What is COP21? By a layman for a layman


You may have come across the term COP21 or indeed heard the phrase “the road to Paris 2015” in recent times and wondered what they are  referring to. What is the big deal? Firstly, both expressions are referring to the same event. In November and December of this year, Paris will be hosting the 21st annual session of the Conference of the Parties (COP) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) or COP21 as it has been widely referred to. The aim of the COP21 is to achieve consensus between UN members on a new international agreement in order to limit global warming to 2°C.

Who are the major players?

The UNFCCC, was formed during the Rio de Janeiro Earth Summit in 1992 and was officially agreed upon or ratified on 21st March 1994 by 196 States who constitute the players of the COP21. The COP is the Convention’s highest decision-making body and meets every year in a global session. It is at these global sessions that agreements are made attempting to meet goals in order to counteract anthropogenic (human induced) climate change. It is important to note that most of the negotiating is carried out in intervening years in a variety of working groups. COPs typically seek to hammer out the outstanding points that were not resolved through the regular diplomatic channels. Decisions are achieved either by consensus or, preferably, on a unanimous basis amongst the parties.

Figure 1 Displays the association of GHG emissions and temperature increases and sea level rise (IPCC AR5)

Figure 1 Displays the association of GHG emissions and temperature increases and sea level rise (IPCC AR5)

What are the major issues and why is it so important?

Essentially the rapid increase in Green House Gas (GHG) concentrations as a result of anthropogenic activities is at the heart of all our problems. Figure 1 evinces the dramatic increase in GHG concentrations and the associated changes in temperature and sea level rise over the same period. International commitments (The Kyoto Protocol) aimed at tackling these increases in GHG emissions run out in 2020, which means that there is pressure on the COP21 to come to new meaningful agreements for future climate change management. You might be asking yourself why is it so important that they come to a swift and “meaningful” agreement? Well the answer is simple, reports such as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC, Assessment report 5) have highlighted that if our emissions of greenhouse gases continue to rise we will pass a threshold at which we will begin to see catastrophic and irreversible effects. Scientists have identified a threshold of 2°C at which most of the dramatic impacts can be avoided. These impacts will be life changing. The level of exposure and risk is shown in the figure below which has become known as the burning embers diagram (Fig 2). Studies have highlighted issues such as: sea level rise which will lead to the loss of vast swaths of heavily populated lands, in southern Bangladesh, 40% of productive land is projected to be lost for a 65cm sea level rise by 2080[1] ; increases in human health issues associated with disease; starvation and lack of access to water are also looming issues[2] . Indeed, we are already seeing our first climate change refugees[3]. Moreover, the world is already experiencing its 6th mass extinction event as a result of anthropogenic climate change[4]. The efforts of the COP21 will be fundamental in minimising these impacts.

Figure 2 The ‘burning embers’ diagram 
from the IPCC’s Fifth Assessment Report


Unfortunately, yes. We have already warmed the planet and as such we now are talking about mitigation and adaptation and to a lesser extent about prevention of climate change. We have reached GHG concentrations causing temperature increases where impacts are a given (Fig 2) and have to start planning how to deal with them while limiting further emissions. Essentially, the hope is that, for the first time, a global, legally binding agreement will be reached that empowers us to ultimately pave the way towards robust, low-carbon societies and economies aiding the battle against climate change.

Wasn’t the Copenhagen COP considered a failure?

Personally I don’t feel that the COP held in Copenhagen can be viewed as a complete failure. For the first time, all of the world’s most important developed and developing countries agreed deep cuts in global emissions so as to hold the increase in global temperature below 2°C. This can be viewed as a milestone as the world’s biggest emitters have “acknowledged” anthropogenic activities as a global issue and came together united in order to tackle the problem. However, the goals that were set did not meet the required levels the scientific community agrees are necessary to achieve in order to achieve the goal of 2°C. Despite this they were a big improvement on the business as usual model. Unfortunately, the overriding failure of the COP in Copenhagen was the inability to form a legally binding treaty due to the much maligned disunity that seemed to plague Copenhagen. However, the targets set at that COP still stand.

