COP21 Paris Climate Change Summit: What You Need To Know

All eyes will be on Paris next week as the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference, also known as the twenty-first Conference of the Parties or COP21, opens November 30 and continues a diplomatic marathon of meetings until December 11. The purpose of the summit is to achieve a legally-binding international pact to limit greenhouse gas emissions and to keep global warming from climate change below 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial levels. This is an unprecedented goal in over 20 years of negotiations within the United Nations.

Though there have been such international summits on combating the effects of climate change before, previous talks have failed to deliver a deal, most notably the 2009 U.N. conference in Copenhagen, also known as COP15. However, International Business Times reports that there is real hope this time.

IBK quotes Professor Michael Mann, director of the Earth System Science Centre at Pennsylvania State University, about the mood leading up to COP21.

“I think that the atmosphere surrounding COP21 is fundamentally different, more favourable from what we had back at the time of Copenhagen. Climate change denialism had undergone a resurgence… we hadn’t made nearly as much progress as we’ve now made.” He added, “There are a lot of positive things coming together at just the right time to create a very different environment going into Paris compared to what we had in Copenhagen.”

'Two Degrees' on the side of a train - to limit climate change to two degrees Celsius is the goal of the conference.
[Photo by Adam Berry/Getty Images]
The crucial 12-day Paris conference brings together representatives from 195 countries, notably major carbon dioxide emitters like China, the U.S., Russia, Japan, Germany and India. It is expected to draw around 50,000 participants; France is expected to play a leading role in the proceedings. French President François Hollande has refused to postpone the conference even in the wake of the deadly November 13 attacks on Paris due to the important of the issue of climate change; in fact, attending this historic meeting has been seen as a show of solidarity with France.

The French government recently launched the event’s official website. COP21 has its roots in the 1992 Earth Summit held in Rio de Janeiro, where the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC) was developed, an international environmental treaty ratified by 196 parties. It is currently the only wide-ranging international climate treaty of its type. The Conference of the Parties (COP) is the supreme decision-making body of the UNFCCC.

An international, legally-binding deal to stabilize atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases to avoid dangerous effects from global climate change will be no easy task, and will involve balancing the political, economic and national interests of each of the participating countries. Developed countries will no doubt have heated debates over who is most and least responsible for climate change, since wealthy industrialized countries account for the overwhelming majority of emissions. Developing countries also face a difficult path regarding regulations to control climate change, as they are greatly concerned with being able to sustain economic development and growth while reducing greenhouse gas emissions at the same time.

The Hindu, an English-language Indian newspaper, characterized the viewpoint of developing countries in viewing the climate change restrictions as unfair.

“In recent years, the richer half of the world has been demanding that developing nations with high rates of economic growth, including India, accept legally binding emissions cuts. This approach does not meet the test of fairness and equity, since those who are not responsible for the problem are being asked to share the burden equally.”

Who counts as rich and who counts as poor and who bears the brunt of the responsibility for curbing their fossil fuel use will be a hot-button issue during the agreement negotiations. COP21 will be working from a 55-page draft (available here) summing up the main points of the proposed agreement on climate change, which is also the result of months of strenuous negotiations.

German Delegates Travel To Paris Climate Change Conference
[Photo by Adam Berry/Getty Images]
Meanwhile, though the conference itself is not open to the public and authorities have banned activists from marching due to the recent Paris terror attacks, large-scale marches intended to show popular support for an agreement regarding climate change are planned worldwide in many major cities, and the United Nations has posted an overview schedule of the proceedings online.

The conference could end in disappointment as Copenhagen did, or it could be a landmark meeting in the history of human development. Either way, in a few short days all eyes will be on Paris once again.

[Photo by NASA via Getty Images]