COP21 – The most important meeting this century?

6th August 2015

Creative Carbon Scotland Director Ben Twist reflects on the background to ArtCOP Scotland What is COP21? COP21 is the 21st …

Creative Carbon Scotland Director Ben Twist reflects on the background to ArtCOP Scotland

What is COP21?

COP21 is the 21st annual Conference of Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (the UNFCCC), a treaty about addressing climate change. Technically it’s the annual meeting of the 196 signatory countries to the UNFCCC to discuss progress towards its aims, but in fact it is also a meeting about progress on related agreements. Most years the COP is attended by civil servants and junior ministers, but in important years like this you can expect major world leaders like Obama, Xi and Putin to attend the ‘high level section’ at the end of the COP. Non-governmental organisations such as charities, pressure groups and business organisations also attend and the big ones (like Copenhagen’s COP15 in 2009) see demonstrations and protests. COP21 in Paris from 30th November to 11th December 2015 will attract up to 40,000 people.

A bit of history

In 1992 the Rio Earth Summit adopted the UNFCCC, setting out a legal framework for stabilising atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases (GHGs) to avoid “dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system.” (Margaret Thatcher strongly supported the Rio Summit and possibly action on climate change.) The UNFCCC was deliberately a ‘broad but shallow’ agreement which almost any country could agree to, as there was nothing in it that required action. It came into force once enough countries had signed it in 1994. A sub-agreement, the Kyoto Protocol, was signed by many countries in 1997, but only after significant weakening concessions had been made did Russia ratify it, enabling it to come into force in 2005. This ‘narrow but deep’ agreement committed industrialised countries and countries ‘in transition to a market economy’ to reduce carbon emissions by an average of 5% by 2012. Damagingly the Kyoto Protocol wasn’t ratified by the US or Australia, two very large carbon emitters. It also didn’t require China, India, Saudi Arabia or other developing countries with increasing carbon emissions to take any action, on the grounds that it was the industrialised countries which had caused the historic carbon emissions.

COP15 in 2009 was meant to decide upon a much wider and stronger agreement to follow on from the Kyoto Protocol, which would commit many more countries (including the US, Australia, China etc) to meaningful cuts in carbon emissions from 2013 onwards. It is widely considered to have failed, possibly because it didn’t connect development from poverty (which the developing countries argued they needed) with the need to address climate change: the poor always suffer more from climate change and don’t have the means to address the problem.

The COPs since 2009 have therefore been working to agree a post-Kyoto structure that will resolve these problems, bringing in more countries and linking development and climate action. Adaptation to the already visible impacts of climate change, which is particularly relevant to the developing countries, and finance to enable poorer countries to develop sustainably, are important parts of the new structure. Significant commitments by China and the US to carbon reductions have helped build confidence that a real and deep agreement might be reached. At the same time the Fifth Assessment Report in 2014 by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the UNFCCC’s expert panel reporting on the science of climate change, has both strengthened the case for and heightened awareness of the urgency of the problem. COP21 is therefore a BIG COP, and much is hanging on the outcome.

How it works

In between COPs there are regular meetings of the countries’ negotiators in various groups and pathways, working on individual bits of the overall agreement. They work in small groups, trying to refine their bit of the text to a manageable size that the COP can finally debate and get agreement on: the COP consists of 190-odd countries working in different languages, all wanting to have their say, so you don’t want to have too much to argue about. The aim is to arrive at Paris with a text that is mostly agreed, with the minimum amount of [text in square brackets], which are bits of text that have not already been agreed. The text for discussion will include many versions of any disputed text, each in separate [square brackets]. The job of the negotiators and junior ministers at the COP itself is to agree the final version with no [square brackets].

What we should expect

At the COP there will be a main hall where the plenary session takes place and a number of smaller rooms where different groups will debate the different sections. They will hope to get all the work done in the first 10 days or so before the High Level Section when the world leaders will [jet in] [arrive] to [argue about and change] [sign] the final document. [That won’t happen: the juniors won’t be able to agree, the top dogs will fly in and the negotiations will go on long past the deadline until a deal is put together by the key players: the US, China, the EU, Japan [, India, Brazil, Russia.]]

There will be lots of others there: charities, pressure groups, lobbyists etc. At the Copenhagen COP there was effectively a trade show in the large hall before you got to the debating area: hundreds of companies and charities displaying their technologies, making their arguments to the delegates, even in one case demonstrating what looked to me like a perpetual motion machine! There are lots of ‘side events’: debates, talks, discussions, presentations. It is like a medium sized town: there are banks of free computers to use, cafes and restaurants, ATMs and VIP areas. [Probably bedrooms for tired diplomats.]

Is it worth it?

Strangely, I’d say that it is. Although the process burns a massive amount of carbon, seems almost hopeless and very far removed from what individuals and organisations and governments are actually doing, and could be argued to have failed thus far, the COPs do provide a context for individual countries’ efforts, and the efforts of those within them. Multilateral and bilateral agreements can aim towards the overall targets set; the Cancun Agreements from the 2010 COP set for the first time the target of a maximum 2⁰C increase in global temperatures, which is now the basis for lots of countries’ efforts.

My view is that although a binding international treaty is never going to really work, it sets the context for decisions and provides ammunition for political, society and business leaders who want to propose action. I don’t expect the 2015 COP to solve all the problems, but I do think it may help us on our way.



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