Paris UN Climate Change Conference (COP21)
In this article, we shall discuss the Paris UN Climate Change Conference (also known as the COP21 (the Conference of Parties)), or the United Nations Climate Change Conference held in France in late November and early December, 2015. We shall examine the reasons for the formation of the Paris UN Climate Change Conference (COP21), with particular attention to a historical discussion of the environment in international relations. We shall also examine the various arguments for the environmental summit. In addition, we will also discuss state positions as it pertains to the conference, as well as developments that occurred during the conference. The article attempts to be a go-to article related to the history and developments during the COP21 Paris UN Climate Change Conference. Our goal is to analyze the COP21 (Paris UN Climate Change Conference), providing the reader with a host of information on the environment progress of the meetings. We want this to serve as a COP21 guide to understand key aspects of the international environmental negotiations.
What is the Paris United Nations Conference Change Conference (What is the COP21)?
The 2015 COP21 was a United Nations Climate Change Conference held in Paris France in late November to December of 2015 (November 30th-December 11th, 2015). The objective for having a the COP21 Climate Change conference is so that the international community can work to agree on environment issues that are facing the world as a whole. With an increase of the world temperature by 1 degree celsius, there is a serious concern that we are getting closer to the 2 degree celsius number, which many scientists fear that if we reach, would have harmful consequences to the Earth. In fact, because of this fear, state leaders have argued for the urgency of coming to a legally binding agreement on emissions and climate change. According to reports, Ban Ki Moon, the Secretary General of the United Nations, was quoted as saying that “A political moment like this may not come again,” and proceeding to say that “”We have never faced such a test. But neither have we encountered such great opportunity.” Other world leaders made similar statements about the importance of passing such a document. For example, Pope Francis was quoted as saying that “We are on the brink. We are on the brink of a suicide, to use a strong word, and I am sure that most of those at the COP have this conscience, and want to do something” (CNN, 2015). US Secretary of State, John Kerry, while at the Paris United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP21), before the end of the talks, urged an agreement, saying that “science was screaming at us” (BBC, 2015).
History of Paris United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP21) and Prior Environmental Initiatives
The issue of the international community’s fight against global warming and climate change–and particularly against the 2 degree celsius figure began in the 1970s when “In June 1975, a Yale economist named William Nordhaus published a paper for the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis, an Austrian think tank. In the paper, he put forward a theory about a potentially globe-altering climate-change Red Line—a threshold that, if crossed, could result in a fusillade of environmental dangers. Research suggested that a rise in carbon-dioxide emissions from burning fossil fuels might melt the Arctic Sea ice, prompting a “dramatic” increase in rain and surface temperatures. “The consequences of these changes for human affairs are clouded in uncertainty,” he wrote, but the prudent response was clear: Prevent emissions from pushing the mean global temperature more than 2° Celsius above pre-Industrial-Age levels” (Ball, 2015).
However, it was in 1990 that the United Nations took steps to work on ensuring that we do not continue to cause climate change in a way that would reach the 2 degree threshold. Namely, “In 1990, a United Nations climate change advisory group transformed Nordhaus’s little-noticed notion into a global line in the sand. The two-degree shift “can be viewed as an upper limit beyond which the risks of grave damage to ecosystems are expected to increase rapidly,” the group wrote in a report. “Important scientific uncertainties remain,” it added, but they “must not be used as an excuse to avoid adopting policies” that would avoid breaking through the two-degree barrier. Since then, scientific research, reporting, and economic analyses have centered on this particular number” (Ball, 2015).
While the COP21 (or the United Nations Climate Change Conference) held in Paris received significant international attention because of the statements state leaders, United Nations leaders, as well as activists and business enterprises were making about the need to come to an agreement on reducing carbon emissions, the idea of climate change summits are not new, nor were they limited to 2015. For example, when looking at the history of environmental rights movement in the international system, the world community, through international organizations such as the United Nations and other organizations has been working on the issue of reducing harmful emissions for years.
For example, “The international political response to climate change began at the Rio Earth Summit in 1992, where the ‘Rio Convention’ included the adoption of the UN Framework on Climate Change (UNFCCC). This convention set out a framework for action aimed at stabilising atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases (GHGs) to avoid “dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system.” The UNFCCC which entered into force on 21 March 1994, now has a near-universal membership of 195 parties” (COP 21 Paris). In addition, “The main objective of the annual Conference of Parties (COP) is to review the Convention’s implementation. The first COP took place in Berlin in 1995 and significant meetings since then have included COP3 where the Kyoto Protocol was adopted, COP11 where the Montreal Action Plan was produced, COP15 in Copenhagen where an agreement to success Kyoto Protocol was unfortunately not realised and COP17 in Durban where the Green Climate Fund was created” (COP21 Paris). Thus, Kyoto was one of the most important developments on climate change at the international level, with its adoption in 2005. However, there were many more initiatives that followed the agreement.
