Road to COP21 Paris Background

What’s Happening in COP21 Paris?

This year, the United Nations holds the 21st Conference of the Parties (COP21) to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) meeting in Paris from November 30—December 11. The UNFCCC is a treaty passed in 1992 to address global climate change, and ratified by 195 countries, including the US. Each year’s COP brings together the ratifying nations – known as “parties” – to define next steps under the treaty. COP21 is unique in that the UN set the meeting as a deadline to pass a new international climate agreement covering the post-2020 period. While the UNFCCC establishes a goal of addressing climate change, it needs implementing agreements to establish the methods for doing so. The Kyoto Protocol was one such agreement, and COP21 will produce a new one.

Why Is It Special?

Previous agreements, like Kyoto, only expected action from developed nations with historical responsibility for the majority of emissions. The Paris agreement will instead apply to all countries and set expectations for each to act in some way or another.

What Is Its Goal?

The new agreement aims to establish a cooperative structure for all 192 countries to work together to address climate change as each is able, with accountability and goals for all. A strong agreement will send a signal to the private sector that the world and their governments are moving away from prioritizing fossil fuels and towards renewable energy, influencing not only domestic policies, but also investment choices and business plans. The agreement won’t solve the climate crisis on its own, but will represent a big step forward.

How Will It Likely Work?

The Paris agreement will likely feature two main components: a core agreement and nationally determined contributions. The core agreement will set out the common goals that all countries agree to, such as when the planet’s carbon emissions should reach net zero (or absolute zero), how funding should be mobilized for developing countries, and how and when emissions reduction commitments are submitted and reviewed. The nationally determined contributions (NDCs) will be the emissions reduction and/or climate action targets that each country sets for itself as best, fair, and achievable, depending on its own unique circumstances. The process for determining NDCs begins when each country submits its intended nationally determined contribution (INDC) before COP21. Other nations and the public then have the opportunity to review these INDCs before they’re formally adopted (possibly with changes) as NDCs. By enabling each country to set its own targets as NDCs, the UN hopes to solve the problem of differentiation.

The Sticking Point: Differentiation

With member states at every stage of development from the United States to the United Republic of Tanzania, COP21 brings together countries with vastly differing levels of responsibility for the climate crisis – and vastly differing capacities to mitigate it. Emerging countries, for example, have the UN-recognized right to development and are set to suffer the worst consequences of climate change. The principle of differentiation assigns roles and  responsibilities to each nation relative to its historical emissions and stage of development.


Climate Reality Project

Climate Reality Project



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