Paris COP21 - 101

Still confused about COP21? Here is a 101 on the conference to get you up to speed before the final agreement is announced.

Okay so in a nutshell, what is COP21?

COP21 is short for the 21st Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. It’s a conference in which heads of state and other world leaders get together and try to come to an agreement about how to act on climate change. 


And there have been 21 of these conferences already?

Yes! The conference we have this week has followed off the back of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), which was an international environmental treaty negotiated at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in June 1992. The goal of this convention was to "stabilize greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system." The UNFCCC has been signed by 196 parties as of 2014, and parties meet annually to discuss progress in how they are dealing with climate change 


So have any agreements come out of these conferences?

Yes and no. In 1997, the Kyoto Protocol was adopted and established legally binding obligations for developed countries to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. The Kyoto Protocol recognised that developed countries had contributed more emissions, and thus developed the concept of “common but differentiated responsibilities.” Those countries that ratified committed themselves to reducing greenhouse gas emissions to 5% below 1990 levels by 2012, and 18% below 1990 levels by 2020. However, many countries did not agree to the 2012-2020 extension. The Kyoto Protocol has been accepted by 192 UNFCCC party members. The only nations who did not agree to the protocol were Afghanistan, Sudan & the U.S.A. 

There was an intention to replace the Kyoto Protocol with a similar legally-binding agreement in Copenhagen in 2009, but this plan was not successful. In 2012 it was agreed to extend the Protocol until 2020, but we are still waiting for a new, legally-binding agreement to replace it.   


So what do we want to come out of the meeting this year?

In an ideal world, we would come out with a fair, transparent and legally-binding agreement that all countries agree to. Since 1997 it has become an oversimplification to describe some countries as ‘developed’ and others as ‘developing’ - in absolute terms, the world’s largest greenhouse gas emitters are now China, the US, Europe, India and Russia. While historical emissions and per capita emissions rates are essential in determining the fairness of targets and where the funding will come from, ultimately the highest emitters have the greatest effect on global warming, and an agreement will not be effective without them. 

However, including the world’s largest emitters is not the only goal - currently, countries are offering their own targets (INDCs), based on varying baselines. This makes it very difficult to compare emissions reductions in real terms and to measure the potential collective impact. A transparent agreement in which everyone’s targets are measured in the same way would make monitoring progress a lot easier.

In addition, the agreement needs to be fair. The highest per capita (per person) emitters are still all developed countries: Canada, the US, Russia, Japan and the EU.  A fair agreement will take into consideration the economic wealth that some countries have built by emitting greenhouse gases for centuries. One of the major areas of dispute in the agreement is therefore on ‘climate finance’. In 2009, wealthy countries pledged to contribute $100bn a year by 2020 towards climate finance that would fund emissions reductions and cover the cost of extreme weather events in developing countries. However, this has not yet happened. The discussion of how to fairly spread out the cost of climate change is a key aspect of the discussions and will be an essential part of the final agreement.

Who are the most important parties in the agreement?

The biggest emitters and most powerful countries have centre stage. The biggest emitters are essential for effective global emissions reductions, and the most powerful countries have the greatest potential to lead, also in terms of providing economic solutions and climate finance.

China and India submitted pledges to decrease their emissions, India said it would decrease emissions by 33-35% between 2005-2030 and China is pledging to cut emissions from power-generation by 60% by 2020. However, analyses suggest that these reductions are less ambitious than a business-as-usual scenario given progress that is already happening in energy efficiency. The US has submitted a pledge to decrease greenhouse gas emissions by 26-28% of 2005 levels by 2025. In the US too, emissions have been already declining since 2005, so it is difficult to judge the ambitiousness of this target. However, the pledges that these countries and Russia make will be the most important. Europe is also a major emitter, but is less in the spotlight due to its established leadership on matters of climate change.


Where can I learn more?

Why two degrees matters

Everything you need to know about the Paris climate summit

Climate change acronyms

The COP21 website