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UN Climate Change Summit targets legally binding agreement limiting emissions

Posted by Sharon Russell-Verma on 30 November 2015 at 10:05 am

The 21st session of the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, otherwise known as the UN climate change summit or COP 21, starts today (30 Nov 2015) in Paris.

What is the aim of COP 21?

The conference will bring together governments from 196 nations to discuss and sign a new global agreement on climate change. So what’s new? Well, the objective of this conference is to achieve a legally binding and universal agreement on climate change which to date has not happened. The current commitment, that some countries have already signed up to, will run out in 2020 and therefore coming to a new agreement is crucial. Previous agreements tended to be ‘top-down’ targets which drove national action. The Paris agreement differs in that individual countries are being asked to present their own plans for reducing emissions.

Brief history of climate conferences to date

There is a lot riding on this climate conference because it has taken decades of negotiations to get to this point. The journey began in 1992 in Rio de Janeiro, where the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change was established. The outcome was an agreement (still valid today) which pledged to take action to combat climate change.  However, crucially, it did not actually set out what those actions should be and was not legally binding.

Five years later in Kyoto, the legally binding agreement required that there should be a worldwide reduction of emissions of about 5%, compared with 1990 levels and by 2012 developed countries were allocated targets. For developing countries the targets for reducing their emissions were less ambitious and this is one of the bones of contention since the beginning of the climate change conferences – the role of the developed countries and the role of the developing countries.

One weakness with the Kyoto protocol was that it needed 55% of counties to sanction it for it to become legally binding and although the US had signed up for it, it was not ratified by the US congress.  In effect, with the US one of the biggest emitters and Russia out of the agreement, climate change negotiations came to a standstill. Seven years passed until , in 2004 in Bali, an action plan was drawn up to set a course again to restart the climate change dialogue yet, it was not until 2009 in Copenhagen that finally all of the world’s developed countries and the biggest developing countries agreed to limits on their greenhouse gas emissions.

Paris 2015

It took a long time to get where we are today, but getting 196 countries to agree to a universal agreement was always going to be a challenge. With that in mind, what is likely to be agreed this week? Well it has already been established that nations who have been responsible for more 90% of global emissions have come up with their own plans to reduce emissions. These include both developed and developing countries.  For example the EU will cut its emissions by 40% of 1990 levels by 2030, the US will reduce emissions by 26% - 28% of 2005 levels by 2025 and China will agree to peak its emissions by 2030. We will be keeping you updated with the outcomes of COP 21 over the next few weeks.


Photo: Martin

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