Why Paris Matters… part 1

What is COP21?


This post is part of a 3-part series on this December’s COP21 climate conference in Paris

If you’re like most people, you probably have no idea what COP21 stands for or why it matters. But this global gathering of world leaders in Paris will set the stage for a global response to climate change and may prove to be the single most important diplomatic event of the century. Here’s why:

Climate change poses one of the most widespread, destructive, and complicated challenges humanity has ever faced. Millions already suffer from extreme weather, intense heat waves, reduced crop production, rising sea levels, prolonged droughts, and increased flooding. Furthermore, while everyone is impacted in some way, those living in poverty tend to be hit the hardest. Without quick and decisive action on a global scale, these problems will grow much worse.

Yet, as you might imagine, global agreements on climate change are a little hard to come by.

Back in 1992 world leaders came together to sign the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). Ratified by 196 nations, this landmark treaty aims to “stabilize greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic [human] interference with the climate system.” Each year signatories gather at an annual “Conference of the Parties” (COP) to discuss how to achieve this goal. Previous COP’s have, more often than not, led to disappointment as disagreements have resulted in lack of global participation, inaction, or insufficient commitments.

This year from November 30 to December 11 representatives from UNFCCC nations will meet in Paris for the 21st COP. Unlike past conferences, expectations for COP21 are much higher for several important reasons.

First, after the failure of COP15 in Copenhagen in 2009, convention members decided to start over with a different approach. Rather than creating a legally binding treaty imposed on all nations, they decided to take the approach of having each country develop their own climate commitments based on their individual circumstances and capabilities. This has resulted in the creation of Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDC’s), or voluntary national reduction targets. While this approach has its limitations, most experts believe it will be more effective for initiating a share global strategy for emission reductions.

Second, since 2009 convention members have been targeting Paris as the starting point for a new global agreement. In other words, they’ve been working on it for six years. This long-term approach has enabled the parties to work out the details and find areas of common ground.

Finally, more than 120 nations, representing 90% of global greenhouse gas emissions, have already submitted their INDC’s. This includes the United States, China, India, Brazil, Russia, Mexico, Canada, Japan, Australia, all of Europe, and many others. While some INDC’s are stronger than others, each nation has made a commitment—and that’s a big deal.

Look for Part 2 on “why now?

By: Brian Webb

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