For example, there was the 2007 Bali Action Plan. This plan layer out more specific timelines, which built on the Kyoto Protocol. There was also the Conference of Parties, and more specifically, COP15. COP15 is important to note because “COP15/CMP5 recognised the common objective of keeping the increase in global temperature below 2°C. Furthermore, industrialised countries undertook to raise $100 billion per year by 2020 to assist developing countries in climate-change adaptation and mitigation. Cancún, Mexico, in 2010 made the 2°C target more tangible by establishing dedicated institutions on key points, such as the Green Climate Fund.” It was then in 2011 through the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action (ADP), which brought together states together with the goal of establishing an international Protocol on Climate Change. It was the work through these different initiatives and meetings, and then the work from the 2011 Durban Platform for Enhanced Action that let to events in late 2015 at the COP21 in Paris. (United Nations Conference on Climate Change) (For those interested in the events and work in 2015 that was instrumental to the developments of the COP21 Conference in Paris, follow this link to the yearly activities in 2015).
Then, in 2014, individuals, as well as state and corporate representatives met in Lima, Peru for the COP20 conference. This conference was also important for the environmental rights movement. Namely, “COP20 held in Lima attracted over 15,000 official delegates, and negotiators concluded talks with the ‘Lima Call For Climate Action’, a draft document that lays the foundations for a new global climate deal” (COP21 Paris). In addition, “Alongside COP20, there were more than 400 conferences in which new research projects and initiatives were presented. The Sustainable Innovation Forum 2014 was the largest commercially-focused event during COP20, attracting high profile speakers, celebrities and over 500 pre-approved delegates representing private sector, government, NGO, UN agencies and civil society. During the two weeks of COP20, over 140 press conferences were held and more than 900 journalists from around the world covered the international event” (COP21 Paris). Thus, the COP21 United Nations Climate Conference in Paris brought together over 40,000 state and non-state actors to discuss and work towards a renewed climate change initiative.
But although international actors have spoke on their support for the United Nations Framework on Climate Change in the past, there has been a belief that continuous meetings are needed to reinforce the initiative is needed if the world is going to be serious and consistent about placing the environment as a primary international issue. And the hope is that this year, with the extension of the Kyoto Protocol ending, that the international community, during COP21, can establish a binding international document on the issue of climate change.
Plus, another reason for the renewed attention to the COP21 United Nations Climate Change Conference is because of what many view as the weakness of the Kyoto Protocol. The Kyoto Protocol, while a landmark agreement that advanced environmental issues in the United Nations and beyond, was not without issues. As mentioned, economically developing states did not sign onto the agreement, thus minimizing the effectiveness and scope of the document. But it wasn’t just economically developing states; “Even before the agreement was concluded, however, the U.S. Senate made clear it wouldn’t ratify the treaty. The Senate voted 95-0 in a nonbinding resolution that it disapproved of any treaty that didn’t force emission cuts from economically developing countries and that “would result in serious harm to the economy of the United States” (Ball, 2015).
In addition to this, many also criticized the emissions credit trade (Ball, 2015), where a country could buy credits from other countries not using their credits, or could get more credits by implementing environmental programs elsewhere. The criticism here is that heavy polluters’ behavior was not changing, since they could buy additional credits from other countries.
In fact, many world leaders have continued to speak on the importance of coming to an agreement during the COP21 United Nations Climate Change Conference. As mentioned above, United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki Moon has been outspoken on the important of an agreement. In fact, he issued some harsh words about the state of environmental affairs, and what might happen in the world if there is not serious action on the global climate change during the COP21 conference. Speaking on this issue, he was quoted as saying: ““Centuries of human endeavor and innovation have given the world great gifts. Yet we have also sown the potential seeds of our own destruction,” Ban said. “The clock is ticking toward climate catastrophe. The world is expecting more from you than half-measures and incremental approaches. It is calling for a transformative agreement. Paris must put the world on track for long-term peace, stability and prosperity” (Walsh, 2015).
