emissions, developing a playbook for others to follow. Although no UN climate gathering has successfully brought on the double-digit decreases in emissions needed to avoid the worst impacts of Climate Change, the world is no longer on the runaway path to apocalyptic 4 to 7°C warming we were trending toward decades ago, had emissions continued to rise unabated.

Human rights are also emerging as a potent tool for holding governments accountable to their climate targets. In April 2024, a group of more than 2,400 Swiss women over the age of 65 won a major climate victory in the European Court of Human Rights. They argued that because older women are more vulnerable to the deadly effects of extreme heat, government inaction against climate change was endangering their lives, therefore violating their human rights. Similar cases are ongoing around the world, including a youth-focused victory in Montana in August 2023, as well as the Ontario-focused Mathur et. Al, which was dismissed in April 2023, but set important precedent and is currently seeking appeal.

We owe at least some of this progress to decades of UN climate meetings and agreements, many of which brought on incremental change and momentum. Unfortunately, incremental change will work for only so long. Over the past 35 years the UN has made countless targets and recommendations, which most countries have found all too easy to either fall short on or outright ignore. However, behind these UN targets lie very real planetary limitations. Countries may continue ignoring the targets, but as global temperatures rise and extreme weather worsens, it’s becoming impossible to ignore their consequences.