As world leaders gather in Glasgow for Cop26, I couldn't help recalling the first Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change back in April 1995. Cop1 was held in Berlin's vast International Congress Centre, and finding one's way around it was a nightmare with endless possibilities for getting lost in the maze of concourses, corridors, halls, escalators and "meeting points".
Cop1 was held just three years after the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, which I also had the privilege to attend. But the Berlin conference had none of the razzmatazz of Rio. Media interest was cool to lukewarm, reflecting the fact that most governments weren’t taking climate change seriously. The International Herald Tribune, for example, devoted just two paragraphs to what it called the Berlin “climate parley”.
There were lobbyists everywhere, ranging from environmental groups such as Greenpeace – ably represented by Jeremy Leggett, who made a point of wearing a business suit to blend in – to more shadowy figures such as Donald Perlman, a Washington DC lawyer who was working closely with oil-producing countries such as Saudi Arabia; he was dubbed by Der Spiegel as the “high priest of the carbon club”.
German industry was putting its “green face” forward, with AEG-Daimler Benz demonstrating new electric cars, Siemens plugging wind turbines and RWE Energie showing a model of its first solar power plant in Spain. The UN programme of events, “printed on paper manufactured from 100 per cent post-consumer waste”, included a cycling cavalcade to the Reichstag and a river Spree trip on solar-powered boats.
Young activists from all over the world brought a steamroller to the congress centre to symbolise how the climate was being “crushed” by car-based transport policies, and Greenpeace had a digital clock racking up the amount of carbon dioxide emitted by power stations worldwide since the 10-day conference started. By mid-morning of the final day, it stood at 153,272,683 tonnes, rising at the rate of 200-300 tonnes per second.
Presiding over Cop1 was Germany’s new environment minister, the then little-known Angela Merkel, who had been appointed to the post by chancellor Helmut Kohl just six months previously. With her characteristic pudding-basin hairdo and trouser suits, she sat in the chair listening to ministers from more than 60 countries – including Ireland’s Brendan Howlin – addressing climate change, which was then seen as a distant threat.
Like the best chairs of later UN Cops, she was also active behind the scenes working to achieve a consensus that would drive the process forward. As a physicist who had grown up in East Germany, she had a clear understanding of the science that was being laid out in voluminous reports by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
Merkel was also acutely aware that the outcome of Cop1 – the “Berlin Mandate”, as it was called – could only be adopted by consensus among the 177 countries represented at the conference. If any of them had objected at the final plenary session, it would have been fatal. So, naturally, we were all in the press gallery to watch the proceedings, marvelling at Merkel’s mastery on the podium in holding it all together.
Just as she was putting it to the floor, the Saudi delegate rose to his feet to raise an objection. But in looking out over the plenary hall, she deigned not to see him, saying “I think that’s all agreed” as she brought down the gavel. The official record showed that the outcome was adopted by acclamation, and the world’s long and tortuous process of dealing with the climate crisis got under way, thanks in no small way to Merkel.
Two years later in Japan, Cop3 adopted the Kyoto Protocol, under which developed countries committed to reduce their emissions of the greenhouse gases warming the planet. Further Cops followed, year after year, in places as diverse as Bonn, Milan, Montreal, Nairobi, Bali, Poznan, Copenhagen, Cancún, Durban, Doha, Warsaw, Lima and Paris. I had the privilege of attending them all.
Sadly, I won’t be going to Cop26. But those who are attending should look out for Germany’s newly-retired chancellor, because she will be there. And hopefully, more than a quarter of a century since Cop1 in Berlin, the latest round of negotiations will produce an agreement which will actually tackle the clear and present danger to humanity and Earth’s ecosystem that the climate emergency now so starkly represents.