21 Jan 15

Looking ahead to COP21 in Paris 2015

ParisIt’s hard to remember a year that could potentially be more pivotal for international climate change talks than 2015. Years of international negotiations trying to repair the perceived collapse of 2009’s climate talks in Copenhagen will culminate this December in Paris for the UNFCCC’s 21st Conference of the Parties (COP21). The significance? It’s hoped that COP21 will secure a legally binding climate agreement to limit carbon emissions on a global scale beyond 2020. The opportunity is great but the challenges are significant from all angles, whether they be economic, social or political.

The climate change problem

Both the opportunity and challenge of the climate change debate is its universal and multi-faceted contributions and impacts. Indeed, the cap on emissions of 2 degrees which underpins the international climate change debate is credited not to an environmentalist but to a Yale economist, William Nordhaus, who in the 1970s recognised that temperature increases over this threshold would “take the climate outside of the range of observations which have been made over the last several hundred thousand years.[1]

Unfortunately for international negotiations, the impacts aren’t just economic but instead are complex, interdependent and ubiquitous across international issues including sustainable development, growth (economic and population), poverty and pollution to name just a few.

Where are we now?

Although established by the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) and UN Environment Programme (UNEP) in 1988, it was not until 1990 that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) published that "emissions resulting from human activities are substantially increasing the atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases.”[2] Two years later, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) began its journey to coordinate global efforts to limit average global temperature increases and the resulting climate change.

The UNFCCC’s landmark adoption of the Kyoto Protocol in 1997 set countries on the path to curbing their national carbon emissions. As the end of the second commitment period creeps closer in 2020, the 195 Parties of the Convention and 192 Parties of the Kyoto Protocol are in the spotlight to coordinate their commitments and contributions to managing climate change beyond 2020.

Commitments vs Contributions

Whilst the EU is shouting loudest for a legally binding global treaty on climate change at COP21 in December, other nations, notably China and the US are much more in favour of a voluntary ‘pledge and review’ approach to a global agreement. This may not be surprising when you consider that together, China and the US account for over a third of global carbon emissions and a legally binding structure of a global deal would significantly impact their futures[3]. The 2014 joint announcement between the US and China to cut emissions is a major step towards an agreement at COP21 and for many, particularly the EU, offers the hope of ‘something’ being agreed at Paris. Either way, a dialogue between the two super-emitters of US and China can only be welcomed.

What needs to happen ahead of COP21?

As we rapidly approach December, Parties are required to communicate their intended nationally determined contributions to climate change. The scale and strength of commitment from each country will be key indicators of what outcome can be expected from COP21. Inevitably, all eyes will be on whether China and the US are willing to increase their commitments. Meanwhile, the EU will likely remain the strongest campaigner for legally-binding commitments. Whether they are binding or not, 2015 presents an important opportunity to set in place a long-term, global commitment to tackling the issue of international climate change.

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