Why does COP21 matter?

Things have been quiet on the blog for a while. The main reason for this is that I went through a bit of a life change that has distracted me a bit: After 3 years of living in Panama, I moved back to Edinburgh last January. When I say “I moved back’, I should stress that I am not actually from Edinburgh but that I went to university in Edinburgh 5 years ago.

I moved back because I started a new job at an NGO which deals with sustainable development. As most people who’ve moved around a bit will know, it is thrilling and exciting to move on to new and exciting things, but sometimes it’s also exhausting and challenging to adjust to new places and new tasks. I’ve been itching to get back into the blogging game, but have to admit that I used my free time last year mainly to do brain-numbing things (about to finish the Harry Potter series…) to prevent information overload as I often felt overwhelmed and exhausted.

Even though I am not a big fan of New Year’s resolutions as I find you usually just end up disappointing yourself, I’ve been meaning to revive this blog for a long time now, and so I decided that 2016 is the time and place to finally time to get my stuff together and get back to writing.

Although I’m still interested in popular science, there’s going to be a bit of a thematic shift on this blog. I will probably move a bit more towards discussing environmental and sustainable development issues, mainly because that’s the field I work in and find fascinating, but also for the very selfish reason of being better able to understand some of these concepts by writing them down.

For months, I’ve been racking my brains on how to find the right theme or opening to get into writing about environmental issues and how to frame a series of posts on sustainable development. Luckily, I’ve basically just had a opening handed to me on a silver platter – ta-daaaahhh – the most recent Paris Climate Conference, COP21! Which I went to!

COP21 – what’s the big deal?

If you work in a certain field, you always kind of just expect everyone to know what’s going on in your line of work although they have nothing to do with it.  So, I was very surprised when I told people excitedly that I would be going to COP21 and most people reacted like this:



So, to break it down: COP stands for ‘Conference of the Parties’, referring to the UNFCCC parties. Yes, that’s another acronym. Get used to it. The whole sustainable development field is a minefield – or playground, some might say – of cumbersome acronyms that you have to hear and write down at least 10 times until you get them right. And I still said ‘UN-F-C-C-C’ for years until I found out that you say ‘UN-triple-C’. Duh.

UNFCCC stands for the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, which is a treaty/convention that came out of the 1992 ‘Earth Summit’ in Rio. It’s basically a forum for countries to come together to measure progress related to climate change mitigation and to come up with implementation strategies. COP – Conference of the Parties – is the main event at which the UNFCCC parties convene. The number at the end of the COP acronym indicates how many conferences there have been.

So, I travelled to Paris at the end of November last year to attend COP21, where I had access to both the main site (where the ‘suits’ hang out) and the public ‘Climate Generations’ area (where the ‘hippies’ hang out). Of course, it’s not as black and white as this, but the official area certainly seemed a lot stiffer. I was a complete COP-newbie and therefore felt very cool and important walking around the grounds with my flashy badge. I soon realised that being excited about being at COP was my first rookie mistake because everyone I ran into just rolled their eyes and told me how they had ‘COP fatigue’ and how it was ‘soooo boring’. And to some degree, I could understand the weariness. Especially after a couple of days when I realized that being at COP means a whole lot of meetings and running around and eating overpriced conference food. Nevertheless, there was a certain excitement in the air.

The past couple of COPs have been unsuccessful in the sense that countries failed to agree on targets, language, goals…basically everything you need to come up with an agreement. But there was a glimpse of hope in the air as many expected this to be the “now or never” COP. Many effects of climate change are already being felt around the world and for too long it seemed that the international community was sacrificing the needs of the poorest (and of future generations) whilst pushing the regenerative capacity of the environment to its limits. The last time the international community attempted to come up with an agreement at  COP15 in Copenhagen in 2009 was a complete failure and there were fears that this COP would follow suit.

But why was COP15 such a failure?

First of all, there were heightened expectations for the international community to come up with a plan to curb emissions and protect ecosystems around the globe. These hopes were sadly disappointed when China and the US came in at the last minute and wanted most of the targets and binding agreements that country delegations had been working on for 2 weeks to be taken out or re-written. The result was that there was no unanimous agreement, meaning that there was a general agreement that climate change was dangerous and should be prevented, but this ‘agreement’ was only ‘noted’ not ‘adopted’. On a slightly cynical note, one could say that this is something that most sane people agree on and that there is no need to fly people around the globe and sit together in a room for 2 weeks to come up with that. Moreover, there was no binding agreement to reduce emissions in order to keep temperatures from rising to above 2°C degrees.

