The 21st meeting of the Conference of Parties, which refers to the United Nations-sponsored climate change talks taking place in Paris this year, has renewed global discussions about the need for rapid action. Delegates are making global pleas for nations to reduce the amount of greenhouse gases that threaten the long-term security of the planet, and to create the conditions for an alternative energy revolution. The goals of this year’s climate summit are lofty, and may even be achievable. Here are five things you should know about the 2015 Paris climate change conference that will have a major impact on the environment that should give you a reason to be hopeful about our collective ability to meet this challenge within the next decade and a half.
One: the Paris climate change conference is the culmination of 21 years of efforts.
You may see the acronym COP21 in connection with the conference. That’s because the 2015 climate change conference is the 21st meeting of the Conference of Parties (the name given to the governing body of an international convention) to the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). The conference is also associated with the acronym CMP11, which stands for the 11th meeting of the parties to the Kyoto Protocol. If you have ever read the Green and Prosperous blog, you may recall the reasons why Kyoto fell apart and why there has been such a groundswell of interest in global climate change in recent years. The 2015 climate change summit is taking place within an atmosphere of tremendous hope and ambitious goals, against the backdrop of an unfolding revolution in which global investments in renewable energy sources have spiked to an unprecedented 17% this year alone. Last year’s climate conference in Lima, Peru, set the stage and laid the groundwork for the 2015 draft agreement.
Two: The targets for lowering greenhouse emissions are tentative but achievable.
One of the stated goals of COP21 is to achieve an international agreement to keep the increase in global warming below 2° Celsius. Some say this figure is too high, while others claim that any annual temperature increase over 1.5 Celsius will be catastrophic for the planet. In fact, we don’t know how many emissions we’ll be facing in the future, so ideal targets are difficult to project accurately. However, a large part of these aspirations involves curbing greenhouse emissions with achievable action steps. Some of these are steps you have probably heard before: investing in clean, renewable energies like solar, wind, and geothermal; curbing carbon emissions by the industries that are the biggest polluters, including developing new, lower CO2 standards and charging these industries for the pollution they cause; and helping industries transition to cleaner energy sources. Other steps are equally promising but may be less familiar to the general public. For example, implementing soil management technologies that will increase the amount of carbon soil stock enables soil to do a better job of storing huge amounts of carbon, thereby limiting emissions.
Three: we are working on a more level playing field than before.
Countries of the global south are taking the lead in coming up with plans and solutions to climate change. For example, the Africa Renewable Energy Initiative aims to provide every African citizen with access to renewable energy by 2030. Overall, however, poor and rich countries have been working equally hard to come up with plans and solutions to the challenges wrought by climate change. One area where there is an imbalance is actually a positive: rich countries have pledged billions in support to help poorer countries meet their goals and adapt to the challenges posed by climate change. France has promised 2 billion Euros to African countries by 2020 for renewable energy, and China has pledged 3 billion US dollars to the South-South Cooperation Fund, which will help developing countries to curtail greenhouse gas emissions and adapt to the challenges posed by climate change. These pledges have yet to be realized, but they are a promising development, and a testimony to the seriousness with which countries of the global north view the urgency of tackling climate change.
Four: achievements on climate change may be limited by domestic policies and constraints, but understanding these gives leverage for pressuring non-compliant governments.
In order to create an equitable set of checks and balances, the UN Convention on Climate Change has implemented a fairly robust transparency system to track the progress (or failures) of signatory nations to meet their stated goals. In addition to this system, the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) has a number of tools at its disposal for maintaining certain standards of reporting and compliance. These include a peer review process that examines the reports submitted by signatory countries. Annex 1 countries (developed nations) submit biennial reports, while non-Annex 1 countries (developing nations) submit biennial update reports. Not surprisingly, the United States has considerable leverage to negotiate with other countries, partly because of its demonstrated commitment to combatting climate change. However, domestic and international NGOs can bring considerable pressure to bear on individual governments to comply with global (and/or domestic) climate change targets, even more so than the powerful state actors of the Global North.
Five: You can track how different countries are doing in meeting their stated climate change goals.
And you should do this, if you have any stake in meeting the environmental challenges that we face as a global community. Individual country biennial reports and biennial update reports are available for public consumption on the UNFCCC website. Although they can hardly be described as light reading, they do offer some insights into how likely countries are to meet their goals, and where the challenges still lie. You can also take action via the City Actions platform, which lets ordinary people around the world get informed, network with others, and participate in initiatives and events to combat climate change.
The time for action is here – will you take that first small step?
Kelly Pemberton, Ph.D
Author is a university professor, mom, blogger, and green living advocate who writes about green living at www.greenandprosperous.com.