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Last edited 03 Dec 2021
COP21 Paris 2015
Diplomats and heads of states convened for the 21st Conference of Parties, or COP21, the latest in a line of United Nations meetings on climate change action – that is, how to mitigate the effects of future climatic changes, and how to adapt to changes that are already underway. Within the wide range of discussions two key things are deliberated:
- The ambition and pace of emission reductions.
- The level of financial help pledged to vulnerable nations to adapt to climatic changes and invest in clean energy.
 A history of Parties
The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) is a treaty that was set up at what is known as the Earth Summit – the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development – in Rio de Janeiro in 1992.
The treaty itself doesn’t set any specifics around addressing emissions. It has an aim of ‘stabilising greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere’ to prevent dangerous climate change, but is in essence a framework under which countries can get together to thrash out legally binding protocols on cutting greenhouse gases. The UNFCCC in itself is non-binding, but states that parties should act to protect the climate system through ‘common but differentiated responsibilities’, with developed countries – or, in the main, ‘Annex 1’ countries – taking the lead.
A total of 196 Parties, or countries, make up the UNFCCC, and these Parties have met annually since 1995 when the first Conference of Parties, or COP1, was held in Berlin. The COP meetings are a forum where Parties get together to work out how to achieve the aims of the UNFCCC treaty.
COP meetings have been turbulent. COP3 in Kyoto, 1997, as the location might suggest, gave birth to the Kyoto Protocol. The Protocol was formed after the Parties decided at COP1 that it was not adequate for Annex 1 parties to just stabilise their emissions at 1990 levels by the year 2000 (which was the initial aim of the UNFCCC).
The Kyoto Protocol set varying binding emission reduction targets for Annex 1 countries. It finally came into force in 2005, and its first round ran to 2012. The Protocol had an overall aim of reaching a combined 5% cut in emissions from 1990 levels by 2012 across the Annex 1 bloc. Countries were free to decide how to reach their targets – be it by increasing forest cover, as well as funding emission reduction efforts in other countries; alongside making direct cuts to their own emissions.
In terms of a mechanism to reduce emissions, Kyoto is seen by many as a failure. The delay in it becoming international law saw emissions rise unchecked in the interim, and while some Parties, like the European Union, reached their eventual goals, others did not. The Protocol was famously not ratified by the US – at the time the largest and currently the world’s second largest emitter. And the focus on developed countries, along with the US drop out, meant that global emissions over the first commitment period soared – particularly from China.
The second Kyoto Protocol commitment period runs from 2012 to 2020, and does not include all the Parties that took part in the first period. Japan and Russia, among others, said they would not take on further Kyoto targets and Canada received a great deal of criticism when it dropped out of the process altogether in 2011.
Deliberating on a follow up to Kyoto is exactly what COP21 is all about, but what have been the other key COP milestones over the past few years, and why has it taken this long to find Kyoto’s successor?
 Recent COP landmarks
COP13 in Bali, 2007, culminated in the ‘Bali Road Map’ which set its sights post-2012. A big part of the roadmap was the ‘Bali Action Plan’, which would set a course for the following two years towards the last big purported chance to get a global deal on climate – COP15 in Copenhagen in 2009.
Then came the infamous COP15 in Copenhagen in 2009.Talks broke down and the conference was hailed as a failure by many observers. Channel 4’s Jon Snow called it the most distressing reporting experience of his career.
The US President Barack Obama was struggling to get an emissions trading bill through the US senate at the time, and pre-negotiations between the US and what had by then (just) become the world’s biggest emitter, China, did not amount to much. The Chinese President Wen Jiabao reportedly left the conference halfway thorough and sent an official to negotiate with Obama. The process itself descended into chaos, with world leaders stepping in to write some parts of the final text themselves.
The Copenhagen ‘Accord’ didn’t stack up to much. It was not legally binding and didn’t contain any binding commitments for emissions reduction. It acknowledged the severity of the challenge of climate change, and expressed a ‘strong political will’ to combat it, and make ‘deep’ cuts to emissions.
However, on climate finance, COP15 set up a target for developed countries to generate $100bn a year by 2020 in aid for developing countries to deal with the effects of climate change – a key part of negotiations today. It also set up a mechanism to transfer technology to developing countries.
COP16 took place in Cancun, Mexico in 2010 and ended up with measures from the Copenhagen Accord formalised in the ‘Cancun Agreements’ – the main headline being that Parties agreed for the first time to maintain global temperature increases to below 2°C. Again there was no legal framework here. The commitment to $100bn in finance transfer was finalised.
