COP26: How world leaders first met to tackle climate change in 1992

COP26… the latest in a long line of climate conferences: How world leaders first met to tackle rising global temperatures in 1992 three years after Margaret Thatcher called for nations to unite over crisis

  • Mrs Thatcher warned the UN in 1989 that rising greenhouse gas levels could lead to ‘drought and starvation’
  • By then, scientists had begun warning of the potentially catastrophic consequences of a failure to act
  • Global leaders first met to try to address the issue at the Earth Summit in Rio De Janeiro in 1992  

As the name suggests, the COP26 climate change summit is just the latest in a long line of meetings which have been held to grapple with the issue of climate change.   

It was Margaret Thatcher in her final full year as Prime Minister in 1989 who called for a global agreement to tackle the problem, as she warned that the planet could be subject to ‘drought and starvation’ if greenhouse gas emissions continued unabated.

By then, scientists had been making stark warnings about the potentially catastrophic consequences of a failure to act.  

The first Conference of the Parties (COP) summit, which took place in Berlin in 1995 and was led by Angela Merkel when she was Germany’s environment minister, laid the groundwork for the third, where the Kyoto Protocol was adopted in Japan in 1997. 

Five years prior, at the Rio De Janeiro ‘Earth’ summit, the world’s leaders had met to try to address climate change for the first time.   

It was the 1997 deal which saw the setting of binding targets to reduce greenhouse gas emissions – but only for industrialised nations.

And yet, even this first major push towards grappling with global warming was dealt a major blow when, in 2001, US President George Bush said his country would not ratify the treaty.

Since then, at every annual COP meeting, nations have wrangled over agreeing to new targets to replace those made at Kyoto. 

The most recent, the 2015 Paris Agreement at COP 21, was hailed as a major success, but little progress has been made since then and former U.S. President Donald Trump damaged its credibility when he pulled out of the deal in 2016. 

The first Conference of the Parties (COP) summit, which took place in Berlin in 1995 and was led by Angela Merkel (pictured) when she was Germany’s environment minister, laid the groundwork for the third, where the Kyoto Protocol was adopted in Japan in 1997

The 1997 Kyoto Protocol marked the first time that binding targets to reduce greenhouse gas emissions were set – but only for industrialised nations. Above: The then U.S. Vice President Al Gore with Japan’s prime minister Ryutaro Hashimoto and the country’s environment chief Hiroshi Oki

The 2015 Paris Agreement at COP 21, was hailed as a major success, but little progress has been made since then and former U.S. President Donald Trump damaged its credibility when he pulled out of the deal in 2016

The early history 

Scientists have been demonstrating the impact of changing carbon dioxide levels since before the end of the 19th century.

The so-called ‘greenhouse effect’, the process by which carbon dioxide traps heat in the earth’s atmosphere, was first recognised by French scientists Joseph Fourier in 1824.

In 1861, Irish physicist John Tyndall measured the absorption of heat by greenhouse gases including carbon dioxide in his laboratory in London, publishing a paper on his findings in 1861.

A few years before him American female scientist Eunice Newton Foote conducted an experiment revealing the heat-trapping properties of carbon dioxide, and warned in a scientific paper in 1856 that an atmosphere of that gas would give the Earth a high temperature.

Then, in 1896, Swedish physicist Svante Arrhenius published a paper on ice ages which estimated temperature changes due to changing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

He was followed a few years later by fellow Swede Nils Ekholm suggesting the gas could increase in the atmosphere over the coming millennium due to the burning of coal, which would warm the Earth.

In 1938 Guy Callendar, an amateur meteorologist who collected and combined thousands of observations of temperature and carbon dioxide from around the world, was the first to show that human-caused emissions of carbon dioxide were contributing to rising global temperatures.

Oceanographer Roger Revelle first briefed the US Congress on climate change in 1956, warning that ‘we are making perhaps the greatest geophysical experiment in history’.

Shortly afterwards, Charles David Keeling started measuring carbon dioxide at the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii, producing the ‘Keeling Curve’ – a clear record of rising CO2 levels in the atmosphere.

Two decades later Nasa scientist James Hansen’s testimony to Congress in 1988 was front page news: he told a Senate committee that global warming was ‘already happening now’ and was almost certainly not due to natural variation.


In 1938 Guy Callendar (left), an amateur meteorologist who collected and combined thousands of observations of temperature and carbon dioxide from around the world, was the first to show that human-caused emissions of carbon dioxide were contributing to rising global temperatures. Oceanographer Roger Revelle (right) first briefed the US Congress on climate change in 1956, warning that ‘we are making perhaps the greatest geophysical experiment in history’ 

The first global agreement on climate change came three years later, at the Earth Summit in Rio De Janeiro. Above: The then presidential candidate Bill Clinton speaks to the summit in June 1992

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was established by the UN at the end of that year, to prepare a comprehensive review of the state of knowledge of the science of climate change and its impacts.

