Today is the first day of COP21, which is the 21st Conference of the Parties of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, or the UNFCCC. This meeting is being held in Paris, France, and over the course of the next two weeks negotiators from over 190 countries will work together to come up with the first universal international climate agreement. Climate agreements have been made in the past, like the Kyoto Protocol in 1997, but there has never been an agreement where all the countries, developed and developing, have to commit to reducing emissions in one way or another. At the end of these next two weeks that will no longer be the case.
The whole point of these negotiations is to come up with an agreement that will keep the global average temperature below 2 degrees celsius, which is a global tipping point. As President Obama said in his opening speech today, “our progress will be measured by the suffering that is averted and the planet that is preserved.” No truer words have been said.
So how are we going to do that? Negotiators have been working on the Paris Agreement for four years since COP 17 in Durban, South Africa in 2011. After those long and strenuous years we are now racing towards the finish line, and it is time to work out the final details.
The agreement is expected to revisit whether or not we want to have a below 2 degrees celsius on average warming goal or to put the goal at 1.5 degrees celsius so that we have a buffer as a planet; support a long term goal for decarbonization by a certain year (to be determined); suggest methods countries can take for climate action such as mitigation and adaptation projects and policies; deliver means to support implementing those projects and policies such as technology transfer, finance, and capacity building for developing nations; and contain equity language that allows for space for climate justice for many communities that have been unfairly impacted by climate change, which they did not contribute to. Finally, this agreement has been developed in a bottom up approach where all countries have submitted pledges, or Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs) that outline how they will reduce their carbon emissions, adapt to the impacts of climate change, and financially support other countries as they work to combat climate change. This has been good because countries can submit what they believe to be politically feasible. However, even with the pledges that we have right now, the planet is expected to warm well over 2 degrees, and so it will be imperative that countries submit more ambitious quickly, and they are not allowed to backslide below what they have already pledged. Therefore, a review process for these INDCs will be in the agreement as well, but the specifics of that process are still up for debate.
Clearly there is still a lot to talk about in a short amount of time. Regardless of the outcome of the agreement, this will only be the beginning. It will take local work and domestic action to make the INDCs become a reality, and it will be up to us, global citizens, to go above and beyond to demand action on climate everywhere for our future.