COP21: What is it all about?

Starting in Paris on 30 November 2015, COP21 is tasked to set the world on a path to

Dr Annalisa Savaresi

Dr Annalisa Savaresi

address the greatest challenge to ever face humankind, by adopting a new climate agreement.

The Paris agreement is expected to bring states out of the impasse that has long affected international climate governance. Eversince the adoption of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in 1992, states have attempted to agree on measures to stabilize greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent ‘dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system.’ The international scientific body entrusted to assess climate change, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), has indicated that such a level entails keeping below a 2° C increase in global annual average temperature compared with pre-industrial times.

Over twenty years after its adoption, however, the UNFCCC has struggled to keep the world within the limits indicated by the IPCC. In fact, global emissions of greenhouse gases have anything but diminished. So what went wrong?


States’ capacity to tackle climate change greatly differs. The main instrument adopted to stabilize greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere under the UNFCCC, the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, fundamentally acknowledged this gap. Building upon a static distinction between developed and developing countries, the Kyoto Protocol imposed binding emission reduction targets only on the first. With ever growing emissions in emerging economies, like China and India, however, the IPCC has repeatedly flagged that both developed and developing countries need to reduce their emissions.


To make matters worse, political will behind the Kyoto Protocol has faltered. After the elapse of the first commitment period in 2012, it has proven impossible to negotiate new targets for some important players, such as Japan, New Zealand and the Russian Federation, whereas others, like Canada and the US, are not parties to the Protocol at all. This situation has left the European Union and a few other developed countries, like Australia, Norway and Switzerland, in the uncomfortable position of being the sole UNFCCC parties with emission reduction targets.


With political will behind the Kyoto Protocol fading away, and in the hope to induce more parties to reduce their emissions, in 2007 UNFCCC parties embarked upon the difficult process of negotiating a new climate agreement. These negotiations potentially opened the way to a new geometry of commitments, based on a clean slate on differentiation between parties. The adoption of a legally binding agreement that includes emission reduction commitments for all parties, however, was but one of the possible outcomes opened up by the new negotiation scenario.


This negotiation process has suffered numerous setbacks and almost collapsed at COP15 in 2009 in Copenhagen. COP21 is meant to be the end of this long negotiation cycle. The road to Paris has nevertheless been laden with obstacles and, just a few weeks away from COP21, parties remain far from reaching any agreement.


Negotiations under the body entrusted to draft the text of the Paris agreement, the Ad Hoc Working Group on the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action (ADP), have abundantly shown that states’ views on a host of fundamental issues still significantly diverge.


The veritable bone of contention has undoubtedly been the question of differentiation. States greatly differ on how to distribute the burdens concerning climate change mitigation, as well as the means to tackle it, by providing capacity-building, finance and technology to those in need.

On the one end of the spectrum, numerous developed and developing countries converge on the need to move beyond a ‘bifurcated approach’ to differentiation, even though not on how this ought to be done. On the other end, however, some developing countries vehemently oppose even considering moving beyond existing differentiation parameters. For example, while some ‘progressive’ developing countries have suggested encapsulating South-South cooperation in the Paris agreement, with willing developing countries assisting others in tackling climate change, others maintain that this remains exclusively the prerogative of developed countries.

Even more critically, states are struggling to find consensus on an overarching architecture to capture their ‘intended nationally determined contributions’ (INDCs) in the Paris agreement. INDCs are meant to provide information on what each country intends to do to tackle climate change post 2020. At the aggregate level, however, INDCs submitted ahead of COP21 remain far from a level of ambition consistent with the 2°C goal. Yet, ADP negotiations have failed to produce agreement on a process to review and adjust INDCs in order to enable the achievement of the goal.

Faced with this impasse, at the recently concluded session of the ADP, many evoked memories of the difficult negotiations that preceded COP15 in 2009. There are, admittedly, fundamental differences between the process that preceded COP15 and that preceding COP21.

Ahead of COP15 it was impossible to formally adopt a negotiating text for a new climate agreement. As a result, delegates had to work with a voluminous text of over 200 pages, based on an unofficial compilation of parties’ submissions. As no progress on text negotiations could be made, COP15 was haunted with rumours about a possible ‘Danish text’ that the presidency might table at the eleventh hour. The ensuing break-down in trust and mismanagement of the diplomatic process led COP15 to conclude with a non-inclusive, untransparent, last-minute political agreement, known as the Copenhagen Accord, which marked the low-point in the history of climate negotiations.

By comparison, ahead of COP21, the ADP was able to formally adopt a negotiating text. A quick glance at the 31 page draft agreement text emerged from the last session of the ADP seemingly suggests that the outlook for COP21 is more favourable than that for COP15.

Yet, appearances can be deceitful. While in fact formally negotiations are in a much better position than they were six years ago, politically the situation is just as hopeless. Work under the ADP has unequivocally shown that consensus on how to collectively tackle climate change remains distant. With a common vision hardly in sight, the work of the ADP has eloquently demonstrated the futility of technical negotiations, without prior political consensus on the core elements and features of the Paris agreement.

UNFCCC parties have learnt important lessons from the Copenhagen debacle. In Paris, they will do everything they can to avoid repeating the same mistakes. They now have but a handful of weeks to consider their options, including opportunities to engage at the political level at the pre-COP convening from 8-10 November in Paris. How they will manage to get to an agreement, and what this will consist of, remains to be seen. What seems already clear is that, while COP21 may avert diplomatic disaster, it may well once again fail to put the world on a path to avert dangerous anthropogenic climate change.

You can hear more from Dr Savaresi:

Wednesday Novemeber 11th: 18:00-19:00, What is COP21 all about? By Dr. Annalisa Savaresi. Lecture theatre 5, Appleton Tower

“For more information on COP21 and what the University of Edinburgh is doing about climate change, see Edinburgh Action for the Climate.”
Harnessing expertise at the University of Edinburgh to influence and inform the global debate around climate change.
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