COP 21: The weight of great expectations (Week One)

COP 21: The weight of great expectations (Week One)
logo-COPOn 30 November 2015, amidst great expectations, the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) kicked off its 21st Conference of Parties (COP21) in Paris.
This post examines the background to COP21 and the surrounding optimism, reflects on the developments of the first week, and considers the prospects of a global agreement on climate change being reached.

The UNFCCC is an international treaty agreed at the 1992 ‘Earth Summit’ in Rio de Janeiro, and has almost universal membership. Its purpose is to stabilise greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent man-made climate change. However, it doesn’t impose targets on individual countries and contains no enforcement mechanisms.

The conference of parties (COP) is the supreme body of the Convention and is an association of all the countries that are Parties to the UNFCCC. It is the highest decision making authority, and is responsible for assessing and facilitating international efforts to address climate change. Paris is the 21st meeting of COP, hence COP21.

The ambitious goal of COP21 is to create a legally binding agreement between 196 parties (195 countries plus the EU) with the aim of keeping global warming below 2°C, effective from 2020. Scientists say that if this threshold is breached, it would be detrimental to the health of the planet.

The path to COP21 Paris

Previous international efforts to address climate change and tackle global emissions resulted in the Kyoto Protocol 1997 which came into force in 2005. This committed the developed countries listed in Annex I to the UNFCCC (Annex I parties) to binding emission reduction targets, at least 5 per cent below 1990 levels, for the first commitment period (2008-2012).

A compliance mechanism and Compliance Committee was established at COP7 Marrakesh, to ensure enforcement of the Kyoto Protocol's targets. However, the USA refused to become a party to the Protocol and countries such as Japan, Russia and Canada have since withdrawn.

In 2009, despite widely reported enthusiasm for a successor climate change agreement to the Kyoto Protocol, COP15 in Copenhagen failed to deliver.[1] Nevertheless, COP17 Durban and COP18 Doha persevered in the right direction securing agreement for a second commitment period under the Kyoto Protocol, long-term climate finance commitments for developing nations, and a timetable for a 2015 global climate change agreement.

COP19 Warsaw and COP20 Lima created and fleshed out the details of Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs) in anticipation of a climate change deal. These are public and transparent- pledges of what post-2020 climate actions countries aim to take, coordinating national policy plans and domestic capabilities with international action plans. The INDCS formed will be the basis of negotiations at COP21.

High expectations

The expectation for Paris to produce a legally binding global climate change agreement has been buoyed by the progress made at successive COPs, in comparison to the disappointment of COP 15 in Copenhagen. Particularly high levels of optimism for COP21 can also be attributed to:

  • The submission of INDCS by almost 160 of the attending parties;[3]
  • Greater evidence, awareness and acceptance of climate change science;
  • Greater business and industry support (e.g. Sustainable Innovation Forum 2015); and
  • National government public affirmations of commitment to reaching an agreement.

The UK Government’s commitment for a COP21 agreement is set out in ‘Paris 2015: Securing our prosperity through a global climate change agreement’.[4]

Round up of the first week’s highlights—justified optimism?

Given the recent events in Paris, the opening session of COP21 was both spirited and sombre. There were strong common themes of solidarity, urgency and a commitment to reaching an agreement expressed by heads of states and governments.

The most notable speeches were personal and emotive; they came from the leaders of small island states, such as Tuvalu, the Federated States of Micronesia and the Marshall Islands who highlighted their plight on the frontline of climate change and rising seas. They stressed that even a 2°C limit would not be enough to save their lands and urged for a 1.5°C limit.

The first half of COP21 has certainly been eventful. The global clean energy projects, ‘Mission Innovation’[5] and ‘Breakthrough Energy Coalition’[6] were launched respectively by groups of governments and business leaders. These illustrate the vital role of the energy sector in achieving emission reductions, and the clear political and private investor commitment in developing technological solutions.

Thursday 3 December 2015 was designated Buildings Day at COP21, and shifted the focus to the huge potential offered by buildings and the construction sector which, together, contribute 30% of global emissions.

To tackle this, 20 countries and over 60 organisations launched the new Global Alliance for Buildings and Construction to Combat Climate Change, with the aim of both reducing sectoral emissions and incorporating climate resilience into future cities and infrastructure.[7]

Friday’s focus was about climate finance, with investors, insurers and green bonds taking centre stage. The UN Secretary-General’s Special Envoy for Cities and Climate Change announced a new industry-led ‘Task Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosures’ for climate-related financial risks under his chairmanship[8]. This seems more likely than not to have been developed with the ongoing Exxon Mobil investigation in mind.[9]

Not to be outdone, Friday also saw the transportation sector, which contributes about 19% of black carbon emissions (pollutants caused by incomplete combustion of fossil fuels, biofuels, and biomass) pledge a ‘Green Freight Action Plan’ to significantly cut emissions by 2025.


Climate change is no longer viewed as a distant and academic debate but instead as urgent and universal. The UK Committee on Climate Change (CCC), an independent statutory advisory body to the UK government, recently warned that if substantial reductions of global emissions aren’t made, the world temperature rise could exceed an increase of 6°C.[10]

The developments of COP21's first week provide just cause for optimism. In contrast to COP15, globally influential figures, governments and corporations seem to be putting their money where their mouths are, and have publicly committed to cut emissions across a wide range of sectors. The movers and shakers seem to want a deal to be struck.

The devil is in the detail though, and away from the world’s cameras, negotiators are hard at work scrutinising the draft text of the global climate deal in question. While the various partnerships, initiatives and alliances launched at COP21 will no doubt have positive long-term environmental, economic and social benefits, it is the final text and details agreed that will be what really matters.

[1] BBC News, ‘Why did Copenhagen fail to deliver a climate deal?’ (22 December 2009),

[2] World Resources Institute, ‘What Is an INDC?’ (2015),

[3] UNFCC, ‘INDCs as communicated by Parties’ (accessed 4 December 2015),

[4] HM Government, ‘Paris 2015: Securing our prosperity through a global climate change agreement’ (2014),

[5] HM Government, ‘UK joins new international clean energy initiative’ (30 November 2015),

[6] Climate Action, ‘Gates, Branson, Zuckerberg launch global energy project at COP21’, (1 Dec 2015),

[7] UNFCCC Newsroom, ‘Unprecedented Global Alliance for Buildings and Construction to Combat Climate Change’, (3 Dec 2015),

[8] UNFCCC Newsroom, ‘Climate Financial Risk Disclosure Stepped up at COP21—Bloomberg and Carney Launch Task Force’ (4 December 2015),

[9] The Guardian, ‘ExxonMobil under investigation over claims it lied about climate change risks’ (5 November 2015),

[10] Committee on Climate Change, ‘The scientific and international context for the fifth carbon budget’ (October 2015),

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