This week the world will watch as nations gather in France for crunch climate talks. Known as COP21, or the 21st Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, a lot has been made of this year’s meeting. But what exactly are the talks, and what are they trying to achieve?
What are the talks?
To fully understand their importance, we have to take a step back to look at the history of the conferences and put them in context.
UN climate talks have occurred for the past 20 years since the 1992 Rio Earth Summit, when governments formed the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, a treaty to limit greenhouse gas emissions to prevent man-made climate change.
It took a further five years before all the nations could agree on commitments to reducing emissions in Kyoto by five percent compared to 1990 levels, but this couldn’t be imposed until either the U.S. or Russia signed up. Climate talks ground to a halt, and it took another seven years (in 2004) for Russia to finally agree. The U.S. continued to stay firmly out of the talks, until in Copenhagen in 2009 things finally thawed when Obama made a shock appearance at the meeting. On the verge of finally coming to a global agreement for the first time ever, the talks ended in a non-legally binding agreement to the dismay of many.
This year is being seen as a particularly landmark event, as representatives from 196 nations gather in Paris, including many heads of state such as President Barack Obama, President Xi Jinping, and Prime Minster David Cameron. As the current commitment for cutting greenhouse gas emissions is set to end in 2020, new targets will have to be agreed upon. The significance of this meeting comes with the level at which countries will have to cut their emissions, and the fact that doing so might finally be legally binding.
The world needs to cut its greenhouse gas emissions to keep warming below 2°C (3.2°F). Zbynek Burival/Shutterstock
What are they trying to achieve?
The scientific consensus is that we need to limit global temperatures to below 2°C (3.2°F) of warming above pre-industrial levels. Earlier this year saw temperatures pass the 1°C (1.8°F) mark, edging us closer to the brink. To put the brakes on this, the world needs to cut its greenhouse gas emissions. To do so, an agreement on the degree of these cuts for each nation will have to be achieved, with each nation signing for it to be ratified.
Different states will have different targets, with many of the biggest emitters already having made commitments. The European Union, for example, will reduce emissions by 40 percent compared to 1990 levels by 2030, and the U.S. has agreed to cut theirs by 26 to 28 percent compared to 2005 levels by 2025. China, currently the largest greenhouse gas emitter, has agreed that their emissions will peak by 2030, although many think that it will occur earlier than that.
But there is still plenty to talk about. One of the main and most contentious issues will come down to who pays for all these cuts. Many of the poorer nations, who will inevitably face the brunt of climate change (at least at the beginning), are looking to the richer ones to cover some of the costs. Pledges have already been made, but the poorer nations are looking for assurances that they will be met.
Many think that this year is the best chance yet to reach a legally binding commitment to cut greenhouse gas emissions. a katz/Shutterstock
Will anything come of it?
It is a daunting task: To get 196 nations to agree on a legally binding commitment to limit greenhouse gas emissions is like trying to herd cats, but there are precedents. In the 1970s, it was discovered that the release of CFCs into the atmosphere was punching a hole in the ozone, exposing the planet to deadly levels of UV radiation. The Montreal Protocol was formed as an international treaty to phase out the use of CFCs, which has now pretty much been achieved, and is signed by 196 states and the European Union. So these things can be done.
However, some are fairly skeptical that anything will come from these talks. If previous ones are anything to go by, then hopes might not be high. Climate change is a highly polarizing issue, and there is evidence to suggest that the will of the public to make strong commitments is ebbing. Unlike at previous conferences, though, this year will see the heads of states from many nations – including the U.S., China, India, Germany, and the U.K. – arrive at the start of the talks, with many of the politicians confident that agreements can be made. The fact that the political landscape has changed since the last major talks is also highly promising.
Top image: COP PARIS/Flickr (CC0 1.0)