UN climate summit

Paris climate talks: What you need to know about COP21

Your Q&A guide to the crucial UN summit
Photo: Julien Helaine

Negotiations to seal the most important global climate agreement in the last six years begin today at COP21. Governments from around the world have descended on Paris to attend the talks, and journalists and activists have followed, undeterred by the terrorist attacks that occurred just over two weeks ago or the French government’s clampdown on protest. But what’s this all about? What kind of agreement is needed, and can the talks deliver it? What does “COP” even mean? Ricochet’s got your answers to these questions and more.

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What’s COP21?

COP21 is shorthand for the 21st Conference of the Parties (COP) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). It’s the latest in the series of annual meetings where world leaders and their delegates try to make progress on averting the climate crisis. Despite the urgency, governments have been extremely slow to act.

Remind me. The UNFCCC…?

It’s an example of a “framework convention,” which is a broad agreement to meet a goal according to certain principles.

The objective of the UNFCCC, signed in 1992, is to coordinate global action to bring down greenhouse gas emissions before they wreck the planet, or in official terms to achieve the “stabilization of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system.” And it’s supposed to do this while recognizing that developed countries, such as Canada, have a special duty to take the first steps to reduce emissions and assist developing countries to transition to a post-carbon economy and prepare for a warming planet.

COP meetings are where the details to make all of that happen get hammered out.

Prohibited from marching by the French government, climate activists left shoes in the streets of Paris.
Simon Guillemin

Does COP21 have anything to do with previous climate agreements like the Kyoto Protocol and the Copenhagen Accord?

Yep. They all come out of the same UNFCCC process.

The Kyoto Protocol, signed at COP3 in 1997 and in effect beginning in 2005, was meant as a kind of field test of the UNFCCC’s equity principles, and was never meant to solve climate change without additional agreements. It contained a few design flaws, but nothing that couldn’t be fixed by governments serious about climate change. One problem was that Kyoto had no teeth. Under the Harper government, Canada showed everyone just how easy it was to get out of legal commitments when, instead of purchasing offset credits for failing to meet our Kyoto commitments, we just up and left the protocol.

COP15 in 2009 was expected to produce an agreement that would fix the problems of Kyoto while ratcheting up commitments. What came out instead was the Copenhagen Accord, which tossed out legally binding emissions reductions targets in favour of voluntary pledges. Instead of basing emissions targets on some sort of collective UNFCCC process in line with principles of equity, countries got to pick their own targets. You can imagine how well that’s worked.

Why’s COP21 so important?

COP21 is supposed to produce the first major climate agreement to be signed since the new voluntary approach started in 2009, and it’s intended to guide countries’ climate policies through to 2030. This late into the game it needs to deliver something big. There are some really important debates and decisions to watch for.

1. The money

At COP15, developed countries committed, rather vaguely, to “mobilizing” $100 billion per year in climate finance to developing countries by 2020 “from a wide variety of sources” including government and private sector ones.

Developing countries have signalled that climate financing is a top priority and are demanding to see a road map of how developed countries will come up with the money. That’s because the funding is to be divided into two streams absolutely vital to developing countries’ response to climate change: one for clean energy projects to replace fossil fuels (mitigation), the other for projects preparing them for the effects of a warming planet (adaptation).

Progress hasn’t been great, and some of the financing has been given in the form of loans with interest, which completely goes against the UNFCCC’s principles of equity.

Canada’s new Liberal government has pledged to contribute $2.65 billion over the next five years. How much of that pledge will actually get delivered remains to be seen. It’s also worth pointing out that in 2020, when that $100 billion per year is supposed to kick in, the Canadian government’s contribution will be just $800 million. To put that in perspective, Canada gave $4.2 billion — a miserly 0.24 per cent of our gross national income — in development aid in 2014. The promised $800 million barely qualifies as small change.

2. Responsibility and compensation

For a long time, developing countries have argued there should be a third stream of funding. Known as “loss and damage,” it would support responses to the impacts of climate change that adaptation cannot prevent, for example unplanned migration in response to rising sea levels or desertification.