Others such as former California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger also spoke about the urgency of coming to solution on climate change, saying: “It drives me crazy when people talk about 30 years from now, rising sea levels and so on,” he told the Guardian. “What about right now? Thousands of people are dying from pollution. People are living with cancer [because of air pollution].” He went on to say that ““If you do not have people behind you, you can’t do anything [on legislation],” Schwarzenegger continued. “Global warming is an extremely important issue, the most important issue. You have to communicate it properly. You have to communicate to people that this is right now” (Walsh, 2015) (He went on to say much more, using an expletive during his comments about the necessity of getting a deal done, despite those that disagreed).
United States Democratic Presidential Candidate Bernie Sanders also spoke about the climate, and how powerful entities are attempting to financially influence political leaders, leading to a lack of urgency on the issue. Speaking on this issue, Sanders was quoted as saying ““CEOs are raking in record profits while climate change ravages our planet and our people — all because the wealthiest industry in the history of our planet has bribed politicians into complacency in the face of climate change,” the senator from Vermont said in a statement. “Enough is enough. It’s time for a political revolution that takes on the fossil fuel billionaires, accelerates our transition to clean energy, and finally puts people before the profits of polluters” Walsh, 2015). As mentioned above, Secretary of State John Kerry has been outspoken about the willingness of the US to offer serious commitment to the Paris United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP21) negotiations.
Furthermore, here are the comments by United States President Barack Obama during the COP21 climate change meeting.
COP21 Climate Change Draft Agreement
On December 5th, 2015, it was reported that the COP21 (United Nations Climate Change Conference) delegates agreed to a draft agreement as it pertains to climate change, and what they expect states and non-state actors to do to fight climate change (Here is a link to the COP21 Draft Document on Climate Change). A link to a draft of the document, published on December 9th, can be found here.
This draft document in and of itself has been viewed as a great advancement on the issue of climate change; the fact that the international community is placing the environment as a central issue (particularly given the importance of other conflict issues such as fighting the Islamic State, the conflict in the Ukraine, Yemen, etc…). What is important to note however is that the draft agreement did not arise solely out of the COP21 meetings in Paris in late November and early December; this process was one that was being worked on throughout the year, and discussed for four years prior to the recent COP21 meeting (McGrath, 2015).
But despite the announcement of a draft agreement, during the COP21 UN Climate Change Summit, there was contested debates between states about the language of the document. For example, in a Guardian article, Fiona Harvey points out that there were disputes between economically rich and economically poorer states regarding expected financial contributions related to these environmental initiatives. Namely, “The world’s least developed countries face the greatest threat from climate change as they lack the technology to cut greenhouse gas emissions and their infrastructure is too fragile to cope with extreme weather. Under the proposed wording [of the document], developing countries with rapidly growing economies, such as China, would be included alongside established developed nations in being regarded as potential donors to poorer nations.” Economically rising states such as China and India are worried that they will have to bear the economic costs–similar to economically developed Global North states, and that this is not fair to them.
However, some such as US official Tom Stern, who is “the US special envoy for climate change, said: “There are developing countries moving to being donors. This recognises that there are more advanced developing countries.” According to reports on December 9th, 2015, “The EU has agreed to pay $519m to support climate action until 2020. And the alliance has agreed there must be a transparent mechanism in the text which tracks nations’ progress on climate pledges.”
In addition, states are also in disagreement about when the timelines for cutting emissions should take place. Namely, many island countries are worried that the 2 degree mark will be too late, and that the goals should be set so that the global temperature does not pass 1.5 degree celsius (Al Jazeera, 2015).
It is for these reasons that some have wondered whether this conference is of value in the long term, or if it is, as some have written, “a waste of time” (Al Jazeera, 2015). While that might sound harsh, there exist serious questions as to whether states within the international community would be able to establish an agreement that will be followed in the upcoming years. There has been some skepticism with regards to the effectiveness of these talks for long term environmental health. We have discussed some of the more frequently mentioned challenges raised by states below.
COP21 Paris Climate Change Deal
On Sunday, December 13th, 2015, leaders at the Paris United Nations Climate Change Summit (COP21) announced a landmark agreement on climate change. Here is the link to the final COP21 Climate Change deal.
Here are the key takeaway points from the documents.