What is expected from COP21 and will it be a success?

The EU, US and China have all already declared what they will commit to. The EU will reduce its GHG emissions by 40% compared to a baseline of 1990 emissions by 2030. The US will cut its CO2 emissions by 32% compared to a baseline of 2005 emissions by 2030 and the Chinese have promised to cut their GHG emissions per unit of gross domestic product by 60-65% from 2005 levels. One might argue as to the credibility of targets like these when countries such as the UK are on track to miss their current commitments[5]. However, many other countries including the likes of India, have failed to state their emissions targets despite being given a deadline of March this year. Even with the majority of commitments seemingly in place, the COP21 still has a major role to play and that is regarding the financing of these cuts. This is an issue that rears its ugly head continuously when discussions regarding tackling climate change on a global scale are held. That is the topic of climate justice or more to the point climate financing. Developing countries want developed countries to provide financial help and incentives to allow them to invest in green technologies to facilitate cutting their emissions and adapting their infrastructure to future damage caused by climate change. One of the biggest obstacles to attaining a legally binding treaty at the COP21 is the financing of the cuts in GHG emissions. There is considerable disagreement as to how the financing should be attained. Some countries feel that the money should all be provided by the governments of richer, developed countries. These wealthy countries insist they will not provide this funding exclusively from their public’s purse and would like institutions such as the World Bank to play a role and feel that the private sector should provide most of the funding. Unfortunately, most countries would prefer others to cut their emissions of greenhouse gases rather than reduce themselves. Furthermore, many of the developed countries are likely to be impacted upon less by climate change. The old adage of “I’m alright Jack” must be avoided. It is imperative that climate change is viewed as a global problem! Will wealthier countries have to fund poorer countries? It is clearly one of the key sticking points and The European Commission is convinced that “If these financial answers do not emerge, there will be no agreement in Paris.” France’s foreign minister (France hold a key position in this year’s COP as its host/chair), Laurent Fabius, summed up my sentiments more capable than I could hope to. “We don’t have the right to fail. We must commit ourselves very resolutely because there isn’t an alternative solution, for the simple reason that there isn’t an alternative planet.”


[1] Worldbank.org, (2015). Warming Climate to Hit Bangladesh Hard with Sea Level Rise, More Floods and Cyclones, World Bank Report Says. [online] Available at: http://www.worldbank.org/en/news/press-release/2013/06/19/warming-climate-to-hit-bangladesh-hard-with-sea-level-rise-more-floods-and-cyclones-world-bank-report-says [Accessed 29 Jun. 2015].
[2] Campbell-Lendrum, D., Manga, L., Bagayoko, M. and Sommerfeld, J. (2015). Climate change and vector-borne diseases: what are the implications for public health research and policy?.Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 370(1665), pp.20130552-20130552
[3] Harman, G. (2014). Has the great climate change migration already begun?. The Guardian. [online] Available at: http://www.theguardian.com/vital-signs/2014/sep/15/climate-change-refugees-un-storms-natural-disasters-sea-levels-environment [Accessed 25 Jun. 2015].
[4] Wake, D. and Vredenburg, V. (2008). Are we in the midst of the sixth mass extinction? A view from the world of amphibians. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 105(Supplement 1), pp.11466-11473.
[5]  Harvey, F. (2014). UK on track to miss carbon targets, climate advisers warn. [online] the Guardian. Available at: http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2014/jul/15/uk-miss-carbon-targets-climate-change-advisers [Accessed 29 Jun. 2015].

Figure 1 Displays the association of GHG emissions and temperature increases and sea level rise (IPCC AR5)

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Osgur McDermott Long

Currently undertaking a PhD in the University of East Anglia, looking at the impacts of climate change and climate variability on the UK butterfly populations.

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