Two sides of the climate change coin: climate science and policy after COP21

Dr Annalisa Savaresi

Dr Annalisa Savaresi


Since the first establishment of the scientific evidence for climate change, little progress has been made in reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions to mitigate the problem. The pathways along which governments pass in gathering scientific evidence and negotiating climate change mitigation measures is tortuous and riddled with potholes. Assistance in this complex and often fraught process comes from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). For several years, this body has gathered evidence aimed to support the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in identifying the causes and projected impacts of climate change, as well as possible action to avert it. In this discussion we will explore how effective the interplay between these institutions has been, and what is the outlook for the future, in the aftermath of the historical adoption of the Paris Agreement at the 21st Conference of the Parties to the UNFCCC (COP 21) held in December 2015.

The IPCC process

Since it published its first Assessment Report in 1995, the IPCC has been held up as a shining example of how a collective of scientists can inform policy debates affecting the global environment. The 4th Assessment report even won the IPCC the Nobel Peace prize, jointly with Al Gore. The Assessment reports are commissioned by governments worldwide (hence the Intergovernmental Panel title) to cover climate change science, impacts, adaptation and vulnerability to climate change and climate mitigation. The 4th Report whilst winning many plaudits, including the Peace prize, was held up to detailed scrutiny and criticism by some. The famous ‘climate-gate’ and ‘glazier-gate’ episodes, and personal attacks on the integrity of contributing scientists, left a stain on the IPCC’s reputation even though the supposed errors or dubious practices were largely subsequently disproven.

The hype and pressure put on the 2009 climate summit in Copenhagen raised awareness of the climate change debate considerably. The release of stolen emails from the Climatic Research Unit of the University of East Anglia in the run up to Copenhagen created huge media attention and provided ammunition for “sceptics” who caused mass doubt in the public about climate change science. Moreover, the IPCC fourth assessment report came under fire, notably for their claim, now shown to be wrong, that the Himalayan glaciers could melt by 2035. This corresponded with a large increase in “sceptics” speaking out against climate change in the media and on the web. This clearly had an effect on public opinion about the legitimacy of climate science and even the integrity of climate scientists. A poll conducted by the BBC between November 2009 and February 2010 showed a 10% increase in people who did not believe in climate change and a 6% increase in people who believe that it is happening, but only due to natural causes.

So, now that the 5th Assessment report has just been released (see web address), nearly 20 years after the first report, perhaps it’s time to take stock of the IPCC process itself. To what extent has the IPCC really contributed to climate mitigation policy? Is it still fit for purpose, or are there alternative models that might better achieve the ultimate aim of addressing the climate change problem? The IPCC is likely to continue in some shape or form, but what this should be in supporting the drive to limit the climate change problem is not so clear.


To what extent has the IPCC really contributed to addressing the problem of climate change?

Is the IPCC still fit for purpose, or are there alternative models that might better achieve its goals?

To what extent do governmental climate negotiations take account of scientific evidence?

Background reading: The IPCC Summary for Policy makers of Working Group 2 of the 5th Assessment Report. a viewpoint from Prof Mike Hulme (UEA) and Dr. Jerome Ravetz (Innovation and Society (InSIS) at Oxford University) IPCC flooded by criticism

IPCC: Cherish, tweak or Scrap? Nature 463, 730-732 11 February 2010 (attached)

IPCC Seeks ‘Broader Community Engagement’ to Correct Errors Science 12 February 2010 (attached) Stop Listening to Scientists?

International climate change negotiations

Ever since 1992, Parties to the UNFCCC have attempted to agree on measures to deal with GHG emissions in a way to prevent dangerous human interference with the climate system. According to the IPCC, such a level requires keeping the increase in global average temperature below 2° C, as compared with pre-industrial times. The UNFCCC, however, has struggled to keep the world within the limits indicated by the IPCC. The main instrument adopted to stabilize GHG concentrations under the Convention, the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, imposed emission reduction targets only on developed countries. With growing emissions in developing countries, like China and India, however, scientists have warned that only reducing emissions in developed countries is not enough. Since 2007, therefore, UNFCCC Parties have been entangled in difficult negotiations on further measures to reduce global GHG emissions.

In December 2015, COP21 brought to a conclusion this long cycle of negotiations, by adopting a new climate treaty, the Paris Agreement. The agreement enshrines a reference to the 2°C goal identified by the IPCC, and even an aspirational reference to a 1,5°C goal. In order to achieve this outcome, the agreement requires all Parties, and not just developed ones, to make efforts to reduce their emissions and to submit information on the details. In doing so, the Paris Agreement consolidates a bottom-up pledge and review approach to climate change action. This approach entails that Parties unilaterally declare action they intend to undertake to reduce their emissions, to be subjected to an international review process, both at the individual and at the aggregate level. Implementation of the agreement will furthermore be assisted by an expert-based, facilitative compliance mechanism. And while it is already clear that Parties’ pledged action remain far from consistent with the 2° C goal, in theory at least there will be means to revise and increase the level of ambition.

Though not perfect, the Paris Agreement can be regarded as an expression of political will to tackle climate change in a way that brings together actors at all levels, in conformity with the all-encompassing nature of efforts required to address this epochal problem. In this regard, the Paris Agreement seemingly marks the emergence of a cooperative spirit that breaks away from the rancorous rhetoric that has long characterized international climate diplomacy. Whether the Paris Agreement will prove fit for purpose, and how it will be implemented, remains to be seen. In this regard, the adoption of the agreement is just the beginning of a new regulatory season in which States will flesh out the rules for its implementation. This new regulatory season will begin in 2016 and will reveal whether COP21 has indeed marked a new beginning. At least for the time being, however, the outlook for international climate governance is certainly the most hopeful it has been for quite some time.



Is the Paris Agreement a success?

What are its main advantages and disadvantages?

What questions does it leave undressed?

Background reading:

Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, Outcomes of the UN Climate Change Conference in Paris (2015)

Daniel Bodansky Reflections on the Paris Conference (2015)

The Economist, The Paris Agreement Marks an Unprecedented Political Recognition of the Risks of Climate Change (2015)

UK Committee on Climate Change, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly of the Paris Agreement (2015)

David Victor, Why Paris Worked: A Different Approach to Climate Diplomacy (2015)

This entry was posted in climate negotiations, Climate Science, environment, Environmental Economics, Environmental Ethics, Environmental Justice, Global Challenges, human-environment relations, Interdiciplinary conversations, international law, moral purpose, social justice, sustainability. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Two sides of the climate change coin: climate science and policy after COP21

  1. More comments from some who participated from Edinburgh are online at

  2. COP21 and the Paris agreement can’t achieve anything while we still live in a place where there are climate change sceptics and deniers. What the people marching outside the summit knew, and the people inside tried to hide, is that the world needs to be on high alert as of now. That means a radical change in business economics, consumption, investments, food industry. COP21 failed in its mission to ‘jump-start’ that change by enforcing a law to it. Maybe it was a success in diplomacy, but surely not in climate change solutions.

  3. Sabine says:

    Hello, the link for the article “Outcomes of the UN Climate Change Conference in Paris” on the C2ES website doesn’t work, could it be updated?

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