COP 21: The Upcoming U.N. Climate Summit in Paris

A potentially historic U.N. Climate Change Summit will take place later this month in Paris. Negotiators from nearly 200 nations will gather in the city on the 30th November, which will mark the start of two weeks of talks aimed at securing a global agreement to reduce climate pollution.

The overall aim of the talks is to keep global temperatures from rising more than 2°C above pre-industrial levels – a target set five years ago by international negotiators in Cancún, Mexico. Over 160 different governments have already submitted national plans for cutting greenhouse gas emissions to the U.N. and leaders in the European Union, along with President Barack Obama, have been pushing for a strong agreement. [1]

Icebergs in Ilulissat Icefjord, Greenland, where the melting of ice sheets is accelerating

Icebergs in Ilulissat Icefjord, Greenland, where the melting of ice sheets is accelerating

Scientists have said that a temperature increase of more than 2 degrees would have catastrophic and potentially irreversible consequences including droughts, floods, heat waves and sharp rises in sea levels as the Greenland ice sheet melts. [2] The United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP) published a report showing that global emissions levels should not exceed 46 gigatonnes (GT) per year of carbon dioxide by 2025, and 42 GT per year by 2030, if we are to have a good chance of holding global warming below this two degree threshold.

There is a broad consensus, however, that the national plans that have been submitted so far will not be sufficient to meet the threshold. Analyses endorsed by the UN have suggested that the plans will reduce warming to about 2.7 – 3 degrees by the end of this century, which, while not adequate to meet scientific advice, would still be a huge improvement over the current trends which would see global warming reach as much as 5 degrees over pre-industrial levels by 2100. [3]

President Obama addressing a UN summit on climate change in 2009

President Obama addressing a UN summit on climate change in 2009

The talks are likely to be long and frustrating. There are already divisions evident between different governments and in some cases, within individual governments themselves. In the U.S., for example, the Obama administration is facing some fierce opposition from Republicans over its plan to agree to cut carbon emissions by up to 28% from 2005 levels by 2025 [4].  Some Republican leaders, such as Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma (who notoriously once threw a snowball in the Senate in an attempt to disprove global warming) [5], are even planning to travel to Paris to register their opposition to a global climate deal.

This, in turn, is causing strain between the U.S. and E.U. as the Americans do not want the decisions made during the Paris summit to be legally binding, something that the E.U. has pushed strongly for. A legally binding deal would be tricky for the U.S. as it would require ratification in Congress, where there is no majority for a climate deal.

One of the world’s most influential climate change scientists, Professor John Schellnhuber, has said in an interview with The Guardian that there is reason to be optimistic about the Paris talks as, if a critical number of countries implement their pledges, the move towards a global low-carbon economy would gain “unstoppable momentum”. [6]

Prof. Schellnhuber, who has attended most of the 20 previous climate summits, is a key member of the German delegation to the Paris summit and has advised both Angela Merkel and Pope Francis on climate change. He has emphasised that the key to making nations keep their promises is “moral pressure”.

“It is prestige, it is image, it is a moral issue, it is how you appear to the world. If the Chinese, for example, make a pledge, they want to keep it. They do not want to lose face” he said, adding that although the German pledge to cut emissions by 40% by 2020 will be difficult “Merkel will do everything to achieve this or it will be seen as a national failure”.

There has also been concern surrounding the security of the event after the attacks on Paris last Friday. French foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, expressed fear on Tuesday over the risk of another terror attack and has been in negotiations with campaigners to scale down the huge global climate march they had organised to take place before the summit. [7] Despite these concerns, none of the confirmed leaders attending have publicly withdrawn from the conference, which will go ahead as planned with additional U.N. security in place.

UN climate change summit, Sept 2009

UN climate change summit, Sept 2009


Update 09/12/15:

We’re now just over half way through the two week talks in Paris, what has happened so far?

The negotiators have already approved a 48-page first draft of the agreement that will potentially bind the 195 nations present to cut their greenhouse gas emissions. [8] While this is very promising, there is still a lot of work to be done. The draft contains no less than 900 square brackets denoting areas of disagreement such as whether the final agreement should be legally binding or not.

There has been a lot of interest in the Indian delegation at the talks, as the developing nation could have a big impact on fighting global climate change if they move away from a dependency on coal in the next 10 years. Indian negotiators have indicated the country is willing to cut coal consumption, but only if richer nations can compensate it for doing so. The Indian Prime Minister, Narendi Modi, has described a “sunrise of new hope” and made a promising announcement that India will lead an international Solar Alliance of over 120 countries to raise over £265 million towards seeking and developing new ways to produce cheap solar electricity.

Another major challenge is to find agreement on what target to set as the long term goal. A lot of low-lying island nations want to push for a deal that will limit global warming to just 1.5 C by the end of the century as some evidence suggests anything above that would result in severe damage to their countries. Many other nations, however, believe this is unrealistic and want to stick to a target of keeping warming to 2 C above pre-industrial levels.

Although there are many issues to iron out before the end of the negotiations on Friday, John Kerry, US Secretary of State, remains optimistic saying “Though we have some tough issues in the next few days to resolve, I am confident that we have the ability to do it.” [9]














Credit for all images: United Nations Photo

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