- “Notes with concern that the estimated aggregate greenhouse gas emission levels in 2025 and 2030 resulting from the intended nationally determined contributions do not fall within least-cost 2 ̊C scenarios but rather lead to a projected level of 55 gigatonnes in 2030, and also notes that much greater emission reduction efforts will be required than those associated with the intended nationally determined contributions in order to hold the increase in the global average temperature to below 2 ̊C above pre-industrial levels by reducing emissions to 40 gigatonnes or to 1.5 ̊C above pre-industrial levels”
- “in accordance with Article 9, paragraph 3, of the Agreement, developed countries intend to continue their existing collective mobilization goal through 2025 in the context of meaningful mitigation actions and transparency on implementation; prior to 2025 the Conference of the Parties serving as the meeting of the Parties to the Paris Agreement shall set a new collective quantified goal from a floor of USD 100 billion per year, taking into account the needs and priorities of developing countries…”
United States President Barack Obama spoke about the COP21 deal, saying that ““We came together around a strong agreement the world needed—We met the moment.” He went on to also say that “Full implementation of this agreement will help delay or avoid some of the worst consequences of climate change.” He did recognize however that the deal was not a perfect deal, but that he believed “The Paris agreement establishes the enduring framework the world needs to solve the climate crisis.”
Former United States Secretary of State Hilary Clinton spoke highly about the climate change deal, and the work of negotiators, saying: ““The Paris agreement is testament to America’s ability to lead the world in building a clean energy future where no one is left out or left behind,” she said in a statement. “And it was made possible in part by every person, business owner, and community in the United States and around the world that stepped up to prove we don’t have to choose between growing our economy and protecting our kids’ health and future—we can do both” (Time, 2015).
United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki Moon commended the work, saying ““This is truly a historic moment…” “For the first time, we have a truly universal agreement on climate change, one of the most crucial problems on earth.”
Concerns and Challenges Following the Paris United Nations Climate Change Conference Agreement
Weak Requirements within COP21 Draft Document
While many in the activist community praised the ability of the international community to write a draft resolution–which was presented at the COP21 (Paris United Nations climate change summit), and the final document, there began to be concerns about the language of the document itself, particularly after the updated draft document on December 9th, 2015. For example, some critical comments were made by a member of Greenpeace. Kaisa Kosonen, who is with Greenpeace, who, speaking about the draft document, was quoted as saying: “Some of the words in this text are smeared with the fingerprints of the oil-producing states. It’s a mix of the good, the bad and the ugly, but we’ve got three days to force the worst stuff out and get a decent deal. It’s crunch-time now, it’s going be hard, but there’s a lot still to fight for. It’s good that a temperature goal of 1.5 degrees C is still there.” She went on to add that “It’s bad that countries’ emissions targets are so weak and there’s very little in the text that makes them come back soon with something better. But worst is the deadline for phasing out carbon emissions. Right now this draft deal contains wishy-washy language instead of setting a tight deadline of 2050. Without a date it won’t have weight.”
She went on to speak about the importance of the 1.5 degree figure, saying: “There’s a disconnect between what’s happening in this conference hall and what’s happening in the real world. The negotiators now have three days to raise the bar. If they can commit to a 1.5 degree goal, they should be able to set a fossil fuel phase-out date of 2050, as that’s the only way to get there.” She added, “And they should agree that countries will come back soon with more ambitious emissions targets that are regularly strengthened. Ideally this deal would commit us to 100% renewables, protect Indigenous Peoples, guarantee funding for poorer countries to develop without loading the atmosphere with carbon, and compensate people on the frontlines of climate change for loss and damage.”
There were also criticisms of the final COP21 United Nations Climate Change document. For example, US Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders said that he was “unimpressed” with the Climate Change deal that came out of the COP21 conference. He was quoted as saying in a statement published: “The planet is in crisis. We need bold action in the very near future and this does not provide that.” He also said that “In the United States, we have a Republican Party which is much more interested in contributions from the fossil fuel industry than they care about the future of the planet. That is true all over the globe,” Sanders added. “We’ve got to stand up to the fossil fuel industry and fight for national and international legislation that transforms our energy system away from fossil fuel as quickly as possible.””
The New York Times, writing on the COP21 agreement that came out of the Paris United Nations Climate Change Conference, also pointed out that “The new deal will not, on its own, solve global warming. At best, scientists who have analyzed it say, it will cut global greenhouse gas emissions by about half enough as is necessary to stave off an increase in atmospheric temperatures of 2 degrees Celsius or 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit. That is the point at which, scientific studies have concluded, the world will be locked into a future of devastating consequences, including rising sea levels, severe droughts and flooding, widespread food and water shortages and more destructive storms.” However, they did go on to note that “…the Paris deal could represent the moment at which, because of a shift in global economic policy, the inexorable rise in planet-warming carbon emissions that started during the Industrial Revolution began to level out and eventually decline. At the same time, the deal could be viewed as a signal to global financial and energy markets, triggering a fundamental shift away from investment in coal, oil and gas as primary energy sources toward zero-carbon energy sources like wind, solar and nuclear power.”