Developing countries tend to interpret loss and damage as compensation from developed countries for causing climate change. Developed countries, on the other hand, see it more as assistance in disaster response. Unsurprisingly then, loss and damage is really contentious. Over the past year, country negotiators have been putting together a draft document that includes the different options to consider for the final Paris agreement. Rich countries, including Canada, actually inserted an option to eliminate loss and damage entirely.

3. The seriousness of the commitment

The agreement coming out of Paris is expected to be legally binding. And yet the most important part of it — the emissions reductions targets and dates — might not be. Or it might be qualified by what is called “aspirational language,” so that words like “shall” are replaced by the softer “should” or “should strive to.”

On one side, parties like the EU and small-island developing states are seeking legally binding emissions targets. On the other, the U.S. (under the Republican-controlled Congress) and Canada (yes, even under Trudeau) want to avoid being legally required to do even less than their fair share of what the science is telling us has to be done to avoid wrecking the planet.

4. The temperature target

The agreement expected to come out of COP21 is also the first real test of what the process of voluntary emissions reductions pledges that started at COP15 will lead to. At the very least, according to the Copenhagen Accord, they should be able to prevent a temperature rise above 2 C compared to pre-industrial times.

The People's Climate March drew 400,000 people into the streets of New York City in 2014.
Aaron Saad

Is 2 C safe?

Not really. At just a rise of 0.85 C, we’ve already seen some pretty scary stuff. We don’t really know how much protection 2 C gives us against slow positive feedbacks, where, for example, a warming planet melts arctic tundra, which then releases methane, and leads to even more warming. Small-island developing states, among others, have been insisting on a target of 1.5 C, the bare minimum warming to which the world has committed.

Then why would anyone pick 2 C instead of 1.5 C?

Because fossil fuel companies continue to hold enormous power over governments like Canada’s. Because under our democratic system, we don’t get to choose which industries we want phased out or how quickly, or which climate policies we want or how strongly they’re applied. Because under our economic system, perpetual economic growth is more important than the planet on which economic growth is supposed to happen. Because even global climate conferences have fossil fuel industry lobbies. Because all of the above.

Okay, so 2 C isn’t ideal, but COP21 is going to get us there, right?

What? No. Wake up and smell the fossil fuels.

Over the past year, countries have been submitting pledges indicating how much they will reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. These fancily titled pledges, called Intended Nationally Determined Contributions, are unlikely to change much during the Paris talks.

And they won’t keep warming below 2 C.

The UNFCCC says — and watch for the tricksy language — that these pledges “have the capacity” to restrict warming to a 2.7 C increase by 2100. It also admits this is “by no means enough,” then says it’s better than the “the estimated four, five, or more degrees of warming projected by many prior to the INDCs.”

But, as a helpful piece at Climate Progress points out, if countries do no more than meet their current COP21 pledges, the world will warm by a terrifying 3.5 C by 2100. An increase that stops at 2.7 C is only possible if another round of climate negotiations reduces emissions after 2030 when most of the current pledges end.

Under the Harper government, Canada pledged reductions that were widely condemned as inadequate. Trudeau’s Liberal government will not declare if it will offer more ambitious pledges than those of the Harper government, until after COP21. It has reassured us that the old Harper target is the “floor” pledges won’t go below, which is the same as saying an utterly inadequate target is still under consideration.

What’s actually needed?

Two main things. First, developed countries need to repay what’s called their “climate debt” to developing countries for using up so much of the atmosphere’s ability to absorb carbon. That will mean actually delivering on the promised $100 billion per year in addition to delivering funding for loss and damage.

Second, the atmosphere’s ability to absorb carbon without leading to dangerous climate change is limited. We can calculate how much more carbon can ever be emitted, something called a “carbon budget,” for a decent chance of staying below 1.5 C or 2 C. A real agreement would divide that budget fairly, meaning developed countries would have to reduce their emissions far more rapidly than they’re offering to do at COP21, and make it legally binding.

In the end, the UNFCCC process isn’t the place to fight for the democratic and economic systems that can achieve those kinds of outcomes — much of the fight for the climate will need to take place outside of it.

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