COP21: The world’s best chance to tackle climate change

The upcoming Paris climate talks, known as COP21 or, more fully, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) 21st Conference of the Parties, are widely recognized as the world’s last and best chance to effectively limit the threat of climate change. This Conference is a crucial event because it needs to result in a new international climate agreement, with emissions reduction pledges through 2030, applicable to all countries.

A successful agreement will have four key components:

  • a legal, universal and binding agreement;
  • national contributions with commitments for 2025 or 2030, for countries’ efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions;
  • a financial aspect (namely, contributions to the $100-billion-a-year green climate fund, to help developing countries adapt to the effects of climate change and implement clean energy solutions);
  • concrete commitments to action by non-governmental stakeholders (such as the “Lima-Paris Action Agenda” and the “Agenda of Solutions”).

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After over two decades of COPs that have failed to deliver meaningful efforts to address climate change – during which time the world has begun to experience the early impacts of a warming world in the form of droughts, superstorms, and a series of hottest years on record – at COP21, world leaders will attempt to reach an ambitious and equitable agreement that limits global greenhouse gas emissions. And so far, they seem set to deliver. Experts believe that Paris is likely to result in an unprecedented agreement, where, for the first time, every country in the world will be making a commitment to do something about climate change.

In this blog, we explore the following three questions:

What are the reasons to believe that the negotiations will succeed this time around?

What are realistic expectations for COP21?

What has been happening in the US and in MN leading up to COP21?

What are the reasons to believe that the negotiations will succeed this time around?

  • The COP20 conference in Lima last year established a framework for countries to submit national climate change mitigation commitments ahead of the Paris talks. That allows world leaders to focus on the logistics and implementation of the agreement at Paris, rather than starting from square one.
  • These commitments, known as Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs), provide transparency around other countries’ efforts while also allowing countries the flexibility to decide the specifics of their commitments, according to their local circumstances. Happily, the momentum created by lead countries announcing strong commitments has put pressure on other countries to come out with ambitious plans as well.
  • So far, over 174 countries accounting for more than 90 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions have submitted commitments to the UNFCCC.
  • In the lead-up to Paris, several headline-grabbing climate commitments have emerged, including the bilateral agreements that the US has forged with key emitters China, India and Brazil. Also, just recently, the UK pledged to end its use of coal by 2025.
  • Another hopeful sign is that developing countries are now adding in their own commitments, whereas in the past they have resisted making emissions reduction pledges of their own, arguing that the developed world was primarily responsible for global emissions and therefore universal emissions reduction goals would be unfair. But today, with the costs of renewable energy technologies falling dramatically, there is real promise that developing countries will be able to “leapfrog” outdated fossil fuel infrastructure and move right to renewable energy.
  • World leaders – including Pope Francis, the Dalai Lama, President Obama, major corporations and leading international institutions – are calling for meaningful action to address climate change in Paris. Cities, states, and provinces, as well as businesses, organizations and individuals have signed statements of support for a strong global agreement at COP21. Many have even gone a step further and announced climate commitments and carbon reduction goals of their own.
  • G7 leaders have recognized that we need to move to a zero-emissions future, signalling that the end of the fossil fuel era is in sight.

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What are realistic expectations for COP21?

  • Based on the INDCs that have been submitted ahead of Paris, COP21 will not limit global temperature rise to 2 degrees (the widely agreed-upon limit that would stave off the worst impacts of climate change). The pledges submitted put the world on a trajectory of between 2.7-3 degrees Celsius of warming.
  • Despite falling short of the 2 degree limit, the COP21 climate pledges represent a significant step forward in the collective, global effort to reduce emissions and limit climate change impacts. Just by setting countries on the correct path towards meaningful climate action, COP21 represents a huge shift away from the history of inaction and frustrated negotiations at previous COPs. What’s more, if countries effectively implement their INDCs, that – combined with the continued technological advancements and falling costs in the clean energy sector – could pave the way for strengthened commitments and future actions that do succeed in limiting warming to under 2 degrees. We know there will be discussions at COP21 about building in periodic “ratchet mechanisms” that ramp up emissions cuts every few years.
  • If COP21 negotiators reach a binding agreement that commits countries to limiting their emissions in accordance with their INDCs, the conference will be rightly seen as a huge success.
  • For reference: without an agreement at Paris, experts believe we will be on a track towards upwards of 5 degrees Celsius of warming.

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What has been happening in the US and in MN leading up to COP21?

  • In August, President Obama released the final version of the Clean Power Plan, which sets the first-ever limits on carbon emissions from the nation’s power plants. The emission reduction goals of the Clean Power Plan would allow the US to meet its Paris climate pledge, which commits us to reducing our emissions 26-28% below 2005 levels by 2025.
  • Earlier this month, Obama rejected the Keystone XL pipeline, which gives the U.S. even more credibility as a climate leader going into Paris.
  • Minnesota has been heralded as a national leader in setting progressive energy policy, and is expected to implement a strong state version of the Clean Power Plan. Recognizing the national importance of a Midwestern state leading the way towards a clean energy future, the White House invited two representatives from Minnesota to attend the President’s Clean Power Plan announcement.
  • Several Minnesota companies have publicly come out in support of a strong climate agreement at COP21, including Target, General Mills, Best Buy and Cargill. In addition, General Mills has announced a nation-leading commitment to reducing emissions across its supply chain.
  • Ahead of the COP21 negotiations, the Minnesota Environmental Quality Board held a meeting for Minnesotans who will be traveling to Paris, to discuss our shared story and avenues for collaboration. There are several delegations of Minnesotans that will be attending COP21, including our Window Into Paris education ambassadors, Energy Transition Lab director Ellen Anderson, State Rep. Melissa Hortman, St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman, and students and professors at Macalester, the U of M and other state colleges and universities.

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The COP21 negotiations are set to mark a turning point in global efforts to address climate change, but ultimately, what we do in the wake of the conference will be the determining factor in our ability to preserve a livable world for future generations.

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