edie explains: COP21 Paris Climate Conference

From November 30th to December 11th this year, Paris will play host one of the most important climate conferences in the history of mankind. Here's everything you need to know...

World leaders and politicians from more than 190 countries are meeting to sign an international agreement on how to tackle climate change – the greatest challenge facing humanity, according to Prince Charles, Barack Obama, Gordon Brown and many others.

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 COP21 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.

What is likely to be agreed in Paris?

We already know the majority of commitments, known as Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs).

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.

Commitments made so far now cover about 70% of global emissions, but some big polluters are still silent, most notably India. Forty or more INDCs will be submitted in September alone, according to UNFCCC officials. 

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.

In fact, analysis has revealed that these targets alone would allow two billion tonnes of emissions more than the level UNEP says would give the planet a 50-66% chance of limiting warming to 2°C.

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 – say, five-yearly – reviews of countries’ emissions targets, with the ability to strengthen them if they are being met.

Apart from INDC’s, what else is going to happen in Paris?

The other huge issue is financing – for adaptation and mitigation. In a nutshell, poorer countries argue that rich countries should pay for the spiralling costs of extreme weather events – $50bn a year in the 1980s to around $200bn now – which they say has been caused by rich countries’ emissions.

They also want finance to help them invest in clean technologies that can help mitigate future warming.

Back in 2009, rich countries made a promise to deliver $100bn in climate finance annually from 2020. Where that money will come from – the private sector, the World Bank, rich countries – is still a huge sticking point and could potentially derail the entire Paris conference.

Janos Pasztor, assistant UN Secretary General on climate said last week: “Financing is absolutely key.

“$100 billion is not that much when we want to change the whole world into a no-carbon future. For that we need trillions.’’ And the bulk will have to come from the private sector..

Why we should be concerned?

There are only five negotiating days left in October before the COP21 Paris conference, and diplomats have yet to finalise a document that can be debated in December.

Recent negotiations in Bonn to help form that document were described as ‘painstakingly slow’ and raised concerns from campaigners that “there are still no clear text options from which a deal in Paris can be negotiated”.

French President Francois Hollande warned earlier this week that the Paris conference will fail to reach a binding agreement that limits warming to 2C, unless nations are willing to make “a much greater effort to reach agreement”.

Reasons for optimism…

Support from the aforementioned non-state actors appears to be stronger than ever before. Christiana Figueres, the executive secretary of the UNFCCC, recently pointed to General Mills as the latest example of private sector ambition, with Ikea, Unilever and many more big corporates matching that ambition.

Cities are also taking more action, with the C40 cities group now featuring 80 cities. Private lenders are also becoming more confident offering green finance. DeutscheBank for example has a up a £320m fund to finance energy efficiency improvements.

On the religious side, 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.

Celebrities are also calling for an ambitious deal…

What happens if nations DO agree a deal?

For the private sector, apparently not a lot. Only 46% of 142 the CEOs surveyed by PwC said that a global deal would be a key driver for climate action in their sector.

 In contrast, 80% said more public engagement could drive action and 77% said a clear, consistent and long-term national government policy framework was important.

PwC climate policy specialist Jonathan Grant explained: “It is often hard to make the link between the global climate negotiations and day-to-day business issues – national regulation is often more relevant and immediate.

The group most likely to gain from a Paris deal could be developing nations. Consider this: two thirds of the buildings that will exist in India in 2030 have not yet been built.

A deal in Paris will focus countries and investors on the fact that future infrastructure will have to be green. A deal will also encourage finance for green projects on a major scale and help developing countries ‘lock in a greener infrastructure’.

What happens if nations DO NOT agree a deal?

That depends on who you ask. Miguel Cañete, the European commissioner for climate action and energy is on record saying that Paris is the last chance for a binding agreement on climate change.

He told the Guardian: “There is no plan B – nothing to follow. This is not just ongoing UN discussions. Paris is final.”

That would put the onus back on individual nations to make climate pledges of their own and stick to them.

However, other diplomats don’t agree that Paris is the last chance to tackle climate change. Dan Reifsnyder, one of two UN co-chairs helping refine the main text for Paris, told RTCC that COP21 won’t be a failure if countries don’t set targets to limit global warming to 2C.

He said: “It is not at all a failure if it doesn’t meet the 2C target. People seem to think we are all going to get together at a single COP and solve the problem once and for all. Climate change is a multi-decade problem; it is going to take the concerted efforts of countries for multiple decades to solve it.”

Reifsnyder said that an alternative would be ratcheting up targets over time in future COP meetings.

What’s left on the road to Paris?

Negotiators return to Bonn in October for their final attempt to slim down the central document for Paris. Whatever emerges from that meeting will be the document debated by world leaders in Paris.

Talks are also expected to be given momentum by Climate Week in New York at the end of September – at which a flurry of INDCs are expected to be unveiled.

UN diplomats will be voting on whether to adopt the new Sustainable Development Goals, which should help create an interlocking set of commitments on the part of the world’s nations to address climate change, providing a strong foundation for agreement in Paris.

Brad Allen

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