COP 21 in context – a brief overview and useful links

Published on: August 14, 2015

Filed Under: Featured

This article intends to provide a brief summary of the issues surrounding the 21st session of the Conference of the Parties (COP 21) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) which is being held in Paris, France, from 30 November – 11 December 2015.


The Greenhouse Effect

The earth has a natural greenhouse cycle whereby water vapour is mixed with greenhouse gasses, allowing warm energy to pass through the earth’s surface. Without this process, the earth would be as cold and barren as Mars. The concentration of Greenhouse gasses, such as carbon dioxide, in the atmosphere fluctuates as greenhouse gases are emitted by biomass and are absorbed by earth’s forests and oceans. This cycle is naturally regulated, and it tends towards equilibrium over time.

When humans emit large quantities of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere they unbalance this natural equilibrium, causing anthropogenic climate change. Greenhouse gases are emitted whenever ‘fossil fuels’, such as coal and oil, which are essentially compressed biomass, are burnt. Other forms of human industry such as agriculture also creates greenhouse gas emissions – e.g. methane emitted by farm animals. Humans have been emitting greenhouse gasses on an industrial scale since the 1750s; putting more GHGs into the atmosphere than can be naturally regulated. As a result, excess energy is getting trapped in earth’s climate system; it increases the average global temperature, acidifies the oceans (carbon raises the oceans pH levels), and intensifies weather patterns. This phenomenon is known as climate change.

This is only intended to be a very basic overview. Authoritative information behind the science of climate change can be found on NASAs website and in the 5th Assessment report of the IPCC.


International Response

As the public became increasingly aware of this issue, governments began working together to combat it. In 1992, United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) was created as a forum where nations could negotiate the best way to “avoid dangerous anthropogenic climate change.” Today, the UNFCCC includes 196 Parties (195 States and 1 regional economic integration organization), who meet annually at ‘Conferences of the Parties’ (COP).

Read about the UNFCCC here. Background information about the difference between national and international legal systems in relation to climate change can be read here.

The international negotiations under the UNFCCC proceed on the basis of the accepted scientific outlook of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The IPCC aggregates the work of over 2,000 peer-reviewed climate scientists world wide and is an impartial body which collects, collates and compiles climate science data for both governments and the public. While a number of misconceptions about the science of climate change still get a degree of exposure in the media, the UN climate change negotiations have long proceeded on the basis of the consolidated position of the IPCC.

The IPCC process has been explained in further detail here.
Common misconceptions about climate science are discussed here.


The 2 degree Target

Since the late 1980s, there has been a growing call from the scientific community for nations to prevent global average temperature from rising beyond 2 degrees celsius above pre-industrial levels. 2 degrees may not sound like much, but average temperature across the entire globe means higher ranges in extreme areas such as the poles. For comparison, the last ice age was on average 3-5 degrees Celsius colder than today.

2 degrees is more of a broad policy goal than a particular scientifically defined tipping point. It is based generally on the idea of keeping earth within the temperature range that human civilisation and agriculture developed stably; and that anything beyond that range is difficult to predict. Nations unanimously agreed to adhere to this limit at COP 16 in 2010. However, some scientific reports and nations still contest that 1.5 degrees is a better benchmark to avoid ‘dangerous’ anthropogenic interference to the climate system.

More can be read about the history of 2 degrees here and here. Deconstructing Paris has analysed the 2 or 1.5 degree discussion here.

Ongoing negotiation issues

All nations agree on what we needs to be done. Global greenhouse gas emissions need to be limited in order that the climate might be kept stable. What they don’t agree on, however, is how to achieve this, while maintaining the standards of living they each desire.

Collective Action Problem

While all parties would benefit from cutting greenhouse gas emissions, the associated cost of doing so makes it implausible that any individual nation will do so alone. Cutting greenhouse emissions is not a simple task – we rely on GHGs for energy, transportation, and food production; they are enormously integrated into our way of life. While the technology does exist to replace the majority of non-renewable energy sources with renewable alternatives (wind and solar power, electric cars, etc), it will take an enormous political effort to mobilise the industries involved and will involve considerable upfront costs. The short-term economic opportunity costs are already unattractive to the governments of the world, and they are even more reluctant to act if nobody else is doing so.

A detailed analysis of the collective climate action problem by Daniel H. Cole of Indiana University can be read here.

Common But Differentiated Responsibilities

It has also been acknowledged that different states should bear different burdens in this collective task. This is because of historical responsibility: generally speaking, developed industrialised nations such as the USA and Germany have emitted far more greenhouse gasses than smaller, developing ones. Additionally, developed nations are more equipped to deal with the problem, as they have more financial resources and state capacity. It is generally agreed that developing nations have a right to sustainably develop, and that developed nations ought to fund and assist developing nations in reducing their emissions, but there is no consensus about where the line should be drawn. This has been a major sticking point in climate negotiations.

