A global climate deal is in the works, but its success may be a matter of degrees

By: Rachel M. Gregg


As David Horsey's cartoon indicates, coming to an international agreement on climate change has been a long and laborious process. However, an agreement to curb greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions may finally become reality this month. The 21st Conference of the Parties (or COP21) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC) is convening in Paris, and all signs indicate that a deal may be imminent, although challenges still lie ahead. 

COP21 builds off of previous agreements and attempts to finalize a global compact on climate change, such as the UNFCC and the Kyoto Protocol. The UNFCC, signed during the 1992 Earth Summit, officially acknowledged climate change and the significant contributions of human activities to GHG concentrations, particularly from developed countries. The 1997 Kyoto Protocol then set GHG reduction commitments for developed nations by 2008-2012, but essentially failed without the backing of the United States. Since then, COP delegates have gathered annually to discuss ways to create a legally binding climate agreement, resulting in various “plans to plan for a plan.” For example, COP15 in Copenhagen resulted in an agreed upon goal of capping increasing temperatures at 2° Celsius[i] but no plans were produced on how to achieve the needed reduction targets.

An encouraging difference between COP15 and COP21 is that countries submitted individual commitments towards reducing GHG emissions before the Paris meetings. Top polluters such as China, the United States, and India have all made pledges to voluntarily curb emissions and pursue renewable energy technologies. Concerns remain as these plans are not legally binding and some estimates indicate that even with these cuts, temperatures may still rise 2.7°C by 2100.

Other significant challenges include:

     The question of whether or not any agreement will be legally binding under international law, as well as how effective any deal can be without the support of every single country.

     The 2 degree limit is too high for some COP21 delegates. Countries comprising the Climate Vulnerable Forum that are most at risk from the impacts of climate change have argued strongly for any Paris deal to focus on the tougher limit of 1.5 degrees Celsius, which would require countries to cut emissions to zero and adopt 100% renewable energy sources by 2050.

     It is not clear how well any new policies or technologies will be financed.  

There are however, reasons to be hopeful. Over 20 years of negotiations have led to this moment. The draft agreement calls for both mitigation and adaptation responses by every party; for example, the proposed plan prioritizes the conservation of forests and open spaces to enhance carbon storage potential and additional ecosystem services, such as clean water, healthy economies, and overall resilience. Mitigation is clearly important as countries seek to curb emissions, and adaptation continues to be important as the world is already committed to the climatic changes associated with past emissions. While the world waits to see if COP21 will produce the climate compact we need, consider taking some steps yourself to reduce your carbon footprint and become a climate-informed global citizen.



[i] For insight into why the 2 degree limit is so important, check out this video by SkyNews, along with its series on the consequences of a 3 degree, 4 degree, or even 5 degree temperature increase, which becomes more likely should countries fail to act.