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  • Writer's pictureVera Kozak

On the margins of COP26 - all you need to know about climate conferences

Updated: Oct 4, 2021

COP26, the next climate change conference of the United Nations (UN) hosted in Glasgow, United Kingdom is coming up in just a month’s time. We thought this is a perfect time to take a look back at some of the milestones and conferences that coined terms like ‘global warming’, ‘sustainability’, and began limiting greenhouse gas emissions and toxic waste production.

Scroll down to find out more about the history of conferences on the environment!


1972 Stockholm UN Conference on Human Environment

  • Anti-colonial statements were issued by Peru, Chile, Pakistan.

  • Gandhi in his famous speech urges countries to conceptualise ecological management side by side with poverty alleviation.

  • The United Nations Environmental Programme created with its headquaters in Nairobi, Kenya. This is the first UN body to be based in a developing country (or in the Global South).

1987 World Commission on Environment and Development

  • Sustainability is coined and defined: “Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

  • The paper defining ‘sustainability’ became famous under the names the Brundtland Report or Our Common Future.

Earth Summit, Rio de Janeiro, 1992

  • A major conference on sustainability, strongly influenced by the work of the World Commission’s Brundtland report

  • It was held as a response to the end of the Cold War and the dissolution of the Soviet Union

  • Topics included finding alternatives to burning fossil fuels (coal, oil, natural gas) for energy production, water security around the world, or scrutinising hazardous and toxic chemicals used during industrial production

Interestingly, three legally binding international agreements were born out of this Earth Summit, focussing on three areas of conservation:

  • Convention on Biological Diversity

  • UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC)

  • UN Convention to Combat Desertification

Kyoto Protocol 1997

  • It’s a real turning point in climate change mitigation. It commits the state parties to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and states that firstly, global warming is occurring and secondly, that human activities (CO2 and methane emissions mainly) are driving it.

  • Even though the agreement was adopted, some estimate that between 1990 and 2010 global emissions increased by 32%.

Paris Agreement, born during the UNFCCC 2015 conference

  • The countries who signed it agreed that their greenhouse gas emissions need to be limited seriously, and the global temperature rising should be no more than 1.5˚C

  • Although it is better than no agreement, many criticise the Paris Agreement as being weak, since it’s basically stating that the countries ‘should’ reduce their emissions ‘as soon as possible’, and ‘do their best’ to keep global temperature rising to maximum of 2˚C.

  • Under the Trump administration, the United States of America quit the agreement. Joe Biden signed it and rejoined it on his first day entering into office on 20th January 2021.

But how effective were these attempts to solve global warming and climate change? Summing up the impact of these conferences, environmental historian, Robert B. Marks in his book The Origins of the Modern World writes:

“To address the problem of global warming, over the past twenty-two years the United Nations has convened several conferences to get the sovereign states of the world to cooperate in setting limits to the emission of greenhouse gases, starting with the Kyoto Summit in 1997. Getting agreement among the independent states has been difficult, at first because developing countries led by China and India complained that limiting their use of fossil fuels for energy production would hinder their economic development, and because the U.S. Congress refused to ratify the Kyoto agreement. In 2015, though, it appeared that a breakthrough had been achieved, preceded by a prior bilateral agreement in 2014 between the presidents of the United States, Barack Obama, and of China, Xi Jinping, to limit and then reduce their greenhouse gas emissions by 2030. With the leaders of the two countries responsible for 40 percent of the entire amount of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere, and hence for global warming, agreeing to sign the Paris accords, 174 other countries (plus the European Union) signed onto the agreement. At the December 2018 Katowice (Poland) Climate Change Conference (also known as COP24), the participants agreed to a range of matters necessary for implementing the Paris Agreement, the one that U.S. president Trump has pulled out of.”

Whether these international efforts were enough is still being debated, since the 20th century accounts for 16 times more energy use than that of at the end of the 19th century. More than 50% of wildlife has been wiped out between 1970 to the mid-2010s, and many researchers say that the 1.5˚C cap on global temperature rising is enough simply to avoid absolute catastrophe. One thing is sure: these ‘weak sustainability’ efforts have been paralleled by ‘strong sustainability’ efforts during the past decades. The number of grassroot and non-governmental organisations focussing on tackling climate change have grown significantly: from giants like Greenpeace International to sporadically spreading Fridays For Future and Extinction Rebellion, we have seen many young people taking the streets and calling for urgent change.

Most likely, our future is dependent on these two approaches: both stronger global solutions are needed for global issues, as well as young people taking part in politics, and bringing urgency and action to the decisionmaking table.

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