What was different about this COP?

Most of the people who had so-called ‘COP-fatigue’, e.g., NGOs, civil society organisations, environmentalists and members of delegations, all felt that for too long there had been a too much talk and not enough action, as well as endless repetitions of stating the issues without coming up with solutions. Meanwhile, many rural communities in developing countries have already suffered the impact of climate change – changing precipitation patterns, frequent and elongated periods of droughts, sea level rise, heat waves, declining biodiversity, reduced water availability, etc. For many communities who rely on agriculture for subsistence this has life-threatening consequences. All the while, the global population is increasing together with its demand for food. Although poverty is declining in many emerging economies, especially in China and India, and many people have broken into the middle class, the rising demand for goods and food, especially grains, meat and dairy, has created more pressure on our natural resources. This, on the other hand, has contributed to further environmental degradation (deforestation, establishments of large-scale industrial plantations, large-scale livestock rearing…). Not to single out developing countries here, obviously developed countries have contributed far more to global warming over the last fifty years.

But, a few things happened last year which bode well for things to come.

In September 2015, the UN Sustainable Development Goals, also called SDGs or Global Goals, were announced. The SDGs form a continuation of the MDGs (the Millennium Development Goals) which ‘came to an end’ in 2015 as they were only designed to run from 2000 – 2015. We shall delve into this topic more thoroughly in a future blog post, but the reason why it is important to note that the SDGs were announced is that the global community adopted and showed commitment to achieving 17 VERY AMBITIOUS sustainable development goals which range from ending poverty, to improving food security and gender equality, to ensuring peace on earth (a though list can be found here). Another thing that was ‘new’ about the SDGs was that it stressed the participation of all levels of society, public, private and civil, instead of leaving sustainable development up to governments and development aid. Check out this nice video from IIED, to find out more:

So, why does this matter? This is of course a slightly subjective interpretation but it should be noted that the SDGs have set the scene for countries to be more ambitious. Building up to COP21, there was a massive, global announcement to commit to 17 difficult, intertwined global goals and to tackle global issues that affect us as a global community and therefore require the global community to work together. Many organisations, including public, private and non-profit entities have since announced that they have decided to align their organisational goals with the SDGs (‘Aligning’ with the SDGs in this case means that organisations actively attempt to contribute and report against achievements in the context of the SDGs). Almost at the same time, the US and China announced they were going to support an ‘ambitious’ agreement at the Paris Climate Conference (aka COP21).  This created a certain momentum which filled many people with that wonderful lets-roll-our-sleeves-up-and-get-s**t-done-son-motivation.

What was agreed at this COP21?

The Paris agreement has been dubbed the ‘world’s greatest diplomatic success’, an agreement signed by 193 countries all committing to reducing GHG emissions and combating global warming. That is a pretty great achievement and a huge success. But of course success doesn’t come overnight. The international community seemed to have been determined not to repeat the failures of COP15. This meant, not bringing in country leaders at the last minute to review progress but to involve them right from the start and then again at the end.

Moreover, countries were asked to do their homework. COP19 and COP20 ‘invited’ countries to work on their ‘INDCs’ (Intended Nationally Determined Contributions)

*I think ‘invited’ in this context is bureaucratic speak for ‘get your butt in gear’.

This invitation extended from developed and developing countries and shifted away from the previous attitude that preventing climate change should be mainly the work of the heaviest polluters, i.e. industrialised nations. By designing the INDCs, countries had to come up with their own plans on how they were going to cut emissions and, perhaps most importantly, how much this is going to cost.  They also had to indicate whether targets were unconditional and could be achieved without external funding, or conditional, meaning dependent on further funding. Needless to say, we are (probably) talking about whatever-comes-after-trillions of $ here.

For many years, the target that had been kicking around was to limit global warming to 2°C degrees. However, in the build-up to COP, many countries started stressing thtat a more ambitious target would be to prevent global temperatures from rising more than 1.5°C degrees. This was something that especially Pacific island states, which are severely threatened by sea level rise, had been lobbying for relentlessly.

