Paris Climate Conference – COP 21

For the first two weeks of December, at the 2015 Paris Climate Conference or Conference of the Parties (COP21), 196 nations have been in Paris working on a global agreement to reduce climate change. The countries successfully negotiated the Paris Agreement; key elements of the agreement included limiting global warming to less than two degrees Celsius compared to pre-industrial levels and helping developing countries switch from fossil fuels to greener sources of energy. Two degrees is an important number in that it is the number generally agreed upon by climate experts as the limit the earth can endure before catastrophic climate changes.

There have been numerous gatherings prior to the Paris Climate Conference to lay the groundwork for this year’s agreement.   The last conference in Lima ended with a stalemate on important issues such as how much each country must reduce it’s greenhouse gas emissions and who will pay for developing countries’ emission reduction. One positive takeaway from the treaty that came out of the Lima conference was setting the parameters for ‘intended nationally determined contributions (INDC).’ These INDCs were used in this year’s COP; this strategy was unique in that each party came to the conference with the actions they were willing to take, a top-down approach to the issue. These individual terms were then cobbled together and tweaked so that the 2OC goal was met.

Developing nations that use large quantities of fossil fuels in their efforts to develop threaten the ability to reduce carbon emissions and stay under the 2OC limit. As a result, one of the major accomplishments of the COP21 deal was the agreement that developed nations would provide $100 billion a year to help developing countries switch from fossil fuels to greener sources of energy and to adapt to the effects of climate change.

Another focus of this year’s Paris conference was to determine what actions the geographically largest and wealthiest countries and major polluters would do for the smaller countries that will be more susceptible to the dire consequences of climate change (i.e. island states who will lose their habitable land as a result of rising sea levels). It is difficult for larger, wealthier countries that will be able to buffer the impacts of climate change to understand the importance and gravity of the situation to smaller island countries when climate change does not immediately threaten their potable water supply nor jeopardize their food security. For example, Kiribati is an island country in the Pacific with a population of over 100,000 residents that predicts it may be completely underwater within the next 30 years according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Kiribati has coined the term “migration with dignity.”   The Kiribati government is considering the real possibility that its population will have to move and the preventative measures it must take to ensure its citizens have a place to go if the island becomes uninhabitable.

Estimates predict that millions of people will be displaced due to climate change in the next 35 years — 50 million people by 2020 and upwards to 150 million people by 2050 worldwide. These environmental refugees, defined as “people fleeing from environmental crises, whether natural or anthropogenic events, and whether short or long term,” are not currently able to apply for asylum. While the Paris talks did not specify how to address this problem of environmental refugees, it is clear that this global concern must be addressed in future international climate agreements.

The next hurdle for the world is to ensure countries are able to pass the COP21 agreements in their respective home governments and to continue making forward progress from here.