I’ve heard of COP25, but what is it?

The acronym COP25 refers to this year’s meeting of the signatories to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC)—an annual meeting of international governments formally known as the Conference of the Parties, or the COP—and, as you may have already guessed, this year’s meeting, which was held in Madrid, marked the 25th annual conference. 

While the United Nations has a well-known penchant for spinning off programs, conventions, and treaties, condensing their names into acronyms, and then using the acronyms to somewhat dizzying effects, having an overview of the convention’s origin and a brief summary of its history can help tie everything together in a way that is easy to understand and easy to remember.

The UNFCCC (often pronounced U-N-F-triple-C) dates back to 1992 when it was one of three¹ legally binding international treaties introduced at the 1992 UN Rio Earth Summit², a conference that many consider as the beginning of the current international discussion on climate change.

Though many people remain unfamiliar with the events of the Rio Earth Summit and its associated treaties, it’s much more likely that you’ve heard of some of the more notable outcomes of the UNFCCC and its yearly COP meetings. The name COP21 may not immediately ring any bells, but the 21st Conference of the Parties, which met near Paris in the winter of 2015, produced the most robust international climate agreement in history, the 2015 Paris Agreement. Nearly 20 years earlier, in 1997, COP3 brought about the Kyoto Protocol, which, despite its inherent shortcomings, yielded many valuable lessons that later paved the way to the Paris Agreement. So, to recap the most important points: one of three treaties to come out of the 1992 Rio Earth Summit was the UNFCCC, whose parties meet at an annual conference called the COP; during COP21 in 2015, the parties drafted and signed what is known today as the Paris Agreement; and COP25 refers to this year’s meeting, which was held in Madrid.

The RP Team at COP25.

The Paris Agreement has been signed. Why are they still negotiating?

Although 194 parties and the European Union signed on to the Paris Agreement in 2015, not all of the details pertaining to its implementation were ironed out at the time. In fact, much was left to be negotiated in the years following the formal drafting of the document and its signing.

The big issue under negotiation during this year’s meeting in Madrid was Article 6 of the Paris Agreement, which aims to establish the rules for how an international carbon market should be governed. While many international markets exist today, few have been designed from the ground up, and as such, crafting an effective carbon market that is free of vulnerable loopholes is a difficult task. Of the many hurdles posed, none are bigger in the eyes of the parties than avoiding double-counting, whereby emissions reductions could problematically be counted twice, and puzzling out additionality, which refers to how green projects that are currently operating or in development can, if at all, be counted in the market for a country’s emissions reductions.

Talks have stalled. Where do we go from here?

While negotiations have stalled in Madrid, a new round of negotiations is set to continue in Glasgow next November. According to the New York Times, the talks stalled in large part because major polluters––the United States, Australia, Brazil, China, and India are among those named in the article––were both obstructive and reluctant to come to the table on key issues. Of course, there are many concerns when negotiations stall; however, it’s important to note that, for better and for worse, this is all part of the process. Because every country has its own set of circumstances for which each duly argues, international agreements generally have a lot of concerns to take into account. As a result, they’re typically broad, yet take a lot of time to formulate. Fortunately, the Paris Agreement is just one piece, albeit a big piece, to the broader climate puzzle. There is no silver bullet when it comes to facing climate change. We have to leverage everything in our power to create the change we want to see––not only to signal to our governments that we’re ready to make changes but to remind the world that we don’t have to wait for them to take the lead.


  1.  The two other treaties are the Convention for Biological Diversity (CBD) and the UN Framework Convention to Combat Desertification (UNFCCD).
  2.  The 1992 Rio Earth Summit, also known as the UN Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED), is often cited as the conference that began the current international conversation on climate change.