But overall, if one looks at the Paris Agreement document, it becomes clear really quickly that while there are calls for behavioral changes, there is still little to demand states to act immediately. As Michael Levy argues, ““The world finally has a framework for cooperating on climate change that’s suited to the task…” “Whether or not this becomes a true turning point for the world, though, depends critically on how seriously countries follow through.” It must also be pointed out that “The core of the Paris deal is a requirement that every nation take part. Ahead of the Paris talks, governments of 186 nations put forth public plans detailing how they would cut carbon emissions through 2025 or 2030.Those plans alone, once enacted, will cut emissions by half the levels required to stave off the worst effects of global warming (New York Times, 2015). However, it is also necessary to point out that The national plans vary vastly in scope and ambition — while every country is required to put forward a plan, there is no legal requirement dictating how, or how much, countries should cut emissions” (New York Times, 2015).
And Yahoo quoted Helen Szoke, who is serving as the Chief Executive of Oxfam Australia, who said that ” “This deal offers a frayed lifeline to the world’s poorest and most vulnerable people”. She went on to say that the deal only represented merely “a “vague promise” of future funding was agreed and “the deal does not force countries to cut emissions fast enough to forestall a climate change catastrophe”.”
One of the biggest challenges with regards to the passing of a legally binding document on climate change through the United Nations, and now, following the establishment of finalized document was the issue of states agreeing to the document (we will also discuss and the issue of enforcing the document later in the article). With regards to the first issue of trying to get states to agree to a binding document on climate change, while there have been numerous statements made on the importance of working towards protecting the environment (and reducing carbon emissions), it must be remembered that states enter into these talks with their own interests in mind. This becomes even more complicated when there are many differences in interests among the various participants, as well as variations within states themselves. For example, take the example of the United States. In America, there seems to be a large divide between those more willing to even accept the issue of climate change as a real threat created by humans, and those that either are unwilling to say that climate change is real, or are unwilling to support these international binding agreements because of economic concern for domestic (and often local) economic interests. As we shall see below, there were a number of actors within countries that were unwilling to lend support to a climate change agreement.
United States Republicans and the COP21 Paris Agreement
With regards to the Paris United Nations Climate Change Agreement, it is important to note that for a state to bind themselves legally to such an agreement, it takes a signature, and a ratification of the action (which happens domestically within the government of the state). Thus, if there are blocks of either constituents or elected officials who take issue with such an agreement, they can attempt to stall or block attempts to ratify the action within the government. This can pose a challenge for those that were encouraged by the signing of the document, since it can be halted by domestic actors. One example of this can be seen with the United States. For example, in a Guardian report, it was noted that Senators from the Democratic Party “staged a show of force at the Paris climate meeting on Saturday, pledging they “had Barack Obama’s back” and would defend his agenda in a Republican-controlled Congress. The appearance by 10 Democratic senators, days after Congress voted to repeal new power plant rules, was intended to demonstrate solid political support for Obama’s climate plan – despite Republican claims to the contrary. The 10 senators, the first wave of an expected US political invasion of the climate talks, said they would be prepared to defend Obama’s agenda in Congress and push for stronger climate action.” Related to this, it becomes quite challenging to ensure an agreement is the criticism of some states on how to approach fighting climate change, and more specially, what role they should have in the issue of climate change.
This can also be seen with the Republican response to the COP21 deal that was published on December 12th, 2015. After the international climate change deal (The “Paris Agreement”) was reached, it was reported that “Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said Obama is “making promises he can’t keep” and should remember that the agreement “is subject to being shredded in 13 months.” McConnell noted that the presidential election is next year and the agreement could be reversed if the GOP wins the White House. Others, such as Representative James Inofe argued that the U.S. government would try to use the deal to limit the different U.S. economic sectors by establishing environmental emissions.
However, Secretary John Kerry responded by saying “I have news for Senator Inhofe. The United States of America has already reduced its emissions more than any other country in the world.” He went on to say that “”This has to happen…”. He also said that “I believe this will continue because I just personally cannot believe that any person who doesn’t understand the science and isn’t prepared to do for the next generation what we did here today and follow through on it cannot and will not be elected president of the United States.” (Yahoo, 2015).
