Paris COP21: What can we expect from the most critical summit in history?


The tipping point is here. More than 190 nations will unveil their carbon reduction pledges in a now-or-never event this month. What can we hope for at COP 21? And, most importantly, will it be enough? Oliver Haenlein reports.

The United Nations’ COP21 in Paris is certainly not the first climate change conference – the process begun back in 1995 – but it is the first time virtually all of our planet’s countries have come together with the aim of signing a universal and legally binding agreement.

Current commitments expire in 2020, therefore agreements made in Paris will signal the next step in the international community’s efforts to avoid a planet ravaged by the effects of climate change.

That universal agreement, it is hoped, will set the world’s countries and economies onto a development pathway that will lead us to staying within 2°C of global warming, and eventually to creating a carbon neutral planet.

However, some cynicism surrounds the event; people are fed up of lip service, of watered down agreements, of broken promises. So will COP21 prove the sceptics right? How much of an impact can we really hope Paris’ negotiations will have on the future of our planet? After all, we really are running out of time now.


Perhaps Paris’ main feature is the submission by the world’s countries of Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs): descriptions of how they are preparing domestically to achieve the objective of the convention: the universal agreement. They outline how they intend to help the world stay within two degrees, and could include, for example, carbon emissions reductions, economic adjustments, reducing deforestation, or revving up clean or renewable energy.

The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) has been receiving INDCs since Spring, with an informal deadline of 1 October having been set. An estimated 148 pledges have been made, and while that means that around 50 are still missing, all of the major players have now made their submissions.

Their availability means that estimations have already been made as to what sort of future the INDCs, and therefore the negotiations at the Paris summit, would create. Unfortunately, it seems they are very unlikely to put us where we need to be.

Dr Charlie Wilson from the department of Energy & Climate Change at the University of East Anglia tells Salt: “The commitments being made by countries do not add up nearly to enough emissions reductions to limit warming to 2°C. It’s on the right track, in the sense that any action is better than no action, but its woefully short of what’s needed.”

When compared with 2005 levels, India has committed to a 33–35 per cent reduction in emission intensity by 2030, Brazil 37 per cent less emissions by 2025, and the USA a 26–28 per cent reduction in greenhouse gases by 2025. China aims to peak its carbon dioxide emissions before 2030, while the EU is aiming for at least 40 per cent domestic reduction in greenhouse gases by 2030 compared to 1990 levels.

Regardless, Climate Action Tracker estimates that current commitments would only bring warming down to 2.7 °C. This figure remains a cause for concern.


However, while it’s only around a 0.4°C improvement from projections of the pledges at Lima in December, the Paris summit is also expected to commit countries to a ratcheting system which could see countries surpass their original goals in the future.

Wilson explains: “Hopefully one thing to come out of the conference is a ratchet process whereby countries will sign up to limit emissions in the short to medium term, but within the agreement there’ll be a commitment to reviewing the pledges with a view to ratcheting them up in tightness, so more and more emissions reductions are delivered over the medium to longer term.

“It could be written into a legal agreement. Formally enshrining this ratcheting over time into the legal document that comes out of Paris will hopefully be an important step in the right direction.”

These obligated reviews, which could take place every five or 10 years, might be one of the most
positive consequences of Paris. Nick Nuttall, coordinator of communications and outreach for the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), believes that the ratcheting means that the current INDCs will only be the base level.

He adds: “We believe that once we’ve got this all in place at Paris then the signal is that the world is going low carbon, the world is going to a carbon neutral future. This will trigger technological changes, efficiency improvements in the way we use fossil fuels and new types of clean technology. Once we get moving after Paris, countries will overperform, and we can bend down the emissions faster and further and get under 2°C.”


Much will depend on the extent to which an agreement at Paris makes nations legally obliged to stick to commitments. The suspicion is that they will be of a more voluntary nature.

Sam Gill, CEO of ET Index, a company helping investors understand, manage and reduce carbon risk, explains: “The INDCs that have been submitted so far cover about two-thirds of the world’s emissions; countries have already come forward and proposed decarbonisation pathways and we’ve got the major economies, US, China, the EU and the entire G7 all committed to some sort of plan to reduce their emissions.

So the progress has already been made. “The question is does that come together in some sort of legally binding agreement, and that’s the tricky thing because its inherently very difficult to get around 200 countries to agree to one thing.”

“It’s certainty that enables investors to start factoring that into their calculations and start allocating capital accordingly; it’s the capital behind all this that will really shape things. The ideal scenario
is that you have a complete international binding agreement. The next best thing would be some variation on that, so even if two-thirds of the world’s emissions were governed by a binding agreement, that would also be pretty good. ”


Another important feature of COP21 will be negotiations surrounding payments from the developed nations, which are largely to blame for the situation, to those less developed to help them deal with the effects of climate change and to reduce emissions.

A commitment to reach $100 billion of ‘Climate Finance’ each year by 2020 was made at the Copenhagen conference in 2009, and it is estimated that $60 billion went from developed to developing countries in 2014. It is hoped that discussions in Paris will result in clear signals being made that the $100 billion level is coming.

After all, says Nuttall, this is a relatively small amount when compared with the 90 trillion dollars which will be invested in infrastructure worldwide over the next 15 years. “The developing countries want to be convinced that it indeed will emerge,” he adds.

For Nuttall this clarity of funding sits alongside the emissions reduction agreement and the establishment of a long-term destination for climate neutrality, as the most important elements of the conference.“A lot of the more vulnerable countries are already feeling the impacts and effects of climate change whilst trying to grow their economies.”


COP21 will clearly not be a silver bullet. However, even the most sceptical agree  it should be a step in the right direction. Sam Gill is thinking less of a ‘road to Paris’, and more a ‘road through Paris’: not a tipping point, but an important contributor to a bigger picture of change.

That change is urgent though, and it will soon become clear whether Paris has made enough of a contribution. As Gill puts it: “There’s a very small window here. We have 15 years before we blow our entire carbon budget – around 600 billon tonnes of carbon – that’s not very long, so we need a herculean shift within five to 10 years.”

Nutall believes COP21 could provide the framework for progress and momentum that will create a brighter future. “This is a mega project, this is not some little tweak to the economy, this is a project of awesome proportions and a completely different development path. But hopefully we won’t need another big climate agreement, and this will have all the elements there to be durable – a treaty to end all treaties.”


Photo credit: Klem@s from Flickr