As the 2015 climate change conference begins in Paris today, here are the five salient things you need to know about it.
1. What is COP21?
Between 30 November and 11 December 2015 politicians and global leaders from over 190 countries will be involved in the United Nations 21st Conference of the Parties (‘COP21’, as it’s known). They’re meeting in Paris to try and agree a global legally binding climate treaty.
2. Why is it important?
The talks are about agreeing a plan to avoid the worst impacts of climate change, such as more severe droughts, floods and storms. In practice, that means getting us on track to keep global warming below 2°C – this is the agreed threshold that we must not let the planet’s warming exceed if we are to avoid catastrophic effects of climate change.
Some nations are already feeling the impacts of climate change even now, at the current level of just under 1°C of warming on average. There are already people seeking to be official climate refugees; conflicts exacerbated by climate change and extreme weather caused by climate change is on the increase. The COP is also about supporting vulnerable countries and communities in adapting to the impacts of climate change that are happening right now.
Some nations, including an alliance of small islands, think the 2°C threshold is too high and are advocating that we should stay within 1.5°C of warming, which is the level of warming we may already be locked into.
3. So what do we hope to come out of the talks?
An internationally legally binding treaty. Not a declaration or other empty promises, but something that legally binds nations and holds them to their commitment.
In order to achieve this, UN diplomats asked for more preparation to be done before the COP conference, and a contribution from all states is required.
That’s where Intended Nationally Determined Contributions – or INDCs – come in. These are the pledges that countries responsible for over 80% of emissions have made towards emissions reductions in advance of the talks.
However, these aren’t legal commitments – they are more like indications of intentions for the over 160 countries that have submitted them. But one of the aims of COP is to try and get parties to agree a level of legal “bindingness” at Paris.
While the INDCs submitted currently don’t add up to us staying within 2°C of warming (according to a UNFCCC analysis), they are a good start. That’s because the INDCs signify what the biggest polluters – including the US, China, Europe and India – are willing to do to tackle global climate change. But the important thing is that there will need to be a mechanism that reviews INDCs and ratchets up climate ambition after Paris, which will need to be agreed at the talks.
4. That’s all great but surely it all depends on the political will of states, right?
Absolutely. But the political landscape is looking a lot more promising than it has at previous meetings.
The most significant thing has got to be the historic China-US climate agreement announced last November, in which the world’s two biggest carbon emitters and global superpowers indicated their commitment to moving away from fossil fuels.
Obama has made a global climate deal a priority for his legacy while the G7 – Canada, France, Germany, UK, Italy, Japan and US – have agreed to decarbonise over the course of the century, aiming for zero emissions by 2100.
Meanwhile, countries that were previously seen as barriers to a global agreement, including China and India are driving renewable energy in a big way (though India also wants to double coal production by 2020).
In the business sector, business leaders have pledged to support the Paris talks, while governor of the Bank of England Mark Carney gave investors an incentive to act when he warned that they will face huge climate change losses.
There also appears to be a buildup of pressure from civil society ahead of the COP, as hundreds of thousands have staged mass climate marches in the days before the COP starts.
Overall, things are looking promising but it’s important to remember that each country will be looking for a deal that fits best with its own national issues and planning processes.
5. Great, so is there anything I can do?
Yes! It’s important for our leaders to know that we want real and tangible action on climate now. We should by complement do everything in our capacity to reduce carbon emission.