By then, calls were growing for an international treaty on climate change.

Hopes that something could be agreed were boosted by the Montreal Protocol in 1987, which led to the phasing out of CFC chemicals that were damaging the ozone layer.

Calls for change  

In 1989, Mrs Thatcher warned that ‘the problem of global climate change is one that affects us all and action will only be effective if it is taken at the international level.

‘It is no good squabbling over who is responsible or who should pay.

‘Whole areas of our planet could be subject to drought and starvation if the pattern of rains and monsoons were to change as a result of the destruction of forests and the accumulation of greenhouse gases.

‘We have to look forward not backward and we shall only succeed in dealing with the problems through a vast international, co-operative effort.’

She pushed for a global convention on climate change, what she called a ‘good conduct guide for all nations.’

The PM, who by November that year would be turfed out of office, warned that there needed to be ‘binding’ protocols, with ‘effective regimes to supervise and monitor their application’.

It was Margaret Thatcher in her final full year as Prime Minister in 1989 who called for a global agreement to tackle the problem, as she warned that the planet could be subject to ‘drought and starvation’ if greenhouse gas emissions continued unabated. Above: Mrs Thatcher made her plea in a speech to the United Nations 

In 1989, Mrs Thatcher warned that ‘the problem of global climate change is one that affects us all and action will only be effective if it is taken at the international level’

That same year, the IPCC’ first report warned that ’emissions resulting from human activities are substantially increasing the atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases.’

When and where? The 26 COP summits (so far) 

COP 1, 1995: Berlin, Germany

COP 2, 1996: Geneva, Switzerland

COP 3, 1997: Kyoto, Japan

COP 4, 1998: Buenos Aires, Argentina

COP 5,1999: Bonn, Germany

COP 6, 2000: The Hague, Netherlands

COP 7, 2001: Marrakech, Morocco

COP 8, 2002: New Delhi, India

COP 9, 2003: Milan, Italy

COP 10, 2004: Buenos Aires, Argentina

COP 11, 2005: Montreal, Canada

COP 12, 2006: Nairobi, Kenya

COP 13, 2007: Bali, Indonesia

COP 14, 2008: Poznań, Poland

COP 15, 2009: Copenhagen, Denmark

COP 16, 2010: Cancún, Mexico

COP 17, 2011: Durban, South Africa

COP 18, 2012: Doha, Qatar

COP 19, 2013: Warsaw, Poland

COP 20, 2014: Lima, Peru

COP 21, 2015: Paris, France

COP 22, 2016: Marrakech, Morocco

COP 23, 2017: Bonn, Germany

COP 24, 2018: Katowice, Poland

COP 25, 2019: Madrid, Spain

COP 26, 2021: Glasgow, United Kingdom

The first climate summit and COP meeting 

The first global agreement on climate change came two years later, at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro.

The objective of the treaty which was signed by world leaders including Mrs Thatcher’s successor John Major, was to ‘stabilise greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system’.

In simpler terms, the aim was to prevent carbon emissions caused by humans from negatively effecting the world’s climate.  

Since the first in 1995, a COP summit has been held each year.

COP 1 in Berlin was led by Germany’s then-environment minister Angela Merkel.

Whilst the negotiations were fruitful, signs of trouble were evident when the United States pushed back on agreeing to legally binding targets and timetables.

The Kyoto Protocol 

The success of the Berlin summit lay in the fact that the document signed by those who took part laid the groundwork for what became the Kyoto Protocol, which was signed at COP 3 in Japan in 1997.

This was the first time that binding targets to reduce greenhouse gas emissions were set for industrialised nations.

The legally binding treaty required only developed countries to reduce emissions by an average of 5 per cent below 1990 levels and established a system to monitor countries’ progress.

China and India, which were among the biggest emitters on the planet, were not required to take action and the precise details of the targets were to be negotiated at successive COP summits.

These included COP 4 in Buenos Aires in 1999, COP 5 in Bonn in 1999, COP 6 in The Hague.

However, the protocol was dealt a serious blow when, in 2001 – four years before it entered into force – the newly-elected President Bush announced that ratifying it was not in the ‘economic best interest’ of his country, even though it was the world’s biggest emitter of CO2.

The Protocol did still come into effect in 2005 at COP 11 in Montreal, after it was ratified by enough countries to account for at least 55 per cent of global emissions.

But whilst all 36 countries which fully participated in the first commitment period, which ran from 2008 until 2012, successfully met the targets which had been set, global emissions still rose by 36 per cent between 1990 and 2010.

