Paris Climate Meeting: What you need to know about COP21

France is hosting representatives from 195 countries for a climate change summit in what is being seen as a show of solidarity in the wake of the Paris terror attacks. Here is what you need to know about what is at stake in the meeting.   

What is COP21?

The meeting will be held in Paris’ north-eastern suburbs at Le Bourget from November 30 until December 11. The meetings have their beginnings with the Rio Summit in 1992, when the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC) was developed. The treaty called for a stabilisation of emissions and stipulated an annual meeting of nations called the Conference of the Parties (COP).  

The meetings have the purpose of detailing the mechanisms by which nations will limit their greenhouse gas emissions to pre-industrial levels. This means a global temperature rise to 2 degrees Celsius by 2100. 

Paris 2015 - Climate Pledge Interactive
How does Australia's commitments compare to other nations ahead of the December climate talks in Paris?

Who is going?

At least 147 heads of state, including Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, will be in attendance, with the usual entourage of diplomats.


The attendees are expected to number close to 50,000, including representatives from governments, companies, NGOs and an estimated 3,000 journalists. 

Access to main venue will be restricted to those with an official pass. Alongside the official negotiations, hundreds of side events and exhibitions will be held.

Civil society groups will be holding their own events including the Global March for Climate on November 28 and 29. 

Musicians will be holding their own Paris climate meeting-inspired event - Pathways to Paris concert.

Vandanna Shiva, Naomi Klein, Thom Yorke,and Bill McKibben will be among the speakers headlining the event on December 4 and 5.

What impact will the Paris terrorist attacks have on the meeting?

French Prime Minister Manuel Valls said he is determined to press ahead with the summit, despite the deadly terrorist attacks in Paris, for one reason.

“It's an essential meeting for humanity,” he said.

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A UN climate conference set to take place in Paris in two weeks will go ahead as planned under even tighter security, the French government says.

Security will be heightened as Paris hosts the summit, with French authorities also imposing border controls for one month from November 30.

French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve said the measure is a precaution against terrorist attacks and is not aimed at Europe’s migrant crisis.

A report commissioned by 20 countries found that climate change kills more people than terrorism each year, with the death toll from climate change-related factors standing at 400,000. In 2014, more than 30,000 people died from terrorism-related attacks, according to the Global Terrorism Index.

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World leaders were keen to emphasise that proceeding with the Paris talks is now more important than ever to present a united front against terrorists who would sow division.



Why does it matter?

The UN has said the goal of COP21 is:

“COP21, also known as the 2015 Paris Climate Conference, will, for the first time in over 20 years of UN negotiations, aim to achieve a legally binding and universal agreement on climate, with the aim of keeping global warming below 2°C.”

Described by many as ‘our last hope’ of averting runaway climate change, the summit is aimed at securing a new deal to tackle climate change which would kick in from 2020.

In 2009, world leaders at the COP15 conference in Copenhagen reached the consensus that a two degree Celsius rise in temperature levels is the threshold before catastrophic and irreversible climate change sets in. Scientists believe global temperatures have already risen by 1 degree since the mid-19th century.

The UN body which evaluates climate change science, the IPCC, forecasts severe consequences as global temperatures approach the 2 degree threshold, including melting ice caps, flooded cities and food shortages.

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What emissions pledges are countries taking to Paris?

For the first time, most countries –at least 150 at last count - have set out their pledges to reduce emissions, referred to as Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs).

Paris 2015 - Climate Pledge Interactive
How does Australia's commitments compare to other nations ahead of the December climate talks in Paris?

China has set a target for carbon dioxide emissions to peak by 2030. The United States has pledged to cut emissions 26 per cent by 2025, compared to 2005 levels.

Australia’s target of a 26 per cent cut in emissions from 2005 levels by 2030 has been criticised for not being ambitious enough. Critics argue the pledge falls below the nation’s fair share globally.

Australia's 2030 climate target puts us in the race, but at the back
Australia’s target for reduction in absolute emissions is significantly weaker than that of the United States and the EU, a little weaker than Canada’s, and a little stronger than Japan’s.

The federal government said the 2030 target will be reviewed in five years if deeper global cuts are made at Paris.