There have since been other Republicans criticizing the COP 21 Paris United Nations Climate Change Agreement. For example, Republican Marco Rubio was quoted as saying that the COP 21 Paris Agreement was an “unfunny joke,” and saying ““This kind of unilateral disarmament in our economy is reckless, and it is hurting the American Dream.” He went on to say ““It’s all for show. I mean, the whole thing is for show. Number one, as you said, they’re not binding,” he said. “Number two, the administration has committed the United States to certain caps, but hasn’t told us how they’re going to do it, which obviously means they’re going to have more of these sort of regulations, at least that’s what they intend.”” Moreover, Rubio also took issue with the costs that Global North states are expected to contribute, saying: ““Here’s the most outrageous part…” “This is a deal that’s going to require the American taxpayer to send billions of dollars to developing countries. Well, China considers itself a developing country. Does that mean the American taxpayer is going to send billions to China to help them comply with the arrangement here?””
Within the United States, there is also a movement, largely led by fossil fuel business interests, to fight against this idea of climate change. For example, as Ball (2015) argues, “The fossil fuel industry has lobbied hard against climate legislation, correctly seeing it as a threat to profits from coal, oil, and natural gas. Leading Republican legislators continue to dispute that a problem even exists. On January 21, 49 senators, all Republican, voted against a relatively anodyne nonbinding resolution that stated that humans contribute to climate change. In 2012, Oklahoma Republican Senator James Inhofe, chair of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, published a climate change book titled, The Greatest Hoax: How the Global Warming Conspiracy Threatens Your Future.” Thus, it is evident that there are some who are unwilling to recognize the scientific facts of global warming and climate change, which makes it very difficult for state leaders to act on the international level on reducing CO2 emissions.
Along with some in the United States, there are other countries that have historically also been critical or prior environment documents such as the Kyoto Protocol, because they feel that the calls for reduction in carbon emissions unfairly harms them and their economic growth. One of the most critical of Kyoto, for example, has been economically rising countries such as China and India.
China’s concerns with the COP21 Environment Agreement
China has also been a strong critic of environmental initiatives such as the Kyoto Protocol, in large part because of their concern that signing onto such agreements would be a way to limit their economic development. China is a significant producer of carbon emissions, and thus has taken issue with international movements to limit their emissions output. China’s position towards the Paris United Nations Climate Change conference (COP21) has been a willingness to speak about the importance of the environment and an agreement, but all the while speaking about the importance of countries to have a say in the way they want to approach these issues. For example, “Chinese President Xi Jinping said that the conference “is not a finish line, but a new starting point” and that any agreement must take into account the differences among nations.” He also said that “Countries should be allowed to seek their own solutions, according to their national interest” (CNN, 2015). However, it is also important to note the shift in China’s statements on global emissions in recent years, particularly when examining the messages and statements made with regards to their views on state actions and the emissions documents. For example, as “Ariella Rotenberg and Yanzhong Huang write,
The Chinese government’s attitude toward climate change at COP21 looks almost unrecognizable compared to the previous 2009 Climate Summit in Copenhagen. In the final days of the 2009 meeting, then Premier Wen Jiabao skipped a session of two-dozen world leaders and sent in his place a lower level official from the ministry of foreign affairs. When President Obama sought out a one-on-one conversation with the Premier, he found himself accidentally walking in on a meeting between the Chinese, Indian, South Africa, and Brazilian leaders—the Indian Prime Minister whom Obama had been told was already on his way to the airport. The language describing Copenhagen focused on the “deadlock” between the United States and China. And Britain came out publicly blaming the Chinese, among others, for blocking what could have been a legally binding treaty to reduce global warming. The output of the 2009 meeting was instead the underwhelming agreement on the part of delegates to “take note” of the accord struck by the United States, China, and other emerging powers that fell significantly short of the original ambitions.
They go on to compare this to recent actions by China’s leaders, saying that
At COP21 China seems to have made a U-turn, emerging as a leader and convener for a serious climate change agreement. As a sign of China’s commitment to reaching an agreement, this is the first time China’s Head of State (instead of the premier) has attended climate change talks. Xie Zhenhua, the head of the Chinese climate delegation for the past nine years and the person who was held responsible for the Chinese actions in Copenhagen, spoke on Tuesday saying, “China is entering a new normal of energy and resource conservation…we can seek a different way.” He has all but abandoned his previous rhetoric that China has the right to develop using dirty technology just as wealthy nations have done, and instead insisted that China will develop “through ecologically driven wealth generation.” Indeed, both the Fifth Plenary Session of the 18th CCP Central Committee and the “Thirteenth Five-Year Plan” (2016-2020) made it very clear that China will shift toward green low-carbon development. Already, from 2005-2014 China hasreduced its energy consumption per unit of GDP by nearly 30 percent and its CO2 emissions by more than a third. Earlier this year, President Xi Jinping announced with President Obama a pledge to peak overall carbon emissions by 2030.
