COP21: A Halt to  Climatic Disruption?

COP21: A Halt to Climatic Disruption?

The two-week COP21 climate conference in Paris (also known as the 21st Conference of Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention for Climate Change, or UNFCC) ended on Saturday 12 December with a historical and legally binding universal agreement covering 195 countries, which provides a framework for voluntary efforts to significantly reduce carbon emissions starting 2020.  The purpose of this conference was to develop a binding agreement on climate change that involves all nations across the world. More specifically, the goal was to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions to a level that will keep the world’s mean temperature below a 2°C increase compared to the pre-industrial period.


The agreement, which remains subject to approvals by individual countries, and is pending a formal signing process commencing April 2016, was widely celebrated as a long awaited step forward in global climate action. Its most widely cited outcome was that parties to the agreement collectively committed themselves to a reduction to carbon emissions that would limit global warming to “well below 2 degrees celsius” (above pre-industrial levels), but the agreement also referred to an aspiration to limit global warming to 1.5°C, in the interest of protecting the low-lying island from sea level rise, to which they are most vulnerable.


In 2009, many people declared COP15 in Copenhagen as the last chance to save humankind. While the Copenhagen pledge promised the mobilization of climate finance amounting to $100 billion per year by 2020, it was seen as a failure by many and “a terrible fiasco” by the president of France. Observers say that the attempt to impose binding targets on countries then was one of the reasons why the talks failed. After that, public debate centered on the Paris climate talks as a last-chance resort.



The Course of Global Emissions


Global negotiations on climate change have been taking place for more than 20 years. However, the history of climate change goes back even further. In the 19th century, physicists theorized about the role of greenhouse gases (GHG), specifically carbon dioxide (CO2), in the atmosphere, and suggested that the warming effect would increase alongside the levels of these gases in the atmosphere.


Only in the past few decades have scientists begun the measurements necessary to establish a relationship between current carbon levels and temperatures, and the science conducted since has consistently pointed in one direction: that rising greenhouse gas emissions, arising from our use of fossil fuels and our industries lead to higher temperatures.


Scientists have warned that if greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise, the planet will pass the threshold beyond which global warming becomes catastrophic and irreversible. That threshold is estimated as a temperature rise of 2°C above pre-industrial levels. On current emissions trajectories, we are heading for a rise of about 5°C! That may not sound like much, but the temperature difference between today’s world and the last ice age was about 5°C.  Seemingly small changes in temperature can mean big differences for the Earth.

In 1992, governments met in Rio de Janeiro and forged the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC). That agreement, still in force, bound governments to take action to avoid dangerous climate change, but did not specify what actions. The next five years saw governments wrangled over what each should do, and what should be the role of developed countries versus poorer nations.


Those years produced the Kyoto Protocol (1997). That pact required worldwide cuts in emissions of about 5% (compared with 1990 levels) by 2012, and each developed country was allotted a target on emissions reductions. But developing countries, including China, South Korea, Mexico and other rapidly emerging economies, were given no targets and allowed to increase their emissions at will. In fact, what didn’t take place was a fully articulated and legally binding treaty. It also never met its objectives because the pact was not ratified by the United States – and none of the countries that failed to meet their commitments under Kyoto have been sanctioned.  But the targets agreed at Copenhagen in 2009, in the form of a document signed by world leaders, still stand.


The Paris Agreements


Nations responsible for more than 90% of global emissions have now come up with their targets – known as Intended Nationally Determined Contributions or INDCs. These include all of the major developed and developing countries, with varying contributions: in the case of developed countries, this means actual cuts in emissions, but for developing countries a range of targets including limits on emissions compared to “business as usual”, and pledges to increase low-carbon energy or preserve forests.  Disappointingly, a number of big emitting emerging economies - including China, India and South America - were unwilling to sign up to a condition that they felt could hamper their economic growth and development.


In order to prevent some of the worst impacts of climate change and set us on a path to limit warming to 2°C, the world needs to limit emissions to 42 gigatonnes CO2e  (carbon dioxide equivalent) in 2030. The INDCs that countries submitted prior to the Paris summit would have put the world on an emissions pathway that is still too high. The hope was for the Paris agreement to include key elements that send the right signals to the world, so that countries, businesses, investors and innovators would have the motivation and incentives they need take additional action. In 2030, this action could reduce emissions by an additional 5 gigatonnes CO2e beyond what the INDCs could achieve on their own.

To address its structural challenges and the climate shortfall, the agreement relies on mechanisms that attempt to bridge this ‘emissions gap’, without dictating targets upon each nation. One of these mechanisms is using positive peer and reputational pressure to encourage countries to match or exceed emission reductions by others. Given the disparity of climate actions around the world to date, the reliability of such mechanism is questionable without a critical mass of pioneering nations. Yet the positive energy surrounding the agreement has the potential to create momentum and positive peer pressure.


In addition, the agreement also relies on assumed future developments that could take place as a result of the accord. One assumption is that in order to gain competitive advantage, industries and investors would be inclined to decarbonise and steer future technology away from fossil fuels and towards cleaner energy sources. Another assumption is that governments would be inclined to align their national policies with their commitments at Paris, including removing fossil fuel subsidies and investing in renewable energy research and development.



