COP21 Paris Climate Conference: Everything you need to know

The most important climate talks ever start on Monday (30 November), with 138 heads of state and 25,000 official delegates expected to be in attendance. Here's our simple guide to the negotiations over the next two weeks.

From 30 November to 11 December, Paris will play host one of the most important climate conferences in the history of mankind, with world leaders from more than 190 countries are meeting to sign an international agreement on how to tackle climate change.

So… what will be discussed?

We’ll get onto some of the key issues and sticking points later, but on a broad level, countries will be looking at ways to limit global warming to two degrees.

This could include making each country’s Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs) legally-binding, potential targets to phase out fossil fuels and targets for renewable energy.

What’s the schedule?

The first week of the talks will see negotiators work on the draft text in what’s known as the ‘Ad Hoc Working Group on the Advanced Durban Platform’.

By the second week, negotiators should have resolved the majority of issues, leaving just a few key points and phrases as sticking points. This is when the official COP – the Conference of the Parties to the UNFCCC – begins its high-level negotiations.

These talks, led by a senior French Minister, involve diplomats trying to find common agreement on certain issues from all 195 signatories to the climate convention.

Much of this is done behind closed doors, deep into the night. As you can imagine, trying to get 195 countries into agreement is a not-inconsiderable task.

The last few days of the conference will see the final ‘plenary’ meeting – a meeting of all the countries at the most senior level. Every country will have its chance to veto the agreement. A unanimously approved document has never been achieved, but observers claim this is the most political momentum they have ever seen at a COP.

How did we get here?

The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change – or ‘UNFCCC‘ – was adopted during the Rio de Janeiro Earth Summit in 1992. It entered into force on 21 March, 1994 and has been ratified by 196 States, known as its State Parties.

This Framework acknowledges the existence of human-induced climate change and says that industrialised countries should shoulder the major part of responsibility for combating it. 

The Conference of the Parties (COP), made up of all ‘States Parties’, is the Convention’s supreme decision-making body. It meets every year in a global session where decisions are made to meet goals for combating climate change. Decisions can only be made unanimously by the States Parties or by consensus. The COP held in Paris will be the 21st, hence the name ‘COP21’.

According to the organising committee, the objective of the 2015 COP is to achieve – for the first time in over 20 years of UN negotiations – a binding and universal agreement on climate, from all the nations of the world.

Previous agreements in Kyoto were never ratified by the US and excluded China and other big emitters, while the treaty arising from Copenhagen in 2009 was never legally-binding.

Why hold COP21 now?

Current commitments on greenhouse gas emissions run out in 2020, so Governments need to find a consensus for what climate action will looks like for the decade after that at least and potentially beyond. Simple.

What is likely to be agreed in Paris?

We already know the majority of commitments. These have now been submitted by 178 countries and cover more than 90% of global emissions.

The EU will cut its emissions by 40% compared with 1990 levels, by 2030. The US will cut its emissions by 28% compared with 2005 levels, by 2025. China has said it will peak its emissions by 2030.

However, the pledges already made will still not be sufficient to limit global warming to 2°C, according to analysis published in August by the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change.

Experts expect current INDC’s to limit warming to 2.7°C (providing they are met, which is a whole other issue).

There appear to be two main mechanisms to help overcome this shortfall. The first is to encourage non state-actors to cut emissions, through initiatives like RE100 or the C40 Cities Leadership Group. The second option is for the UN to host regular reviews of countries’ emissions targets, with the ability to strengthen them if they are being met.

What are the key issues?

1) A carbon price

Businesses and sustainability experts from fossil fuel giants to Mars, have been calling for a carbon price in the build-up to Paris. As Corporate Leaders Group chair Phillipe Joubert recently told edie: “Companies always act within the rules, so to change their behaviour you have to change the rules.”

However, French President Francois Hollande said on Tuesday (24 November) that “a widening and harmonisation of the carbon market are not on the official programme of the conference”.

UN climate chief Christiana Figueres has also previously indicated that a carbon price would not likely be implemented at COP21.

2) Will we see a legally-binding deal?

Probably not in the traditional sense, although it is complicated… The main reason for this is that the US Senate is unlikely to ratify an international climate agreement.

Therefore, the document must be written in a way that allows the President to sign it without needing their approval. So the document won’t include specific national targets, but will likely commit countries to the actions needed to reach their targets.

3) Will there be five-yearly reviews

A ‘ratcheting’ mechanism seems likely to be included in any outcome agreement, because of the flexibility it offers.

The White House, the European Union, China and France and the UN’s Figueres have all laid out their support for a mechanism which forces countries to review their targets periodically – likely every five years.

And in a joint statement early in November, China and France said the mechanism would “reinforce mutual confidence and promote efficient implementation”.

4) Climate finance

One of the sticking points in the build up to these talks was climate finance – i.e. the money that rich countries would provide to poor countries to help the adapt to the impacts of climate change and develop new clean energy infrastructure.

Back in 2009, rich countries made a promise to deliver $100bn in climate finance annually from 2020, but it was unclear where that money would come from.

However, in the week before Paris, organisations and nations appear to be stepping up. The World Bank announced a $16bn Africa Climate Business Plan (ACBP) which aims to improve adaptation measures and funding into low-carbon initiatives in Africa.

The World Bank and European Investment Bank (EIB) recently pledged to boost funding for climate action to $51bn a year between them. This announcement was followed by a big pledge from Japan Prime Minster Shinzo Abe, who commited $10.6bn a year for climate financing from 2020.

According to Associated Press, commitments from industrialised nations alone are now between $60-70bn a year, including $1.7bn from the UK from 2020.

However, when including pledges from international development banks, NGOs and the private sector, that figure rises to nearly $200bn.

Campaigners have suggested that public money is more important, since “helping small farmers adapt is not an equity solution that private investors will be jumping over themselves to get to”.

Barbara Buchner, a senior director of the Climate Policy Initiative, said: “Developed countries are more than halfway towards their 2020 commitment, which is encouraging, but clearly there is still some way to go.”

Reasons for optimism…?

There are plenty! Support from the aforementioned non-state actors appears to be stronger than ever before.

Corporate giants like Mars, Unilever, Ikea are all making bold commitments of their own and calling on Governments to back them up. Financial behemoths like Allianz are starting to cut fossil fuels out of their investments, while international banks are creating specific green funds for the first time and pointing out the risks of the carbon bubble.

Religious leaders are getting in on the act too. Pope Francis famously published an encyclical called Laudato si’ – intended, in part, to influence the Paris conference. The encyclical essentially calls for action against human-caused climate change.

Meanwhile, leading representatives of Islam have also called for action to tackle climate change across the world, in the form of The Islamic Declaration on Global Climate Change. And domestically, the Church of England has adopted a new ‘ecotheology’ policy which will see it divest from coal mining and oil from tar sands.

What’s next? 

As Heineken’s director of global sustainable development Michael Dickstein recently told us: “The real work starts when COP21 ends.

“How will countries act on that agreement and make sure its isn’t something written on paper, but something that is put into practice?”

Christian Figueres is optimistic about the answer. She said: “We are going to be on a journey, and there are going to be checkpoints along that journey with review cycles to quantify if we’re getting closer. Paris is not going to deliver two degrees on the 11th of December, but I certainly expect it to deliver the path toward 2 degrees.”

Stay tuned to edie to keep on top of the Paris Climate Change Conference – we’ll bring you daily updates and announcements, as well as exclusive blogs and expert commentary throughout the two-week talks.

Brad Allen

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