Now, looking at this from the position of state interest, it becomes evident that China is making these statements because of the benefit that they would receive from such an international agreement. Namely, scholars argue that China, dealing with serious smog issues, can aid in their domestic troubles on this front by working with other actors during the Paris United Nations Climate Change (COP21) meeting. In addition, they may also benefit financially by such an agreement, particularly if they continue to work towards establishing an influential alternative energies sector (Rotenberg and Huang, 2015). Of course this would be offset by any economic losses due to them agreeing to any new agreement.
India and the COP21 Climate Change Summit
Top political figures in India have been outspoken about the COP21 Climate Change discussions, particularly as it pertains to expectations that India reduce their CO2 emissions. It must be pointed out that India has had similar concerns to China, and is also not bound by the Kyoto Protocol. In response to actions at the United Nations Climate Change (COP21) summit, Indian leaders argued that their economic growth is not only important for them, but for other countries as well; their argument has been that if India cannot grow economically, others in the international system will also be negatively affected. In addition, there is
In addition, India also defended itself against criticisms about their coal usage. For example, the Union Environmental Minister Prakash Javadekar said ““I am identified as the third largest, but I burn a seventh of the coal of the top two” (Ananthakrishnan, 2015). Furthermore, India spoke about the history of other states developing economically, and how they view it as their time to grow economically (Mohan, 2015). Indian leaders said that they will continue their coal production. In fact, “The country is planning on expanding its production of coal to 1.5 billion tonnes of the fuel by 2020. That would require the equivalent of opening one new coal mine every month until the end of this decade. India’s need for coal is driven by the huge numbers who do not have electricity, estimated to be around 300 million people. In these negotiations the government has adopted a hard line, saying that the need to develop using fossil fuels trumps the needs of the climate” (BBC, 2015), although there are some discussions about the possibility of India reducing their oil reliance in exchange for money (BBC, 2015), since now, for India, the concern that the Global North is not contributing enough financially to the the possible agreement.
This can be seen in comments made by Environmental Minister Prakash Javadekar, who, during the Paris United Nations Climate Change conference, was quoted as saying “I must stress that the concept of INDCs is a great innovation and has proved a game-changer. It has enabled the participation of over 186 countries. Yet, INDCs are not even mentioned in the draft. On the long term temperature goal, we are deeply sensitive to the demands for higher climate ambition. I understand fully the demand for mentioning 1.5°C, as we also have over 1,300 islands in India. However, a 1.5°C goal would require developed countries to massively reduce their emissions and massively ‘scale up’ their financial support to developing countries. This is not happening,”
However, it is important to note that while India is hesitant to bind itself to such an agreement–as it might harm their economic growth, “…few countries have so much at stake as India” with many recent reports about the environmental problems in the country (Barry, For Indians, Smog and Poverty Are Higher Priorities Than Talks in Paris, 2015).
Other country concerns with COP21 Paris Agreement
Despite the Paris Agreement being finalized, there are many issues, and countries that have concerns about any environmental movement.
As mentioned earlier, this deal will require Global North states to help other states meet their environmental obligations. Namely, “The Paris Agreement not only acknowledged this responsibility on the part of developed nations; it dictated that a sum of $100 billion per year must be distributed from developed nations to promote sustainable practices in developing economies” (Meyer, 2015).
In addition, with regards to Britain and the Paris United Nations Climate Change Conference, it was reported that many environmental activists were highly upset with Britain during the COP21 conference in Paris, the reason being that while Britain was verbally supporting the talks as it related to reducing CO2 emissions, government domestic policies seem contrary to the goals of the conference, in the name of keeping energy costs down for citizens. For example, according to reports, Britain (under the conservatives) has pushed for a series of policies that are expected to actually increase CO2 emissions. These programs include cutting various subsidies (such as a biomass subsidy, increasing taxes on small vehicles, cutting solar subsidies, industrial solar subsidies, preventing onshore wind, getting ride of Green Deal, “[c]ut zero carbon homes,” as well as offering tax breaks to companies in the oil and gas sector (BBC). In addition, it was also reported that the MP “Mr. [George] Osborne scrapped a £1bn fund for a demonstration plant to capture CO2 from a power station and store it underground. It was a major pillar of UK climate policy.” Activists such as Craig Bennett of Friends of the Earth was quoted as saying that “The government is totally hypocritical on climate change.” “George Osborne’s anti-environmental policy decisions on energy fly the opposite way to the low-carbon route the vast majority of other countries are pursuing. “There is a total mismatch between his policies and the warm words of David Cameron. The reality is that on energy policy the chancellor is effectively prime minister already.”
