Climate change, prompted by ever-increasing levels of greenhouse gases in the Earth’s atmosphere, is considered by many in the scientific community to be one of the most serious threats facing humanity in the twenty-first century. A mere 2 degree Celsius (3.6 degree Fahrenheit) increase in the average global temperature, according to climate scientists, would have disastrous consequences; ranging from extensive famines, increases in refugee movement, and widespread human death as a result of over-flooding, erosion of coastal and low lying areas, and increased natural disasters. These potential changes to Earth’s climate are unprecedented. While many major climate conferences have been held, nearly all with the goal of forming a global agreement that legally binds states to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions, these efforts at environmental diplomacy have failed to deliver on their objective, and the international community still has very little concrete action to show for these attempts to rectify the problem of global climate change. This therefore leaves many to wonder: what can we expect from the 21st Session of the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in Paris 2015 (COP21 Paris)?
Broadly speaking, climate change refers to ‘a change in the state of the climate that can be identified by changes in the average and/or the variability of its properties (e.g., temperature, precipitation), and that persists for an extended period’. While global climate fluctuations are a natural occurrence, since the beginning of the 1990s the global average surface temperature has increased by 0.85 degrees Celsius, a rise that has been identified to be the result of anthropogenic activities; the burning of fossil fuels in particular. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) predicts that if this trend continues and rates of carbon dioxide emissions are not rapidly reduced, the next century will experience a rise of 2.5 degree Celsius of average temperature on the Earth, which will cause irreversible damage and harm to the global environment.
Drafted in 1992, the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) was the first attempt made to stabilise greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere, a decision that lead to the creation of the Kyoto Protocol, a treaty intended to implement the objectives and principles embedded in the UNFCCC. However, it has become clear with time that despite the best intentions of this agreement, the Kyoto Protocol has largely been unsuccessful in the arena of environmental diplomacy. It has failed to effectively manage and eventually limit states’ emission of greenhouse gases, which in turn means it has failed in the attempt to tackle climate change and the emissions of global greenhouse gases. Not only did most parties of the treaty fail to meet their set targets – to lower their greenhouse emissions to 5 per cent below 1990 levels by 2012 – but the United States, the largest polluter at the time of the treaty’s writing, signed but could not ratify the Kyoto Protocol in its legislature and adhere to its principles.
After the Kyoto Protocol, numerous attempts at international cooperation have been made in order to address the issue of climate change and to tackle both new issues, as well as those that eluded the writers of Kyoto. While there has so far been an overall failure to produce any substantial results in the form of legally binding commitments or agreements, there has still been some minor progress made in terms of setting principles and aims that the COP21 Paris will be built on, and eventually embedded in a legally binding agreement. The Copenhagen Summit in 2009 recognised the need to limit the rise of temperatures to 2 degrees Celsius, which has since become the ultimate aim of the Paris COP21. The 2013 Warsaw Conference also symbolised a crucial step towards reaching a universal climate agreement in Paris, as it set out the requirement that all countries have to publish and communicate their national effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions before the Paris Conference.
Despite the overall unsuccessful legacy of environmental diplomacy, this has not discouraged the conference from taking place in Paris at the end of the year to set the stakes higher than ever before. The primary aim of the COP21 Paris is to supplant the Kyoto Protocol, and replace it with a universally and legally binding agreement to cut greenhouse gas emissions. Any agreement, like the Kyoto Protocol, would attempt to take into account the individual needs and capacities of each country, in particular, discrepancies between the developing countries in the South and the developed countries in the North. While the Paris agreement focuses on reducing greenhouse gas emissions and global warming below 2 degrees Celsius, it has allowed for each country to submit their own Intended National Determined Contributions (INDC) prior to the Paris Conference, which would clearly outline the pledges and concessions that each state feels would be realistic and achievable the agreement enters into force in 2020.
Having briefly outlined the principal aims of the 2015 Paris Climate Conference, it is immediately evident that its aims are extremely high. On the one hand, sceptics of environmental governance highlight the fact that in the past decades, global society has failed to even come close to establishing a legally binding agreement on greenhouse gas reductions. On the other, many welcome the Paris initiative and its objectives with optimism, arguing that climate change is serious, and the leaders of the world must start acting more radically before it is too late. While it is impossible to determine or predict how the COP21 Paris will unfold, we must put faith in the idea that this time, 20 years after the Earth Summit in Rio, the moment is finally upon us to build an effective legally binding agreement, whose set targets will be not only signed, but eventually ratified and implemented by the international community. The COP21 Paris is another chance to start the long combat against climate change before it is too late.