A look at past agendas for United Nations climate conferences sheds light on what is given priority at the annual summit and what gets left out, giving some predictive insight into how vulnerable nations’ push for loss and damage negotiations will fare during this year’s meetings in Egypt.
“Agendas are worth fighting over. Once an issue is on the agenda, negotiations can go ahead with a procedural armour that protects the topic and hopefully leads to outcomes and decisions,” write Jennifer Allan, senior lecturer in international relations at Cardiff University, and Rishikesh Ram Bhandary, assistant director of the global economic governance initiative at Boston University, in a post for Carbon Brief.
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Allan and Bhandary recently authored a study that breaks down the COP agenda-setting process and categorizes negotiation agenda items at past conferences from 1995 to 2021. They found that the volume of work at COP negotiations has grown steadily over time, but that growth has not necessarily corresponded to new rules built into major agreements or outcomes.
“While the negotiations have broadened to include a wider range of issues, we demonstrate that transparency and mitigation matters traditionally dominate the agendas,” Allan and Bhandary report.
Their research revealed nine substantive topics that are consistently included in COP agendas. Of those nine, transparency—”meaning decisions about how countries report their progress on issues such as national emissions and climate finance”—and mitigation—”which means reducing greenhouse gas emissions”—stood out.
But the research also showed that transparency issues tend to move more quickly from rule creation to implementation than mitigation. They also reappeared less often and were shorter lived. This indicates that COP negotiations have resulted in progress for transparency issues, while mitigation has often stalled.
“Sectors including the fossil fuel industry, international aviation, and shipping—referred to under the topic of ‘bunker fuels’—have been on the agenda more than any other mitigation issues, but we could not find evidence of any substantive discussions since 2005,” the authors write.
The study reports less focus on climate adaptation than mitigation, with fewer agenda items related to adaptation. But a brighter spotlight on climate change impacts at more recent UN talks meant that a key adaptation issue—loss and damage finance—gained a spot on this year’s agenda. Now, negotiators and observers in Sharm el-Sheikh are pushing for that agenda item to deliver results.
The large coalition of countries calling for loss and damage discussions suggests a growing demand for COP negotiations to give the issue equal airtime. But Allan and Bhandary say it may be a challenge to introduce new agenda items—even a topic like loss and damage that has seen more than three decades of delay—because of a focus on implementing the Paris agreement. But future COPs “may need to become more balanced with items beyond those that have traditionally dominated the discussions,” they write.