In 2007, at COP 13 in Bali, participating governments agreed that the Kyoto Protocol was too limited in scope because it focused only on developed nations and ignored the rocketing emissions of countries such as China and India.

With the Bali Roadmap, it was hoped that there could be a global agreement within the next two years which would see both developed and developing nations adopt targets to curb emissions.

Delegation members from about 170 countries listen in Kyoto to a speech during the opening session of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change

The Kyoto Protocol was dealt a serious blow when, in 2001 – four years before it entered into force – the newly-elected President Bush announced that ratifying it was not in the ‘economic best interest’ of his country, even though it was the world’s biggest emitter of CO2

The objective of the 1992 treaty which was signed by world leaders including Mrs Thatcher’s successor John Major, was to ‘stabilise greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system’. In simpler terms, the aim was to prevent carbon emissions caused by humans from negatively effecting the world’s climate

COP 1 in Berlin was led by Germany’s then-environment minister Angela Merkel. Whilst the negotiations were fruitful, signs of trouble were evident when the United States pushed back on agreeing to legally binding targets and timetables

Failure in Copenhagen 

But at COP 15 in Copenhagen in 2009, the world’s nations failed to reach an agreement on binding commitments for when the initial Kyoto targets expired in 2012.

They had been hampered by the effects of the global financial crisis which began two years earlier, along with acrimony between individual nations.

Instead, participants only came up with a nonbinding agreement that global temperatures should not increase by 2 degrees Celsius (35F) above preindustrial nations.

The then U.S. President Barack Obama warned that the accord was ‘not enough’.

At COP 15 in Copenhagen in 2009, the world’s nations failed to reach an agreement on binding commitments for when the initial Kyoto targets expired in 2012. Above: The then US President Barack Obama speaking at the conference

The situation was made even starker when NASA announced that the first decade of the 20th century had been the warmest on record.

Further wrangling 

At COP 16 in Cancun, Mexico, in 2010, countries including China, India and the U.S. did commit for the first time to keep global temperature increases below 2C.

A pot of money set up called the Green Climate Fund – which was meant to be $100billion to help developing countries mitigate the effects of climate change – was also set up. But, by 2019, little more than $3billion had been contributed.

COP17 in Durban, South Africa, in 2011, nearly collapsed before anything had even been agreed when China, the U.S. and India rejected a proposed new legal commitment to replace the first set of emission reductions agreed to in the Kyoto Protocol.


COP17 in Durban, South Africa, in 2011, nearly collapsed before anything had even been agreed when China, the U.S. and India rejected a proposed new legal commitment to replace the first set of emission reductions agreed to in the Kyoto Protocol. Above: The UK’s then Energy and Climate Change Secretary Chris Huhne (left) is seen speaking at COP17; delegates are seen sleeping in the conference hall in Durban

However, they did eventually agree to work towards drafting a new, legally binding agreement in 2015 at the latest.

This would differ from the one set out in Kyoto in that it would apply both to developed and developing countries.

Yet, at COP 18 in Doha in 2012, the only moderate success was the agreement for developing nations to help developing countries mitigate and adapt to the effects of climate change.

By then, hopes for a solution to the climate crisis had already taken further turns for the worse when Canada withdrew from the Kyoto Protocol and Japan and Russia said they would not make new commitments.

At COP 19 in Warsaw the following year, the representatives of developing countries ended up walking out when developed nations rejected another new funding mechanism to help them deal with ‘loss and damage’ caused by climate change.

The Paris Agreement 

It was the landmark COP 21 summit in Paris in 2015 which was hailed by campaigners as being the most meaningful and exciting in years.

The 196 nations which took part agreed to a comprehensive global deal to limit temperature rises to well below 2C above pre-industrial levels and to pursuing efforts to curb warming to 1.5C.

Whilst the new deal did see nations agree to submit what were termed nationally determined contributions (NDCs), these were determined by countries themselves and there was no mechanism established to ensure they met the targets.

It was the landmark COP 21 summit in Paris in 2015 which was hailed by campaigners as being the most meaningful and exciting in years. Above, Mrs Merkel, who had by then long been Germany’s leader, is seen shaking hands with Prince Charles as former UK Prime Minister David Cameron looks on

Former Mayor of New York City, Michael Bloomberg and Mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo pose with thousands of mayors from different cities around the world at the 

By the time of COP 22 in 2016, the Paris deal was dealt a major blow when new U.S. President Donald Trump announced he was going to pull his country out of the deal, saying that it imposed ‘draconian financial and economic burdens’.

The rules for implementing the the Paris agreement were decided at COP 24 in Poland in 2018, in the same year that the IPCC warned of devastating consequences if the average global temperature rises above 1.5C.

The subsequent summit in Madrid – the final one before the coronavirus pandemic delayed COP 26 until this year – was described as a ‘lost opportunity’ by UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres.

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