Over to Durban, South Africa in 2011 for COP17, where the ‘Durban Platform for Enhanced Action’ was created.
This significant platform set in motion the framework for the next few years and also began the hype behind COP21 – under the Durban Platform Parties agreed to seek a universal legally binding agreement on climate change by no later than 2015. This would come into force by 2020 and would succeed Kyoto. The Durban text reiterates the 2°C target and provides an option to increase ambition to limit the temperature rise to 1.5°C.
After a lacklustre COP18 in Doha, COP19 in 2013 in Warsaw, Poland was more interesting. It aimed to set a timeline to facilitate an agreement in COP21, create a mechanism for a new ‘loss and damage’ framework (how to enhance knowledge, action and support for developing countries affected by extreme events), and progress the provision of long-term finance.
On the first point, the now well-known ‘intended nationally determined contributions’ (INDCs) – the eventual vehicle under which Parties would submit their pledges on emissions action for COP21 – were discussed. This marked a key moment for COP21. A mechanism was decided in which countries would take a ‘bottom-up’ approach in setting their own targets to reduce emissions, fundamentally different to the top-down approach of Kyoto.
In 2014, COP20 was held in Lima, Peru. Work began on the draft agreement text for COP21 (which would subsequently be worked on at interim meetings for negotiators in Geneva and Bonn), and the process for Parties to submit INDCs was finalised. It was decided that INDCs would focus on mitigation (emissions reduction) – and include detail on base years, time frames, scope, methodologies, and whether the effort was fair.
In summary, in terms of coming up with a successor to Kyoto, COP15 didn’t deliver, and subsequent COP meetings, particularly COP17 in Durban, set sights on Paris as the next big chance to get a truly global, legally binding agreement on reducing emissions. That’s why COP21 is important.
The draft negotiating text for Paris at the start of the year weighed in at a hefty 86 pages, with a lot of work required between February’s Geneva meeting through the three subsequent meetings in Bonn to get it down to something more manageable.
A lot of streamlining work has been done to try and whittle the text down into something shorter. The last official interim meeting in Bonn towards the end of October resulted in a final negotiating text for COP21 of 51 pages. This text however still had a large amount of interpretation in the form of square brackets [representing wording yet to be decided]. There is much left to be honed in Paris.
Regarding the latter, INDCs mark the key difference between any agreement formed from COP21 and the Kyoto Protocol. This time round Parties themselves are forming the level of ambition, outlining what they are prepared to do in their INDCs, rather than it being imposed on them. While some have criticised the ‘potluck’ aspect of whether INDCs will add up to anything meaningful, they exist so countries can be more prepared for the talks and to make a binding treaty more likely.
Individual INDCs can be viewed on the UNFCCC website, but what do they add up to? Asynthesis report from the UN says that the combined pledges will result in 2.7°C of warming on pre-industrial levels by 2100. While this is above the 2°C target, it is a marked improvement from business as usual, and many commentators have made this point.
But it does point to an ‘emissions gap’ to reach 2°C, with the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) estimating that to reach the target, around 12 to 14 gigatonnes more carbon dioxide needs to be saved by 2030. The UNEP report recommends early action on emissions to keep costs low and avoid deeper and more challenging cuts later on.
There is already an acknowledgement that post-Paris, countries will need to look to increase their ambitions to close the gap, possibly doing so every five years. This is part of the negotiating text.
One of the more contentious issues around any form of deal to come out of Paris is to do with the level and flow of finance from developed to developing countries to help mitigate and adapt to a changing climate, as well as compensate for loss and damage due to climate events. Indeed, some INDCs from developing Parties state that action is conditional on the provision of climate finance.
The COP16 commitment from richer nations to provide $100bn annually to developing countries by 2020 will form one of the key battlegrounds for negotiators. Developing countries are looking for more certainty around this promise. South Africa’s Nozipho Mxakato-Diseko, who represents the G77 and China (now a total of 134 developing nations), told a press conference at the final Bonn session that: “Whether Paris succeeds or not will be dependent on what we have as part of the core agreement on finance.” The group wants an agreement for aid to be scaled up from a floor of $100bn in 2020.
On the other side, developed countries would like to broaden the definition of a donor as not just an Annex 1 country, but all countries that are in a position to donate. The G77 group wants to keep the Annex segregation.