Pledges and Targets


Questions have been raised around these nation-appointed targets since they are not considered as legally binding under international law, and the manner in which they be reviewed and enforced.  But given the outcome of the Copenhagen talks, some sections in the agreement will be legally-binding within the UN framework, such as the regular review of submission of emission targets.  What won’t be legally binding will be the emission targets as they will be determined by the nations themselves. Many national governments offered new financial pledges.  Collectively, developed countries pledged $19 billion to help developing countries, including an announcement by Secretary of State John Kerry that, by 2020, the United States will double its support for adaptation efforts to $800 million a year.  Developing countries are now also providing support; Vietnam pledged $1 million to the new Green Climate Fund (GCF), and for the first time, subnational governments also offered pledges, including 1 million euros from the city of Paris for the GCF, and CAD 6 million from Quebec for the UNFCCC’s Least Developed Countries Fund. Governments also launched new joint initiatives. India and France led 120 countries in announcing an International Solar Alliance supporting solar energy deployment in developing countries.  More than 20 developed and developing countries launched Mission Innovation, pledging to double public investment in clean energy research and development over five years.  “Non-state actors”, including cities, states and regions, companies and investors, also presented new and strengthened initiatives. This unprecedented showing of support from all levels of society was widely credited as an important factor in Paris’ success.


As French President Francois Hollande summed it up: “In Paris, there have been many revolutions over the centuries. Today it is the most beautiful and the most peaceful revolution that has just been accomplished – a revolution for climate change.”


Key Decisions of Paris COP21

Parties to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) reached a landmark agreement on December 12 in Paris, charting a fundamentally new course in the 20-year old global climate effort.


The new treaty ends the strict differentiation between developed and developing countries that characterized earlier efforts, replacing it with a common framework that commits all countries to put forward their best efforts and to strengthen them in the years ahead.


The agreement and a companion decision by parties were the key outcomes of the conference. Together, the Paris Agreement and the accompanying COP decision:


• Reaffirm the goal of limiting global temperature increase well below 2 degrees Celsius, while urging efforts to limit the increase to 1.5 degrees;


• Establish binding commitments by all parties to make “nationally determined contributions” (NDCs), and to pursue domestic measures aimed at achieving them;


• Commit all countries to report regularly on their emissions and “progress made in implementing and achieving” their NDCs, and to undergo international review;


• Commit all countries to submit new NDCs every five years, with the clear expectation that they will “represent a progression” beyond previous ones;


• Reaffirm the binding obligations of developed countries under the UNFCCC to support the efforts of developing countries, while for the first time encouraging voluntary contributions by developing countries too;

• Extend the current goal of mobilizing $100 billion a year in support by 2020 through 2025, with a new, higher goal to be set for the period after 2025;


• Extend a mechanism to address “loss and damage” resulting from climate change, which explicitly will not “involve or provide a basis for any liability or compensation;”


• Require parties engaging in international emissions trading to avoid “double counting;” and


• Call for a new mechanism, similar to the Clean Development Mechanism under the Kyoto Protocol, enabling emission reductions in one country to be counted toward another country’s NDC.


The Paris Agreement will be open for signature on April 22, 2016.  In order to become a party to the agreement, a country must then express it consent to be bound through a formal process of ratification, acceptance, approval or accession. Each country has its own domestic procedures for deciding whether to join an international agreement.


The agreement establishes a “double trigger” for entry-into-force: it requires approval by at least 55 countries accounting for at least 55 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions.  If states ratify quickly, these conditions could be satisfied pre-2020, allowing the COP to begin meeting as the “meeting of the Parties” to the Paris Agreement, to be known by the acronym CMA.


In the meantime, pending the agreement’s entry into force, a new Ad Hoc Working Group on the Paris Agreement will begin meeting to consider issues requiring further rules or guidance.


COP 22 is set for November 7-18, 2016, in Marrakech, Morocco.

COP21 Facts

-There are currently 7.39 billion people on Earth. The number is increasing by 200,000 daily,

    and is expected to reach 8 billion by 2025 and 9 billion by 2040.

- Insurance companies lose $50 billion each year because of natural disasters linked to climate change.

- 196 parties (195 countries and the European Union) participated in COP21.

- July 2015 was the hottest month ever recorded by NOAA, with an average temperature of 16.61°C.

- The aim of COP21 is to keep the rise of temperature within the limit of 2°C compared

    with the pre-industrial era.

- 8% of species are threatened with extinction if globaltemperatures rise by 3°C by 2100.

- Developed countries have pledged $100 billion to help developing countries tackle climate change.

- The average annual rise in sea levels since 1993 is 3.2 mm.

- 1 km2 of forest is lost in the world every second.

- 3.3 million premature deaths per year are due to air pollution.

- It took 224 days in 2015 to consume all the resources Earth produces in one year.

- Earth will be 2.7°C warmer by the end of the century if governments don’t cut back on CO2 emissions.