COP21, Me, and You

COP21, Me, and You

What you need to know about the United Nations climate change conference.


The world will be in Paris this December for the United Nations Climate Change Conference. Its hope? To set a universal and legally-binding limit on climate change due to human-created greenhouse gas emissions. Universal because there are 195 members to the Conference of the Parties (COP), and legally-binding to compel nations by law to follow through with the agreement. There has never been such a global-scale motion to combat climate change.

Here is some context:

COP — the only broadly legitimate, international entity centered on climate change — is the product of an agreement made in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 called the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). The convention was not legally binding and merely gave parties a framework by which to establish protocols to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. COP has met every year since 1992. This year's meeting will be its 21st, which is why it is called COP21.

The conference is also called CMP11 because it is the 11th Meeting of the Parties of the Kyoto Protocol adopted in 1997. Under the protocol, climate change mitigation commitments were legally binding but varied from nation to nation. Annex I countries, including the United States and European Union, committed to lowering greenhouse gas emissions. Other nations such as China and India made no such commitments under the Kyoto Protocol. However, even for Annex I nations, the protocol could not have real effect without many nations ratifying it, and the U.S. never did pass it through Congress. The first commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol was from 2008 to 2012. The second period, which began in 2013, expires in 2020.

In order for the world to move forward on the issue of climate change, all nations must contribute to the movement. After a disappointing conference in Copenhagen in 2009, which was rushed and scattered (although it did produce an agreement for parties to curb global warming by 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels), the nations met in Durban in 2011. They came up with the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action and a corresponding ad hoc committee (ADP), which would work for a universal, legally-binding agreement by 2015. The conference in Paris will be the culmination of that work.

Here are some facts about COP21:

COP21 will take place between November 30 and December 11, 2015, in the French capital. 40,000 people are expected to attend, including national delegates, observers, and civil society members. There is a lot of pressure: the imminent expiration of the Kyoto Protocol in 2020, the need for major polluters such as the U.S. and China to lead the world to an agreement about climate change, and the environmental catastrophes that will result from rising global temperatures of more than 2 degrees. A lot needs to change, and not the climate.

There is some hope that it will. As part of a bottom-up approach, each member nation has agreed to produce an intended nationally-determined contribution (INDC) with its goals for emissions reductions and climate change mitigation. In a landmark joint statement, the U.S. said it would reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 26 to 28 percent by 2025, while China said its emissions would peak by 2030. Around 150 countries have submitted their INDCs so far, and a summary of the contributions will be written by Nov. 1. The idea behind this approach is to push each nation to come up with its own ambitious and feasible solutions, which will be evaluated when all nations come together.

Another major part of COP21 is an economic agreement that will mobilize $100 billion for climate change mitigation every year. This sum will come from developed nations as well as private and public enterprises starting from 2020, and there is already a Green Climate Fund with an initial capital of $10.2 billion. Through this economic plan, COP21 will support not only climate change solutions but also sustainable investment and development.

The most important part about COP21, however, at least for me (and hopefully for the world), is the broad involvement of all parties who have a stake in the issue of climate change. I do not mean just delegates of member nations; instead, I mean members of civil society such as representatives of NGOs, businesses, subnational governments, cultural organizations, and academic institutions. Yale will have its own delegation; I will be part of it.

Whether or not the conference will meet the high expectations the world has for it — the universal legally-binding agreement we hope will curb global warming — the leadup to COP21 has already brought the issue of climate change onto a global stage. Many nations have already submitted an INDC, and many delegations are already prepared to meet. But the real impetus for a new agreement on climate change comes from members of civil society like us. The more attention we pay to COP21's unfolding — the more we read the news, respond to it, and incorporate sustainability into our actions — the more pressure we will add to the conference's proceedings.

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This article has not been reviewed by Odyssey HQ and solely reflects the ideas and opinions of the creator.

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