All eyes on COP21

An estimated 40,000 people are expected to gather for this month’s Paris climate summit – here’s what you need to know.

By: /
November 23, 2015
An apple marked with the logo of the World Climate Change Conference 2015 (COP21) is seen in this illustration picture at Laquenexy Fruit Gardens, near Metz, eastern France, November 3, 2015. REUTERS/Christian Hartmann

Human-caused climate change is here. According to the latest report by the highest authority on climate disruption, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, “it is very likely that heat waves will occur more often and last longer, and that extreme precipitation events will become more intense and frequent in many regions.” Translation: more historic floods (Calgary 2013), concrete-melting heat (India 2015), and wildfires in British Columbia and Washington state (2015). Christiana Figueres, head of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, has been tirelessly pressing for “transformational climate action.” Given that the first nine months of 2015 have exceeded previous global temperature records, action is the operative word.

This November 30 to December 11, in Paris, France, an estimated 40,000 people, including government leaders from 194 countries and representatives from the EU, UN agencies, and international NGOs, will gather to decide on a new international agreement on climate change.

COP21 stands for the 21st session of the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). The parties, or heads of state, have met every year for the last two decades in order to figure out how to curb greenhouse gas emissions. Greenhouse gases, or GHGs, are emissions of carbon dioxide, methane, PFCs, and the like that cause global warming.

The acceptable increase in global mean temperature is two degrees centigrade by the end of the century. At the current rate of global GHG emissions, we are headed to an increase of four degrees, or more, by 2100.

The goal of COP21 is to create a strong, binding framework for stabilizing GHG emissions within the acceptable range.

Here are five things you should know about the summit:

1. This time, it’s different

COP21 participants have learned from past negotiation failures. Priority is on full participation, and two major emitters, the United States and China, are now engaged. Participating nations have been submitting individually determined “contributions” since March of this year. Because the UNFCCC upholds the principle of “common but differentiated responsibilities,” these contributions vary. In developed countries, contributions are mitigation efforts to reduce GHG emissions. In less developed countries and small island states suffering from the effects of climate disruption already, contributions are adaptation plans. Any effort to protect the “vulnerable 20” nations, such as the Maldives and Bangladesh, must involve a balance between both.

As big players, notably the EU, set bold mitigation targets, other nations are pressured to amp up their own efforts. These initial contribution targets are for the years 2025 or 2030, and will not keep warming within the two degree range. The expectation is that nations will raise targets more aggressively in order to reach the over-arching two degree goal. Periodic five-year revisions will help keep nations on track for achieving the targets, known as the renewal process. Encompassing a range of timescales, COP21 will ensure climate action endures long term. The new instrument of legal force that will uphold these escalating targets is the central goal of the Paris negotiations.

2. Supporting alternatives

Letting the market spawn green energy alternatives on its own will not address climate disruption in the timeframe our planet demands. Industrialized nations must regulate emissions, invest in alternatives, and establish market-based instruments such as carbon trading schemes. According to market forecasts from the International Energy Agency, China will be claiming a whopping 40 percent of all renewable energy gains from 2015-2020. Wind is now the cheapest source of energy in the UK and Germany. Low carbon futures are real and tangible. COP21 will be highlighting these efforts and encouraging knowledge-sharing to inspire solutions. This can also satisfy reluctant economic giants that climate action won’t cripple the economy. The recent unveiling of the Carbon Pricing Panel combines forces from the World Bank, IMF, members the OECD, and major global corporations to spearhead a framework of carbon pricing that will encourage critical investment in renewables.

3. Everyone’s watching

Ongoing and alongside COP21 is the Agenda of Solutions. It involves exchanging best practices and innovation among non-governmental stakeholders such as mayors, businesses, religious leaders and associations. The increased involvement of civil-society is designed to foster a grassroots commitment to change, increase transparency and hold state “foot-draggers” accountable. Civil-society can enjoy its own designated area for the first time right next to the main Conference Centre. However, proposed “special observer status” during negotiations has been scaled back. Certain nations considered that restricting “spin-off groups” to governments alone would be faster and less complicated, causing wide upset. Massive rallies in Paris and around the world will insist on action and awareness.

4. It’s about money – and ethics

Addressing anthropogenic climate disruption demands big changes. It requires reprioritizing spending away from cheap dirty energy and towards clean, investment-heavy, energy. But while the Global South feels the impacts of climate change the most, they are the least responsible for its existence. This brings up ethical questions of who should pay. Recognizing this, wealthy nations and private organizations have agreed to mobilize $100 billion a year starting in 2020 to help emerging economies and vulnerable societies mitigate climate change impacts and reach emissions targets. Though rife with disagreements over who will pay and how much, recognizing the frustratingly impossible demand that climate change negotiations place on the Global South is a huge step. The various international climate funds are shifting the discussion from a “them and us” divide to a global consensus requiring a fair distribution of responsibilities and commitments.

5. We’ve come a long way

Nearly 200 countries have agreed on the fundamentals: Climate change must be addressed to keep within a two-degree temperature rise. Global economic powerhouses have come up with innovative ways to price carbon and foster investment in alternatives. UNFCCC nations have agreed that those who are most responsible for carbon emissions in the atmosphere should be assisting those suffering the consequences.

No one doubts the wide capabilities and ingenuity of our species. The only thing missing is unanimous political will. Though a serious obstacle, it’s a simple choice: we will or we won’t. This December, we decide.