One of the other challenges with the international climate change agreement that came out of the COP21 talks is the issue of enforceability. So long as states will not be punished for going against international agreements such as environmental ones, then the incentive to act may be reduced. Now, this does not mean that they won’t act, but in order to do so, they will have to believe that following the environmental agreement would be in their own interest. As long as the United Nations Security Council or other entities will not punish states for breaking promises through any possible environmental agreement, then states may sadly continue to violate agreements. However, it is important to note that “All nations agreed in 2011 that the Paris deal will have some form of “legal force”. They left open about whether that meant a treaty under international law or a looser deal anchored in each nation’s domestic laws. Many developing nations and the European Union favor a binding treaty, or protocol. But the United States and China, among those reluctant to sign up for international oversight, prefer an accord based on domestic laws and regulations” (Reuters, 2015). Following the finalized “Paris Agreement,” some such as Professor James Hansen has been one of the most outspoken about the lack of enforceability in the COP21 Paris Agreement, saying about the deal that ““It’s a fraud really, a fake … There’s no action, just promises.”
However, with the pressing concern about the environment, one option that should be considered is shaming. Countries can be shamed by activists and other counties, with hopes that this will lead them to comply. Again, we recognize that this might not alter state behavior, but as the COP21 agreement stands now, there is little to suggest countries will change on their own, or because of any potential reprisal from the United Nations.
Financial Costs of COP21 Agreement
One of the other difficulties in establishing an internally accepted agreement on climate change has to do with the expected financial costs of any behavioral changes on the environment. Namely, a key question that some have raised from the Paris United Nations Climate Change Conference is that of economic costs related to the Paris Agreement. For example, it has been argued that “One of the biggest obstacles facing negotiators from 195 countries is how to find the billions of dollars needed by developing nations to enable them to stop using fossil fuels and adapt to severe weather shocks caused by climate change.” For example, “Developed nations promised in 2009 to mobilize $100 billion a year by 2020, from both public and private sources, to help developing nations limit their greenhouse gas emissions and adapt to more floods, heat waves and rising sea levels. The main group of more than 130 developing nations wants ever higher figures beyond 2020. The United States, the European Union and other rich nations do not want to guarantee higher figures. There are many uncertainties about how to count the money. Developing nations question estimates by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development that climate finance reached $62 billion in 2014” (Reuters, 2015). As mentioned above, the European Union is pledging to offer large sums of money to support these efforts.
Other Issues Discussed during the COP21
Nuclear energy is always an interesting topic when discussing moving away from fossil fuels or energy sources that are harmful to the environment. There were some countries that used the COP21 conference to advocate for the use of nuclear energy. For example, “India’s Additional Secretary Susheel Kumar spoke about India’s energy future on a panel sponsored by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) environmental activist group. During the panel conversation, Kumar said India will aim to produce 40 percent of its electricity from sources that do not produce carbon dioxide emissions” (Taylor, 2015). When asked about the importance of nuclear energy at the COP21 conference, Kumar said that India will be increasing its reliance on nuclear power, and will also work toward making this energy source cheaper for economically developing countries (Taylor, 2015).
Links to COP21
Along with the information on this page related to the Paris Climate Change Conference, here is a link to some COP21 Frequently Asked Questions. Furthermore, we also included a link to Deconstructing Paris, a group that has been analyzing the COP21 and the draft document on climate change. Lastly, here is a link to a CNN article entitled “What To Know About the Historic Paris Agreement on Climate Change“
Post COP21 Steps
Following the historic COP21 Paris Agreement that was passed, a number of individuals, NGOs, and country leaders are taking additional steps to now see how they can better implement the COP21 within their own towns, cities, and countries.
For example, with the help of The Institute for Sustainable Communities (ISC), India will be hosting a conference entitled “Future is Now: India from COP21 to Reality.’ This conference, which is to be held on June 24th and June 25th, 2016, “would include international experts and practitioners, environmental NGOs, in-country development organisations, finance experts, Indian companies and philanthropic organisations as well as India’s top national and state decision-makers, a media statement from the US Consulate General Hyderabad said” ” (One India, 2016). The ideas is that Indian leaders can work to find ways to better apply the COP21 within the country.
There are other ways that people are attempting to keep the momentum from the Paris Agreement talks going. For example, there is a website called 100 Projects for the Climate in which they are looking for ideas that individuals are willing to offer to help fight climate change. These projects can include working to stop global warming, fighting for sustainable development, or other climate related issues.