First week of COP21 in Paris: What has happened so far?

COP21 in Paris.

Article by Sonia García and Anna Pérez.

From November 30th to December 11th Paris will host COP21 (Conference of the Parties), the 21st annual meeting of the UNFCCC (United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change).

But why is Paris so important, if there is a COP every year?

Copenhagen, Durban… and the road to Paris

During COP17 in Durban, in 2011, the decision was taken to create the ADP (Ad Hoc Working Group on the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action).

The mandate of the ADP was to develop a protocol, another legal instrument or an agreed outcome with legal force under the Convention applicable to all Parties, to be completed no later than 2015 in order for it to be adopted at the twenty-first session of the Conference of the Parties, and for it to come into effect and be implemented from 2020.

COP21 in Paris.

COP21 in Paris.

Therefore, COP21 is the end of a long process started by COP17 in 2011, and it must deliver the results assigned to it: a global agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Since 2011, the ADP has held a total of 15 meetings during which the future text to be approved as a new agreement in Paris was put together. But the path was not as easy as one might think.

Until COP15 in Copenhagen (perhaps the COP brought climate change issues into the public eye), leadership on climate change action was taken mostly by the United Nations (with a predominantly top-down approach).

Greenhouse gas reduction targets were calculated on a global scale and guidelines were defined in order to implement the reductions, taking into consideration historical emissions by the world’s states. The Kyoto Protocol was an outcome of this top-down approach.

During COP15 in Copenhagen the agreement scripted for signature failed – due to a host of reasons, and with it the way the climate change issues had been tackled up to then. Many countries felt sensitivities were not treated equally. The countries asked for more country ownership of the processes – i.e., an approach at least partially determined from the bottom up.

After Copenhagen, the ADP became one of the key actors working on this bottom up approach to produce a new agreement. It faced the challenge of producing a text summing up all the national approaches, and at the last stages of the negotiations, it asked the UNFCCC secretariat and the ADP co-chairs to help compile the country’s inputs in order to add them to the multiple versions of the future agreement to be adopted at COP21 in Paris.

The process could be considered a constant switch from bottom-up to top-down approaches, with the ghost of the failure in Copenhagen as a motivating factor in the search for success in Paris.

What is being discussed in Paris?

The first week of the Paris Climate Conference was focused mostly on closing the ADP working group. Having finished its mandate, this working group will now present its text to the ministers, who will negotiate in order to reach a final agreement.

Image: Transition Network.

Image: Transition Network.


One of the hot issues this week was finance: it is still unclear how developed countries will provide finance to developing countries to mitigate and adapt to the impacts of climate change. The paragraph of the text related to finance has not changed substantially since October, demonstrating how important and political this issue is.

This is very much linked to one of the other difficult topics: differentiation. This concept is designed to define which country should start reducing emissions first, or faster, or who should provide more help through finance. This historic debate asks developed countries to do more, since they bear more responsibility for creating the climate crisis in the first place.

There has also been a very strong discussion about the 1.5ºC target. The idea is that global temperatures should not rise beyond 2 degrees Celsius if the current shape of life on the planet is to be preserved, and in order to avoid the most dangerous of catastrophes. Studies, however, find that 2 degrees is not enough, and state that a maximum increase of 1.5ºC will be necessary in order to preserve low-lying islands and coastal areas. This more ambitious goal is very controversial for some countries, whose emissions would have to drop faster in order to meet that goal.

Human rights have also featured in the week’s highlights. They are included in the ‘purpose’ of the future Paris Agreement, together with labour rights, gender equality and the integrity of ecosystems. However, there have been attempts to remove this part of the paragraph, which has caused alarms to sound among the collection of NGOs and civil society participating in the negotiations.

Finally, one of the issues that has progressed the most this week is adaptation to the effects of climate change. For months now, there has been a push to include a Global Goal for Adaptation in the Paris Agreement. This Goal would define the general aim of adaptation, including enhancing adaptive capacity, strengthening resilience and reducing vulnerability to climate change.

The following infographic by the Climate Trackers helps to understand some of the key issues in the text:

ADP Saturday

Infographic courtesy of ClimateTracker.org.


Today the COP will receive the final text proposed by the ADP in order to adopt a new agreement. Ministers will negotiate all week in order to conclude some of the ongoing debates.

Then, all eyes will be on Paris, in order to find out whether we are building a new mechanism which will be capable of dealing with what could be considered one of the biggest challenges humanity has faced so far.

This is a non-profit explanation.

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