The United Nations will hold the 21st session of the Conference of the Parties to the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), starting November 30th in Paris, France. COP21 will for the first time in over 20 years of UN negotiations aim to achieve a universal and legally binding agreement on climate to keep the inevitable warming of our planet below 2°C.

The UNFCCC is an international environmental treaty negotiated at the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro, commonly known as Earth Summit, held in June 1992. Concerned about rapid environmental degradation, leaders from 105 countries came together to rethink economic development and find ways to halt the destruction of irreplaceable natural resources and pollution of the planet. In addition to two other legally binding agreements on environmental action, the Statement of Forest Principles and United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity, the United Nations for the first time sought to bring together member nations together to discuss the looming threat of climate change with the creation of UNFCCC.

The main goal of the UNFCCC treaty is to “stabilize greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system.” The first Conference of the Parties took place in 1995 and significant accomplishments since then include the Kyoto Protocol, the Montreal Action Plan, and the Green Climate Fund. COP21 is expected by hopeful parties to make notable progress on par with these historic initiatives.

According to UNFCCC Executive Secretary Christiana Figueres “[COP21] is the first time in the history of mankind that we are setting ourselves the task of intentionally, within a defined period of time to change the economic development model that has been reigning for at least 150 years, since the industrial revolution,” referring to the current economic model which is heavily reliant on unsustainable and carbon intensive fossil fuels.

In order to to combat climate change effectively and boost the transition towards resilient, low-carbon societies and economies, COP21 will focus on three main issues:

  • Mitigation: Reducing greenhouse gas emissions, a staple focus of the UNFCCC conferences from its inception. Global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions have grown exponentially since pre-industrial times, with an increase of 70% just between1970 and 2004. Without effective and proactive strategies for mitigation, these emissions will only continue to grow over the next few decades.
  • Adaptation: Reducing vulnerability to the impacts of climate change. There is no one-size-fits-all solution when it comes to climate change adaptation with measures ranging from building flood defenses to redesigning government policies. Adaptation is particularly important to the small island states and least developed countries who are the most threatened by the effects of our shifting global climate. COP20 in Lima called for greater emphasis on adaptation in Paris on par with that of mitigation.
  • Climate finance: A critical backbone to effective mitigation and adaptation. Large-scale investments are required to significantly reduce emissions and launch the transition to low-carbon economies requiring coordination and cooperation of governments and the business sector. At the same time, developing countries need assistance in adaptation measures whilst promoting fair and sustainable development. This latter strategy is largely assisted by the Green Climate Fund.

Before the negotiations begin, each country has agreed to publicly outline their own climate action plan as part of a new international agreement known as Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs), to take effect in 2020. INDCs reflect individual national policies that will come together to satisfy the overall goal of the UNFCCC. They reflect each country’s specific needs and challenges allowing for improved international dialogue on climate action and a greater ability for providing and receiving support as members compare contributions.

An effective INDC will show ambitious efforts in both mitigation and adaptation to show that the country is doing its own part while looking to contribute on the global stage for overall resilience. Transparency is equally important as INDCs are a public outline that other members, businesses, and the general public all have access to and should be able to effectively understand. The hope is for all countries to submit their INDCs prior to October 1st to give UNFCCC officials time to generate an impact report ahead of the December conference.

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This video shows a time series of five-year global temperature averages, mapped from 1880 to 2014, as estimated by scientists at NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS) in New York. Credit: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.

Climate change is real. It’s happening as we speak. We are currently on the path to a rise in global temperatures up to 4°C by the end of the century. Four degrees may not sound like much, but the world was only on average 4°C to 7°C cooler during the last ice age when most of Europe and the United States were covered by glaciers. Warming our planet up in the opposite direction would bring an equally dramatic shift of our global landscape with consequences including an entire meter of sea level rise, more extreme weather events that would displace millions, and a mass extinction of life on Earth that would hit areas of high biodiversity, such as the Amazon rainforest, the hardest. With the world’s sight set on COP21 for solutions, hopes are high that we can take action to change our relationship with our Earth in order to secure a healthy and just future for all.


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