Australia: Ten things to know about COP21 and climate change

Last Updated: 9 November 2015
Article by Elisa de Wit

01 | What is the UNFCCC?

The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (the Convention or UNFCCC)1 is an international treaty which acknowledges the existence of anthropogenic climate change and aims to stabilise greenhouse gases in the atmosphere within an acceptable timeframe. Its objective is stated as "stabilisation of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system".

It provides the framework within which climate change negotiations may take place and during which more specific commitments and agreements may be developed. It also requires parties to develop and publish national inventories of greenhouse gas emissions and removals.

The Convention was adopted in 1992 during the 'Earth Summit' in Rio. The treaty entered into force on 21 March 1994 and has been ratified by 196 countries.

02 | What is the COP?

The Conference of the Parties (COP) is the supreme decision-making body of the UNFCCC. The COP is made up of representatives from all parties.

Since 1995, the COP has met each year to review the implementation of the Convention. The COP adopts decisions and resolutions, and develops agreements under which parties make specific commitments to reduce emissions. Each COP elaborates and builds on the decisions and resolutions of previous COPs.
The next meeting will be the 21st meeting of the COP (COP21). COP21 will take place in Paris between 30 November to 11 December 2015. It is expected to attract around 50,000 participants including 25,000 official delegates.

03 | What drives the COP process?

The most recent report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released in 2014 shows that in recent decades changes in climate systems have had impacts on natural and human systems across the globe. It shows that the link between anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions and climate change is increasingly clear and that continued emissions are very likely to have severe and irreversible global impacts, including further warming and changes in climate systems, sea level rises, and extreme weather events. These impacts are likely to be felt disproportionately by disadvantaged people and communities. Reducing the impacts of climate change will require substantial reductions in greenhouse gas emissions and comprehensive adaptation strategies.

The IPCC findings inform the work of the UNFCCC and negotiations at the COPs.

04 | Why 2 degrees?

Discussions about climate change often refer to limiting global warming to at least 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, though many believe 1.5 degrees Celsius is a better upper limit. The 2 degree target has been agreed by countries as a threshold beyond which climate change risks become unacceptably high.

The goal of 2 degrees Celsius was not mentioned in the Kyoto Protocol, but it was noted in 2009 at Copenhagen (COP15) and given formal status the next year at Cancun (COP16). It is likely to form part of any agreement which comes out of Paris.

05 | What is the Kyoto Protocol?

The Kyoto Protocol (Protocol) is an international agreement made under the framework of the UNFCCC which put in place emissions reduction targets for developed countries. The Protocol was adopted in Kyoto in 1997 (COP3) and detailed rules for implementation were adopted in Marrakesh in 2001 (COP7).

The first commitment period ran from 2008-2012. A second commitment period was agreed to in the 'Doha Amendment' in 2012 (COP18). The second commitment period is from 2013-2020. However, it has not yet entered into force. The Doha Amendment stated that the second commitment period would enter into force on the ninetieth day after three-quarters of the parties to the Protocol submitted 'instruments of acceptance', and only 50 countries have submitted these so far.2

The Protocol includes flexibility mechanisms which allow developed countries to purchase emissions reductions or to invest in emission reduction projects (including in other countries) in order to meet their targets. These mechanisms include the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) and Joint Implementation (JI), which allowed emissions reduction credits to be generated from projects in developing and developed countries, respectively. Additionally, parties who might otherwise exceed their target may purchase 'assigned amount units' from parties who overachieve on their target, referred to in the Protocol as 'international emissions trading'.

The COP also serves as the meeting place for parties to the Protocol, referred to as the Conference of the Parties serving as the meeting of the Parties to the Kyoto Protocol (CMP). COP21 coincides with CMP11.

06 | What is expected from COP21?

In 2011 at COP17, an Ad Hoc Working Group on the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action (ADP) was formed and given the remit of developing a "protocol, another legal instrument or an agreed outcome with legal force under the Convention" . The Doha Amendments subsequently agreed at COP 18 in 2012 included a commitment that parties would enter into a new agreement by 2015 to replace the Protocol and establish emissions reductions targets for the post-2020 period.

The expectation is that COP21 will produce a new agreement to take effect in 2020 when the Protocol comes to an end.

