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COP21: What is this and does it really matter?

25 November 2015

COP21 is the United Nations 21st Conference of the parties.  This blog will discuss what this is, what has happened so far in the run up to the meeting and what we might expect to come out of it.

What is COP21?

Starting on the 30th November, global leaders, politicians and other interested parties from over 190 countries will be meeting in Paris to try and agree a global legally binding climate treaty.  This is the latest meeting in a series that started at the Rio Earth Summit in 1992.  Every year the annual Conference of Parties meets to review the implementation of the UN Framework on Climate Change (UNFCCC).  There have been many meetings that have seen various outcomes such as COP3 where the Kyoto Protocol was adopted, but this meeting is the first in over 20 years to aim to achieve a legally binding, universal agreement on climate change with the hope of keeping warming below 2°C.

How have things progressed so far?

The conference has been widely publicised in the run up to the meeting with various countries, groups and individuals taking various actions to try and ensure a universally accepted agreement can be realised.  The UN has requested that participants do more in preparation for the meeting, including the preparation of Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs).  These documents will be fundamental for the climate agreement and demonstrate countries’ intent to decarbonise their economies and invest in resilience.

One of the most significant progressions so far has been the China-US climate agreement.  The two biggest global emitters of carbon emissions have come together to agree to take actions against climate change.  The G7 (Canada, France, Germany, UK, Italy, Japan and US) have also agreed to decarbonise with the aim of achieving zero emissions by 2100.  This is all very encouraging in the lead up to such an ambitious meeting.

What outcomes do we want from the conference?

Ultimately, it is hoped that there will be a binding, universal agreement to tackle climate change.  This is an awful lot to ask, and there will be plenty of debates around the various issues, but the political landscape is looking far more promising than it has in the past.  Getting to an agreement is very complex, after all the conference itself will last until 10th December.  In simple terms, this is what we’d like out of Paris next month:

  1. A concrete global goal that translates temperature limits into levels of pollution so nations can take actual measurable action to reduce emissions;
  2. Agreement on ongoing ‘cycles of commitment’ and how they’ll work. This will help make sure countries continue to improve and strengthen their targets, particularly if collective efforts fail;
  3. Determine who will be hit with the binding commitments to cut pollution. Previous agreements focussed on developing countries but this may not work for Paris;
  4. A plan for climate finance, the money that richer countries provide to poorer countries to adapt to climate change and build clean energy options;
  5. Looking at adaptation, if pollution cuts aren’t successful, there will need to be greater focus on adapting to climate changes

If Paris has the outcomes it intends to next month, this will be a historically significant agreement.  Climate change is a global issue and there needs to be global will and action to keep warming at an acceptable level but also to ensure nations can adapt to the changes that we do see.  It will be very interesting to watch how the meeting progresses in the next few weeks.

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