In fact, it recently emerged that there had been a ‘secret’ coalition of 100 countries, including 79 African, Caribbean and Pacific countries, as well as the US and the EU member states, that had been formed 6 months before COP to ensure that there was an agreement that was (1) legally binding; (2) included a long-term goal in line with scientific advice, (3) which ruled to review countries’ emissions reduction commitments every five years and (4) paved the way for a unified system for tracking progress.

Now, there are two things here that kind of blow my mind:

  1. To see the US amongst this list of countries (Don’t they think climate change is all a hoax..? Could there be…progress???! *glimmer of hope in her eyes*
  2. Why do you need a secret coalition when it comes to pretty straightforward things like “hey guys maybe let’s not f—k up the planet?!”

Side note: In my head, this ambitious, environmentally friendly coalition met on a secret secret island and uploaded their secret plants on a secret USB which could only be guarded by James Bond himself who was hunted and chased by the bad guys but got  away in his super tuned Prius – ethanol from certified sustainable corn only! Although, I think we all know, it was probably just a boring email chain with someone going “Oh hey, so…big idea, guys! Since we can’t actually really predict how much temperatures will rise and we have no idea how to mobilise the trillions needed to finance emission reductions and this is a totally arbitrarily chosen target anyway, shall we just go for the one that sounds better?”

Anyway, judging from reports by the Guardian, the Secret Coalition swept in at the last minute, 3 days before the conference came to a close, and successfully lobbied other delegations to adopt the 1.5°C target and include the aforementioned points into the agreement. Other key aspects of the agreement include:

  • The inclusion of the term ‘human rights’ in the preamble
  • Countries are now allowed to link their carbon markets and to establish a ‘net mitigation mechanism’ (carbon markets and market-based approaches shall be discussed in a future blog posts)
  • Non-market approached to sustainable development
  • Encouragement to actively involve forests as a means to cut carbon emissions
  • National strategies on lowering GHG emissions until 2050
  • Requirements for developed countries to take the lead on mobilising climate finance
  • Continues review of emission reduction targets on a 5-year rolling basis

Great stuff – so, everything’s fine, right? The world is fixed. Woo – let’s p–

Not so fast.

Like any agreement, this one is not perfect. And, as usual, the most interesting question is: What happens now?

Here are the sticking points that are still not entirely clear post-Paris:

  • The agreement mentions new, flexible market and non-market mechanisms to lower carbon emissions. Does that  we have to throw everything we have (i.e. the Kyoto Protocol) out of the window and come up with something new?
  • What’s the role of forest protection in this agreement and how can forest protection be incentivised (Next post will be on REDD+)
  • Is it possible to mitigate and adapt to climate change at the same time, and is adaptation to climate change perhaps more important given that many countries already struggle with the impacts of climate change? And most importantly, who will pay for all this?
  • How do we generate the funds to come up with technologies and financing to provide the solutions and/or incentives for countries to meet emission targets?
  • It seems like we will have an ‘interim’ period of 5 years (2015-2010) in which the parties will negotiate on how to implement the Paris agreement in which a lot of previous mechanisms and instruments, like the Kyoto Protocol, the EU ETS and other compliance carbon markets, seem to be a bit limbo.

I will attempt to look at these questions in more depth over the next couple of months on this very blog, and hopefully also discuss some of the concepts and policies that matter in this context. More to come in the next few weeks – stay tuned.

Until then, I’d like to get on my moral high horse for a second and remind everyone that climate change should not be seen as an abstract thing that can or should be left to politicians. If you want to actively contribute to reducing GHG emissions, there are many things you can do. Question your lifestyle! Walk/bike/car-share to work, simply turn the lights off when you leave a room, cut out or reduce meat intake, eat and buy local, stop eating strawberries in December, stop eating avocados or other imported food altogether, buy second-hand, recycle, fly less, grow your own food…there are so many things each and everyone of us can do to minimise our own carbon footprint. Of course this doesn’t mean you have to do everything (unless you are a really selfless person that wants to make us all look bad), just do what you can.

(High horse called me a hypocrite and ran away).


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