Further information on expectations for COP21 can be found here.

07 | What is the COP21 agreement likely to cover?

A draft agreement was developed last year in Lima (COP20) and several further drafts have been developed through the year. These versions include alternate clauses (parts which are still the subject of disagreement).

The most recent version of the draft agreement was released by the ADP on 5 October 2015. It includes a draft decision, which includes the adoption of the agreement.

This draft agreement is considerably shorter than previous versions. Some key features of this draft are:

  • It includes an overarching goal (with alternate clauses), which may include a target year by which there is a global peak in emissions or zero net emissions globally.
  • It includes a goal to scale up climate finance after 2020.
  • It imposes reporting obligations, including that parties should submit a national determined mitigation commitment every five years, which reflects the party's highest possible ambition, is quantifiable, and is unconditional (at least in part), and an adaptation communication which sets out national adaptation planning.
  • It notes the importance of technology development and transfer and capacity-building for mitigation and adaptation (particularly in developing countries), but does not impose obligations in this regard.

08 | What is an INDC?

In preparation for COP21, countries were required to submit an intended nationally determined contribution (INDC) or 'Climate Action Plan', which set out what actions they intend to take under a new climate change agreement. This may be expressed as an emissions reduction target, though this is not required. A soft deadline for INDCs was set for October 1 with the UNFCCC secretariat to release a synthesis report on the INDCs on November 1.

To date3, 120 INDCs have been submitted, representing 147 countries (European Union member states made a joint submission) and covering around 86% of global emissions.

The current version of the draft agreement does not mention INDCs, but they are referred to several times in the draft decision. It is not yet clear whether INDCs will be legally binding under the new agreement. They may form the basis of a party's first national determined mitigation commitment.

Further information about INDCs can be found here.

09 | Are the INDCs presently submitted adequate for the 2 degree goal?

There is no formal review process for INDCs under the UNFCCC framework but they have been subject to considerable analysis and discussion. Many commentators consider that the vast majority of INDCs submitted do not make an adequate or proportionate contribution to the 2 degree goal.

Climate Action Tracker (CAT) is collaborating with the World Resources Institute (WRI) to undertake an independent scientific analysis of INDCs. CAT believe if the INDCs submitted thus far were implemented, global warming would reach 2.5 to 2.7°C above pre-industrial levels.

10 | Who are the major negotiating blocs?

Amongst parties to the Convention, there are several groupings who establish common negotiating positions, which include:

  • The Group of 77/China is a loose coalition of developing nations (with now over 130 members) with a diverse set of interests and views on climate change. The Group has emphasised the principle of 'common but differentiated responsibilities', which states that contributions need to account for different levels of economic development.
  • The Alliance of Small Island States is a coalition of over 40 small and low-lying islands and coastal countries who face similar development challenges and are particularly vulnerable to sea-level rise. They are pushing for measures which will limit warming to 1.5 degrees.
  • Members of the European Union (EU) agree on a common negotiating position which is then conveyed by the country that holds the EU Presidency. The EU has put forward their vision for the Paris Agreement which includes an ambitious target to reduce emissions by at least 60% below 2010 levels by 2050.
  • The Umbrella Group is a loose coalition of non-EU developed countries formed after the adoption of the Kyoto Protocol which is usually made up of Australia, Canada, Japan, New Zealand, Kazakhstan, Norway, the Russian Federation, Ukraine and the US. The group is often accused of stalling climate change negotiations.
  • The Environmental Integrity Group (EIG) is a small group of countries from around the world who all boast relatively ambitious climate policies. EIG is pushing for a legally binding agreement in Paris. It consists of Mexico, Switzerland, South Korea, Liechtenstein and Monaco.
  • The Like Minded Developing Countries (LMDCs) is a group of developing countries whose members include Algeria, Argentina, Bangladesh, Bolivia, China, Cuba, Ecuador, Egypt, El Salvador, India, Jordan, Iraq, Koweit, Indonesia, Iran, Malaysia, Mali, Nicaragua, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Sri Lanka, Sudan, Syria, Venezuela and Vietnam.


1Note that the term UNFCCC also refers to the Secretariat based in Bonn, Germany which provides operational support for the Convention.
2As at 9 October 2015.
3As at 9 October 2015.

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Elisa de Wit
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