The interactive below shows how each countries emission pledge stacks up against other countries.

Can the pledges avert severe climate change?

To avoid the worst effects of climate change, UN scientists have agreed that the rise in global temperature must be limited to two degree Celsius.

Without the pledges put forward by about 170 nations, a UN scientific panel calculate global temperatures in 2100 will jump more than 4.8 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. With the pledges put forward, the temperatures are still expected to exceed the 2-degree threshold.

The Paris meeting will be about securing an agreement to lock in those pledges.

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PhD candidate on climate change politics, Cathy Alexander at the University of Melbourne, said a deal to limit global warming to two degrees is out of reach, barring a huge surprise at the meeting. Months of negotiation, what some have dubbed "scientific diplomacy", has been underway in preparation for the final talks in Paris. 

But Cathy Alexander said there is still the potential to get a strong outcome.

“It’s likely to land somewhere between a ‘negotiations stalled’ and a 'good step forwards’," she said.

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Every year the United Nations holds a climate change summit. This year’s summit is in Paris from November 30 to December 11.

“If it acts as a high-profile shop-front that encourages governments back home to do more to reduce emissions, that would help.”

Christiana Figueres, executive secretary of the UN body supervising the COP21, said she is optimistic that progress can be made, even if it falls short of the 2 degrees threshold.  

“It is a huge dent in the irresponsible runaway growth in emissions we had before, so it is a constant review and improve,” she told the BBC.

Paris 2015 - Climate Pledge Interactive
How does Australia's commitments compare to other nations ahead of the December climate talks in Paris?

What are the key issues?

Funding to help developing countries transition away from fossil fuel use will be a key issue, as it is acknowledged that developing nations will have to miss the carbon intensive periods developed nations experienced.

Australia is co-chairing the Green Climate Fund with South Africa, which will determine the funding available for developing countries hit hardest by climate change.

Kiribati president Anote Tong used a visit to Australia to make a call for a global ban on new coal mines, a petition he intends to table in Paris.

Australia has yet to formally respond to president Tong’s call, but environment minister Greg Hunt said he is aware of the concerns of Pacific island nations.

“We have helped along with other nations to ensure that 50 per cent of the Green Climate Fund allocations are for adaptation as well as mitigation," he said.

"That is very specifically dealing with some of the risks and challenges that our near neighbours, in particular the small island states, face. I have had that discussion with some of them recently.”  

What is the negotiation process?

The meeting has no formal voting system and requires consensus between every nation on every word in the agreement in six different languages.

EU Climate Commissioner Cañete said the consensus model makes it difficult to win agreement over the finer details.

“A single country has the power, the ability or the capacity to block an agreement under a COP. And that’s the difficulty. And the risk is that, to accommodate everybody, the agreement loses the level of ambition,” he told the Wall Street Journal.

“And if you have to accommodate somebody who has a final position, there is temptation to reduce the level of ambition on the table.”

Are we going to get a deal?

The absence of political will, which was considered the reason why COP19 in Copenhagen failed, is not seen to be a problem this time around.

Christiana Figueres said it is in every nation’s best interest to ensure a deal is struck at Paris.

“Every single one [country] is already impacted, some negatively by climate change, and they want to address that, so yes we will have an agreement,” she told the BBC.

The option of failure is not being verbalised by world leaders in the days before COP21, but previous meetings have been notorious for going overtime with no agreement.

Australian ethicist Clive Hamilton said a new narrative has replaced the blame game and bickering between the developed and developing nations.

Instead, the reality of the global threat being represented by climate change is setting in.

“The tables have been turned. Instead of the South saying to the North ‘you caused this problem so you fix it, and then we might follow’. Now the narrative from the North is ‘please, China and India, can you work with us to help solve this problem. We’re all in this together,” he writes in the Conversation.

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Australia’s environment minister, Greg Hunt, said the political atmosphere has changed in the lead up to the summit.

“The mood at the Paris pre-conference was very positive,” he said. “I have got to say the French through the individually nationally determined contributions, have created a process which has de-fanged or removed much of potential hostility for the final conference itself.”