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COP21: A Primer

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Today marks the beginning of COP21, the global climate talks that are taking place in Paris. Starting from today, the world's leaders will gather for two weeks to negotiate an agreement on climate change. But what exactly is COP21, and why does it matter? Find out what's at stake in our brief crash course on COP 21.

So, what is COP21?

"COP" stands for "Conference of the Parties". It is an annual meeting of the leaders of the 196 countries that have signed and adopted the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). This is the 21st meeting of the Conference of the Parties, making this year's COP in Paris "COP-21". 

But wait, what's the UNFCCC? To better understand what will be happening over the next few weeks, a quick backgrounder to international climate negotiations might help (for the acronyms at the very least).

Backgrounder: 1992 Earth Summit and the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change

Our story begins at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in 1992. Here, 154 countries negotiated and signed the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), which sought to "stabilize greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system". Today, 195 countries and the EU have signed the agreement, making it the only international environmental treaty with almost universal membership. However, the treaty contains no enforcement mechanisms and isn't legally binding, so it doesn't commit countries to very much. 

While the UNFCCC didn't commit countries to actually take any concrete emissions-reduction actions, it set up a system of annual climate negotiations (the Conference of the Parties) that would allow countries to assess and make further progress (in theory) on the goals set out in the Convention. The first COP took place in 1995, but it wasn't until 1997 that real progress was made.

1997: The Kyoto Protocol

The third COP, held in Kyoto, Japan, was the first serious attempt to progress on the UNFCCC, and resulted in the Kyoto Protocol, an international agreement that sought to cut worldwide emissions by 5% from 1990 levels by 2012. However, some countries took issue with the fact that it committed industrialized countries to reduce their emissions and left rapidly developing China, Mexico, and South Korea without emissions reductions targets. As a result, several countries, including the US, did not sign or ratify the agreement, and it wasn't until 2005 that the Protocol went into effect.

2009: Hopes Dashed at Copenhagen

Hopes were high for real progress to come out of the 15th COP, held in Copenhagen in 2009. After several years of little progress on climate, it appeared that both developed and developing countries were ready to reach an agreement on emissions reductions. However, for a variety of reasons - many of them organizational - no binding agreement came out of the Copenhagen COP. However, all was not lost: in spite of the failure to agree on a legally binding agreement (which is what many had hoped for), Copenhagen did forward the idea of nationally determined emissions reductions targets, and the targets established in Copenhagen were eventually formally agreed upon the following year. What's more, it did appear to achieve consensus that a two degree (Celsius) rise in global temperatures by the end of the century would be the limit of what the planet could sustain to avoid catastrophic changes.

2011: Delaying the Inevitable?

Two years later at the 17th COP, held in Durban, South Africa, negotiators set a deadline for a new global climate agreement that would be applicable to all parties. The time and place? Paris, 2015.

Paris, 2015: what's at stake?

What's expected to come out of the Paris negotiations is quite clear: an international agreement to reduce emissions - this time with specific targets and actions - to keep global temperatures from rising beyond the two degree threshold. After several years of slow progress, the international political environment finally appears to be favourable to reaching an agreement.There is an international consensus about the goal of the negotiations (to try to avoid a two degree rise in global temperatures by the end of the century), and most countries have already released their individual climate action plans, called Intended Nationally-Determined Contributions (INDCs), which will form the basis for negotiations. These climate plans outline each country's targeted emissions reductions over the next twenty years. Among the country commitments, the US will cut emissions by 26-28 percent by 2025, compared with 2005 levels, and the EU has promised to cut emissions by 40 percent by 2030, compared with 1990 levels, and China has agreed that emissions will peak by 2030.

But is it already too late? Global carbon emissions have not stopped increasing steadily every year, and scientists estimate that global temperatures have already risen by one degree since the middle of the 19th century. Dramatic reductions in emissions are needed to keep global temperatures from rising over the two degree threshold, but it's unlikely that countries will agree on measures to achieve this in Paris.

Another sticking point will be financing. Along with emissions reductions goals, the UNFCCC also includes a fund designed to help developing countries deal with climate change. The goal is to raise $100 billion by 2020, but where the money will come from is still unclear. How the funds will be raised, what the role the private sector will play, and how much control countries will have over the funds will all be major sticking points in negotiations. 

So what can we expect to come out of Paris?

Those looking for an agreement on climate coming out of Paris will find cause for both hope and pessimism in the climate negotiation talks. The political environment appears to be favourable to reaching an agreement, with over 95 percent of countries having outlined their climate action plans (INDCs). It is hoped that with everyone's positions already on the table, negotiations will run more efficiently than they have in the past, so the likelihood of reaching an agreement (as opposed to the failure in Copenhagen) is good.

However, what is still unclear is whether the agreement will be legally binding. In early November, US Secretary of State John Kerry told the Financial Times that any agreement that would come out of Paris would "definitely not be a treaty". This attracted disapproval from other countries, with the European Union stating that the agreement coming out of Paris "must be an international legally binding agreement". Since it is unlikely that the US will agree to any agreement with legally binding cuts (as was the problem with the Kyoto Protocol), many expect that the agreement that will come out of Paris will be considered a treaty under international law, but the targets will not be legally binding. This will mean for the US that it could be considered an "executive agreement" under American law, which would allow it to bypass Senate's consent.

What's more, even when put together, the emissions reductions proposed in countries' INDCs (climate action plans) will fall short of what's needed to prevent a two degree rise in temperatures by the end of the century. With what is currently being proposed, global temperatures will probably rise by 2.7 to 3 degrees, according to a UN-endorsed analysis of the INDCs.

With the legal status and emissions gap both likely to be weaknesses to the treaty, some are pushing for a five-yearly review process to be incorporated as part of the agreement, in order to enforce emissions commitments. This might also allow for gradual increases in emissions reductions commitments, which could help slow global temperature increase. No matter what comes out of Paris, this will not be the end discussions on climate action.