COP21: A Summary

“What is unique here is that everyone is realising that this truly is a very, very urgent moment in the history of addressing climate change, that this is a moment we cannot afford to miss,” the United Nations’ climate change chief.




What you need to know:

  1. COP21 was overwhelmingly positive.
    This is the first agreement that binds all nations to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and shows global political will to address the issue of climate change.
  1. The draft agreement states warming should be kept ‘well below’ 2oC and that Parties should ‘pursue efforts’ to limit it to 1.5o The level of acceptable warming was an issue of contention throughout negotiations.
  1. The agreement contains the intention to reach net zero emissions by the next half of the century.
  1. Differentiation is made between developed and developing countries – developed countries should take the lead in reducing emissions, share knowledge, and financially support developing nations.
  1. However, current emissions reduction pledges from nations still bring warming in above 2o These are due to be revised every five years, with the hope that countries can step up as technologies improve.

The detail:

The stated aim of the Paris Summit was to reach a global, binding agreement to lower emissions sufficiently to keep global warming below a 2oC threshold.  It is considered that limiting warming to 2oC will keep us from the worst effects of climate change.

Positive noises were certainly being made before the summit.  There has been a recent reduction in the number of climate change denying politicians, notably with the replacement of Stephen Harper with Justin Trudeau in Canada, and Tony Abbott with Malcolm Turnbull in Australia.  The China-US climate agreement of 2014[1] was a momentous one, indicating that the world’s two biggest emitters are committed to the moving away from fossil fuels.  The G7 has agreed to aim for zero carbon emissions by 2100[2], and countries that were once seen as barriers to global agreement, such as China and India, are pushing renewables forward.

However, it was with moderated optimism that we went into talks two weeks ago.  Soundbites from world leaders were tempered by memories of past summits.  With the US Secretary of State insisting that there would be no legally binding treaty emerging from the talks[3], it was easy to suspect that Paris 2015 might go the same way.

The business community showed united opinion in the run up to the summit, with chief executives from 71 of the world’s largest companies signing a statement which urged leaders to ‘reach an ambitious climate deal”[4].

Some nations, particularly small island nations already feeling the effects of climate change, argued that the 2oC threshold was too high, and that 1.5oC should be our global goal.  With a 1oC rise already passed, many argued that this is unachievable.  The Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs) submitted by 155 countries put us outside the 2oC threshold (estimated 2.7-3.7oC).  The issue of the 2oC target continued to be a sticking point throughout negotiations, with a ‘High Ambition Coalition’ of over 100 countries pushing for 1.5oC.

The final draft text of the agreement states the intention to attempt to hold global temperature rise at ‘well below’ 2oC, with a goal to ‘pursue efforts’ to limit it to 1.5oC.  The agreement states intention to achieve balance between anthropogenic sources and removals by sinks in the second half of this century, bringing net greenhouse gas emissions down to zero in just a few decades.  Parties are to seek a peaking of greenhouse gas emissions ‘as soon as possible’, and undertake rapid reductions thereafter in accordance with best available science.

It is stressed that all efforts to reduce emissions should be kept in the context of sustainable development and efforts to eradicate poverty, with requirements not to threaten food production.

Differentiation was drawn into the final agreement, with the text reflecting the common nature, but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities, of different nations.  It is noted that emission peaking will take longer for developing countries, and that developed nations should take the lead by undertaking economy-wide absolute emission reduction targets.  Finances were a key concern throughout the negotiations, with developing countries seeking financial and technological help to move to renewables.  It was agreed that rich nations should provide developing countries with ‘climate finance’ for climate change adaptation and development of renewable energy.

As well as emission reductions, the agreement also requires that Parties increase their ability to adapt to the adverse impacts of climate change, conserve and enhance greenhouse gas sinks such as forests, and enhance climate change education, training, public awareness and public participation.

Cooperation is a recurring theme in the agreement, with requirements for the sharing of knowledge, financial assistance, and technological development and transfer.

The intentions set out in the agreement are commendable, and for a 1.5oC target to even be mentioned within the text is a great achievement for those small island nations who argued for this from the beginning.  The issue now is how deliverable these intentions are.  Only parts of the agreement will be legally binding.  The INDCs remain the only mechanism proposed to actually meet the ambitious goals set out in the agreement, and these are voluntary.  These INDCs, even if met, would not bring temperature rise to below 2.0oC, let alone 1.5oC.

It is the hope that improving technologies will allow governments to review upwards their INDCs in future, with a recommunication of contributions required every five years.  Parties must also regularly report their actual emissions.  The question of how to verify reductions was raised, particularly by the US; in only the last few months it emerged that China is burning more coal than previously thought.  The agreement encourages integrity, transparency, accuracy, completeness, comparability and consistency of reporting, and an independent body will be used for ‘technical expert review’.

Although it remains to be seen how individual nations will work towards these goals and only time will tell whether COP21 has been a genuine success, the Paris Agreement is a momentous one.  It is the first to bind all countries to greenhouse gas emission reductions, and shows for the first time a real global political will to tackle the issue.

You can read the full final draft text of the agreement here:






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