How ‘differentiated responsibilities’, as described in the original UNFCCC treaty, are seen by developed and developing countries – in terms of a simple split of the world into Annex 1 and 2 countries as was the case in 1992, versus a more general sharing of obligations – is key to negotiations.
A recent OECD report says that a level of $64bn of finance was reached in 2014, though there is reportedly distrust from some of the negotiators around this figure which highlights some of the entrenched dividing lines that still exist in these negotiations.
 The need for action
He asked, ‘must we change?’
Offering some fundamentals on climate change science and examples of erratic weather events we are exposed to (‘Every day the news is like a nature hike through the Book of Revelation’); his answer was a resounding ‘yes’.
He then asked,’ can we change?’
Focusing on the increasing proliferation of renewable energy technologies, game-changing improvements in cost and rapid innovation means that we are close to renewables being cheaper than the incumbent energy regime. ‘Of course we can change’, Gore proclaimed.
The last question is what Paris really comes down to. ‘Will we change?’
It is not just environmentalists and climate activists that are in favour of a strong deal in Paris. Many in the business community are pushing for a global framework and solution to the climate crisis. Forward-looking businesses are aware of the risks they are exposed to from climate change – the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) has put a figure on the value at risk from climate change at £4.5tn.
 What might happen in Paris?
The format of COP21 will see world leaders arrive for the first few days of the conference – including Presidents Obama and Xi Jinping. The draft agreement will be worked on in the first week, then, ideally when largely complete, handed over to high-level negotiators, supported by a senior minister acting as COP President, where negotiations will continue behind closed doors. A final plenary meeting at the end of the process could result in a deal – but there is need for consensus so in theory any country could act to veto it.
Some commentators, speaking at a recent conference under Chatham House rules, have criticised the final negotiating text that will be taken into COP21. One described the process of turning the messy document that came out of Lima into a legible and comprehensive document for Paris as a ‘failure’, and added that what is left is a confusing text that is incomprehensible – even to experienced lawyers. This ‘far from ideal’ document means ministers will have their work cut out for them, they said.
Any agreement will certainly not include a global price on carbon (which the business community is crying out for), Christiana Figueres, Executive Secretary of the UNFCCC, has said. It is also unlikely to include any progress on banning fossil fuel subsidies.
But there is much to be optimistic about. Compared to the turbulent exchanges from 2009 between the US and China, this time, and in advance, the two countries have agreed work together on addressing climate change. And both the US and China are taking real domestic action on emissions.
Further afield, Australia and Canada have ousted their old climate-sceptic leaders and now have governments more likely to progress action on this issue. The G7 has agreed to decarbonise by the end of the century.
There is broad speculation that, due to the bottom-up nature, COP21 will result in some form of meaningful agreement. But any decided action must be acted upon quickly – the science says we may already be locked into a 1.5°C temperature rise, and some small island states have argued this is the absolute upper level that we should be aiming for.
Perhaps making real headway on addressing climate will be more a story more from the private sector. An agreed framework could give businesses the confidence they need to make the carbon cuts they say they can make. It could also be a story of technology – we are seeing renewables expand at a phenomenal rate. The growth of and reduction in cost of solar power, for instance, has taken everyone by surprise. And the indigenisation of these technologies could help developing countries grow economically.
Paris needs to come up with the goods if we are to avoid the risk of irreversible climate change – heat waves, crop failure and sea level rise, among other impacts. But obviously COP21 does not mark the end of road – it is just another step, and there will be a lot of work to do afterwards. The deal needs to be one that can renew itself.
The Met Office recently announced we are to hit an average 1°C rise on pre-industrial temperatures this year – halfway to the 2°C limit. The passing of this crucial milestone, with further temperature rises locked in and a shrinking carbon budget, offers some sobering context as diplomats sit down in France.
We’ll soon know the path we decided to take.
On 15 December 2018, the Katowice package was agreed, which includes guidelines that will operationalise the transparency framework for COP21. It sets out how countries will provide information about their Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) that describe their domestic climate actions. This information includes mitigation and adaptation measures as well as details of financial support for climate action in developing countries.
This article was originally written by--Marc Height 12:04, 04 Dec 2015 (BST)
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- Helping achieve the UN's Sustainable Development Goals.
- IHBC COP26 podcasts.
- IHBC COP26 virtual Conservation Helpdesk+.
- Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change IPCC.
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- Kyoto Protocol.
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 External references
- LinkedIn – COP21
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