Deconstructing Paris has covered this concept in more depth here.

The Kyoto Protocol

The Kyoto Protocol was the first major legal instrument developed by the UNFCCC negotiations. It was finalised in 1997, and came into force in 2005. It covered greenhouse gas emission reductions between in two ‘commitment periods’, 2008-2012 and 2012-2020. The Kyoto Protocol had a ‘top-down’ approach to emission reductions: it set specific, legally binding targets for specific nations. The way that it approached ‘common but differentiated responsibilities’ was through a binary division between developed and developing nations. Nations listed in ‘Annex I’ of the Protocol (mainly wealthy industrialised Western nations) were obligated to reduce emissions; other nations were not.

Ultimately, the Kyoto Protocol was a failure. The US never ratified the treaty; and other large nations such as Canada and Japan eventually pulled out. This ‘top down’ attempt was not able to overcome the difficulties of the collective action problem.

Read the Kyoto protocol here, and a discussion of its legacy here. Additionally, a detailed analysis of the equity of the Kyoto protocol by Edward Page of the University of Warwick can be read here.

Nationally Determined Contributions

A new approach to determining emission reductions has been developed in the wake of Kyoto: a ‘bottom up’ pledge-and-review system. Essentially, nations are to provide their own ‘Intended Nationally Determined Contributions’ (INDCs or NDCs); which are largely emission reduction goals based on their own circumstances. This is a less binary approach than Kyoto, allowing the ‘common but differentiated responsibilities’ dynamic to be initially defined on a state level. However, it creates a catch 22. On the one hand, this approach incentivises unanimous participation; overcoming the problem faced at Kyoto. It is also flexibile, allowing developing nations to create conditional INDCs, which permit them to commit more in the event that they are given financial aid. Yet, on the other hand, the NDCs have no minimum emissions reduction either individually or collectively. As such, they are unlikely to add up to the emissions reductions that are required for the 2 degree goal to be achieved. Instead, they are likely to leave a so-called emission ‘gap’. In any case, it is encouraging that all nations have agreed to submit their INDCs before Paris, with the final due date October 1 2015.

Deconstructing Paris has elaborated on INDCs here.
The UN has provided an interactive map tracking countries INDCs.
Climate Action Tracker independently collects, analyses and rates nations INDCs as they are submitted.



COP 21 is happening in Paris in December 2015. During previous negotiations, Parties agreed to that COP 21 would finalize a legally binding international agreement covering emissions reductions for 2020 onwards. In other words, the Paris negotiations are aimed at creating a successor to the Kyoto Protocol.

It goes without saying that finding consensus between 195 states of vastly different sizes, demographics, economic and political systems is an enormous task. So far it has taken over two decades. The underlying issues discussed above – whether to set 1.5 or 2 degrees as a target; how to divide the common mitigation burden in a fairly differentiated manner; and how to combat the NDC ‘gap’ – all remain to be resolved at COP 21.

Nevertheless, there is a cautious optimism for the Paris agreeemnt. Large emitter nations such as the USA and China have shown support for an ambitious outcome. Detailed negotiations have been taking place since 2011 and a draft text for Paris was circulated in Lima last year, and finalised for discussion earlier this year.

The draft text has already been released to the public. Broadly speaking, the text covers mitigation commitments (NDCs in both the short-term and long-term), support measures from developed to developing nations (such as financial aid, technology transfer and capacity building), as well as a transparency, accountability and compliance mechanisms. Within these areas there are still considerable disagreements of how best to proceed.

Click here to read the Geneva Negotiating Text (Feb 2015), Bonn Negotiationg Text (June 2015), and co-chairs tool (July 2015), and the streamlined co-chairs tool (October 2015).
A summary of 2015 climate events preceding COP 21 can be found here.
Further background about COP 21 can be read here and here.

Deconstructing Paris

Unfortunately, the draft texts are not an easy read. They are long, bloated, and filled with legal jargon. What’s more there are a lot of alternative provisions tabled which overlap and contradict each other.

This is where we want to help. This website is about breaking down the draft negotiating texts in order to understand the interrelated issues at play. This is an important issue and we do not want anyone locked out through lack of understanding. We think it is very important for the public to be informed on exactly what is happening at the negotiations in December. Paris will likely set up a regime that will affect everyone; reshaping large aspects of the global economy and civil society. For that reason, we believe it is everyone’s right and responsibility to be informed about this critical moment for global climate action.

Click here to return to our contents page which contains analysis of the draft negotiation documents, commentary on surrounding issues, and more.

Thomas Stuart, Michael Fitzgerald and Simon Hillier | Image by UNFCCC

One Response to COP 21 in context – a brief overview and useful links

  1. […] fossil-fuel reserves, loss/damage, and 5 year contributions. (Analysts are still breaking down the full implications post hoc, but this brief by Michael Levi of CFR is […]

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