COP21 Explained: Why the Big Deal?

Paris is hosting a wide range of heads of state, delegates, scientists, NGOs, and civil society this week and next for a historic conference where countries are expected to develop the first ever universal climate change agreement. The UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) is the organizing body that puts on the climate change negotiations, where delegates from the world’s countries come together in an attempt to slow down climate change by reducing the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions being emitted into the atmosphere. This year is the 21st conference or Conference of the Parties (COP).

The first UNFCCC conference took place in Berlin in 1995, but the talks have proved lacking teeth ever since, with countries unable to agree on a fair way to tackle the issue, and with few countries committing to reducing GHG emissions. At COP21, as this year’s COP in Paris is referred to, the world is following the talks closely, in anticipation of a meaningful climate agreement. Because the negotiations are complex and it is often difficult to understand what exactly is going on and why, here are the answers to some of the questions you may be asking.

Why the big deal about COP21 in Paris this year? There’s been so many global climate negotiations and nothing has happened.

Years of failed climate talks have been leading up to this year’s COP, so it is normal to be doubtful that countries will succeed in developing an international climate agreement this year. Yet the lead-up to COP21 has been full of momentum as well as of full of powerful leaders, motivated to come to a successful deal. 150 heads-of-state are in Paris for the talks, including U.S. President Obama, who has decided to make acting on climate one of his presidential legacies and whose domestic climate actions have signaled to the rest of the world that the U.S. is finally serious about a global climate deal. Also different from past years is the cooperation between the two largest emitters– the U.S. and China.

To ensure success in Paris, countries agreed to submit their individual national plans to reduce their GHG emissions early, in preparation for the talks in Paris. Now, delegates from the world’s countries will sit down together to go over these reduction plans, called Intended Nationally-Determined Contributions or INDCs in UN-terms. On the eve of the COP21 conference, 184 countries covering around 95 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions had delivered their INDCs to the UN.

Furthermore, COP21 is significant institutionally because governments are expected to produce an agreement on what happens after 2020, when the the current commitments on greenhouse gas emissions runs out. The COP21 agreement will include commitments from all countries, including the U.S., who did not ratify the Kyoto Protocol in 1997 or the Doha Amendment in 2012, and thus did not commit to reducing any emissions pre-2020.

Why is it important that nations agree on an international climate deal?

Lots of cities and individual countries have been already addressing climate change through local policies and actions, which is great. Cities are paving the way and showing that it is possible to have a low-carbon economy and low-carbon development. Mayors are leading by example, as the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group (C40) have demonstrated in their Climate Action in Megacities (CAM 3.0) assessment. Without these cities’ initiatives, there would probably be little momentum for a global deal to be made now. But an international agreement on climate change is important because the issue is one that is global in scope even though it is a result of the actions of a few countries. Most countries that will be the most impacted by climate change have played no role in causing the phenomenon. These countries will need help from richer countries to react and adapt to climate change. Moreover, coordination and cooperation is needed to keep the earth from warming to catastrophic levels and everyone must be on board to act, no matter their role in causing the problem.

What will a successful global climate agreement look like?

Most researchers are saying the same thing when discussing a successful universal climate deal in Paris. This includes (1) Long-term mitigation and adaptation goals as well as the phasing out of GHG emissions and funds to help vulnerable countries with climate impacts (2) An open and transparent reporting process where the public can evaluate countries’ progress in cutting GHG emissions, and (3) Regularly reviewed and updated INDCs– reviewed perhaps every five years. Many are also hoping that a long-term goal be included in the agreement, such as a goal for decarbonization or phasing out of emissions by mid-century. Although the EU and other countries are pushing for a legally-binding agreement, the U.S. wishes to take a different path, as it would impossible to ratify such an agreement with the present politics and Republicans at home.

What happens after Paris? Will we have done enough?

Current INDCs will not keep world from warming less than two degrees. But it is the first step. And also a big step– a successful universal climate agreement is a big deal after 20 years of failed negotiations. There’s also the possibility that countries will pledge more ambitious reductions once the talks begin; for example, China announced on Wednesday that it would cut emissions of major pollutants in the power sector by 60% by 2020, as well as reduce annual CO2 emissions from coal-fired power generation by 180m tonnes by 2020. Depending on the agreement made this year, countries will most likely still have to go back to the negotiation tables every five years or so to reevaluate commitments.

Even with a global climate deal, words will still have to be put into action to slow the earth’s warming, and to also protect those that will be most vulnerable. Policymakers must work with scientists to develop effective climate policies at home that can prevent us from handing down a chaotic world to future generations. Businesses need to take into consideration internal ways of carbon pricing, to make up for the lack of mechanisms that exist, particularly in the United States. Developed countries need to finance projects that help developing countries mitigate and adapt to climate change.  But we do sense optimism at this COP: for the first time businesses and other non-state actors are playing an active role in creating a meaningful agreement. We Mean Business released a Business Brief to all COP21 negotiators, highlighting eight key things that companies want from the agreements in Paris, which included net zero GHG emissions before the end of the century, as well as meaningful carbon pricing. CEOs from 78 countries also released an open letter urging action. Already at the conference, more than 500 institutions representing more than $3.4 trillion in assets have made some form of divestment. An agreement in Paris is the important first step to a new, fossil fuel-free future.

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To understand and learn more about the climate talks history and processes, UNFCCC provides a great guide with insight into the background of the talks, as well as the “big picture” of the UN climate conference.

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