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The quick and dirty guide to COP21: 9 terms you NEED to know

by Kay She
9 minutes to read

Congratulations! You’re going to Paris for the 21st session of the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.


Representatives from 195 signatory states will convene to reach an agreement as to how to stabilize greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system. A series of formal and informal events will be set up by international organizations, non-profits, and businesses to push the agenda on climate change.

This is a big deal.

As if eating h’orderves while standing up isn’t hard enough, now you have to concurrently make thoughtful conversation about one of mankind’s greatest challenges. But don’t worry, we’ve got you covered.  Here are the basics in just nine terms that will help you make your way through COP21.

Let’s start with the numbers…

#1 - 2°C

This is likely the first bit of climate change jargon that will be thrown at you.  Don’t be intimidated. 2°C refers to what many believe is the upper limit global average temperatures can rise (relative to pre-industrial levels) if the world is to avoid irreversible and exponential damage to the ecosystem. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the major scientific body brought together by the United Nations, releases assessments on the current state of climate and does complex modelling of earth systems to determine what will happen to our planet as more greenhouse gases enter our atmosphere. The IPCC doesn’t actually say what they believe are acceptable levels of temperature rise; it is the politicians, NGOs, academics and society at large who determine this based on the IPCC’s work.  At 2°C we are putting small island states at risk, creating climate refugees, seeing frequent and extreme weather events, etc. and this is why that temperature has become a target of the negotiations. 

#2 – 1000 Gt and the Emissions Gap

One way of thinking about our constraints is by looking at the total carbon budget; the IPCC has concluded that a cumulative maximum carbon budget of 1000Gt is required to keep warming below 2°C.  The recent UNEP Emissions Gap Report modeled several scenarios and with the science taken into account and current trends they believe emissions will need to be reduced to 42Gt per year by 2030 and to net zero by 2060-2075 to meet this budget.  Business as usual (the trajectory in 2012) would result in 65Gt per year by 2030, and even with the country Cancun pledges (see below #3) this number will still be 60Gt in 2030.  Therein lies the challenge of the climate talks, how do we close the emissions gap (from 60Gt to 42Gt) to reach 2°C?

Now, let’s talk places…

#3 – Kyoto Accord, Copenhagen Agreement, Cancun Pledges, Doha Amendment

COP21 was preceded by twenty other climate negotiations.  While every year has resulted in different outcomes the ones to take note of are Kyoto (1997), Copenhagen (2009), Cancun (2010) and Doha (2012). 

Kyoto (1997) established a protocol that set a global emissions goal and emission reduction targets for developed countries. The weaknesses of the Kyoto Protocol were that developing countries did not have reduction targets, the U.S. (and several other of the world’s largest emitters) refused to ratify the treaty, and none of the countries that failed to meet their commitments were sanctioned.  However, despite its flaws, Kyoto did set the stage for global climate action. 

Copenhagen (2009) was another landmark conference because it was supposed to be the conference where an agreement to replace Kyoto (which expired in 2012) would be agreed upon.  Unfortunately, Copenhagen was seen to be a large failure because no legally binding agreement was made.  For this reason, if anyone mentions that conference in passing, a general shaking of the head will suffice to indicate dissatisfaction with world leaders' failed diplomacy efforts.

Cancun took place the following year and was a beacon of hope in the climate process. Notably, the Cancun “pledges” saw all industrialized nations and more than 40 developing nations submit targets.  They don’t get us all the way there but they were a start and have been built upon in negotiations since (see #4 INDCs).

Finally, the 2012 Summit in Doha amended the Kyoto Protocol (which expired that year) to allow for a second commitment until 2020 while a more comprehensive agreement commenced.  That brings us to today - since 2012, all eyes have been on Paris and the agreement that will come out of this summit.

How do you feel about acronyms?

#4 – INDCs – Intended Nationally Determined Contributions

There’s a common joke that navigating your way through the bureaucracy of the UN is like wading through alphabet soup. INDCs or Intended Nationally Determined Contributions is probably the most important acronym you will hear at the negotiations. A concept introduced in 2013, it’s useful to think of INDCs as non-legally binding pledges countries agree to make on greenhouse gas reductions until 2030. They form the basis of negotiations for this COP21. There are two distinct types of pledges – conditional and unconditional.  Unconditional targets are what countries can achieve at current conditions and conditional targets require additional support, financing, etc. to be met.  Countries have until 2020 to make their final pledges but so far 140 countries have submitted.  So what will the INDCs actually do for the climate?  Remember that target of 42Gt by 2030?  INDCs put us on track to get to 54Gt (conditional pledges) to 56Gt (unconditional pledges) by 2030.  Still a gap but getting closer!

You can find your country’s INDC here.

#5 – CBDR – Common But Differentiated Responsibility

This acronym may seem like it is only relevant to policy-wonks but it is actually core to the success or failure of the negotiations.  Why?  Because it highlights the main tension between the developed and developing worlds.  Think about it this way, the developed world (or high income countries) have received quite an amazing quality of life thanks to industrial development, and consequently, emitted a lot of CO2.  The developing world argues, rightly so, that this needs to be taken into account in climate negotiations.  These countries have the desire to develop and raise their people out of poverty but the global climate cannot sustain this if it is done in the same way it was done in the past.  CBDR is the principle that we have common responsibility to act but that there is an acknowledgement that this must be differentiated based on socio-economic context, historic contributions to the problems, and financial, technological and structure capacity to act. 

And we can’t forget a few important parts of the actual agreement…

#6 - Mitigation vs. Adaptation

You have probably heard these terms thrown around quite a lot and the difference between the two is crucial to understanding the negotiations.   Climate change mitigation refers to actions taken that attempt to eliminate or reduce the risk of climate change to people and the ecosystem; in other words proactive measures.  The IPCC defines mitigation as “anthropogenic (i.e. done by humans) intervention to reduce the sources or enhance the sinks of greenhouse gases.” That basically means measures that can reduce atmospheric emissions (like driving less cars or switching to renewable energy) as well as removing CO2 from the atmosphere through carbon sinks (think reforestation). Adaptation on the other hand is how we as a society react and adapt to changes in our climate from a systems perspective; in other words reactive measures. Adaptation measures help us adjust to these changes and our new environments (think anything from flood walls to new farming processes).

#7 – Loss and Damage

Remember that term adaptation?  Well there is yet another layer to it.  This term refers to the loss and damage to property, ecosystems, and livelihoods as a result of failures in mitigation and adaptation.  In other words, despite efforts to mitigate and adapt to climate change, some people are going to have their lives completely changed due to climate impacts and those people are usually the most poor and vulnerable.  For this reason, a key topic at this year’s climate summit is deciding how to deal with loss and damage and specifically how climate finance can be mobilized to deal with this.

#8 – Green Climate Fund

The Green Climate Fund (GCF) is a global platform created to respond to climate change by investing in low-emission and climate-resilient development. GCF was established by 194 governments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in developing countries, and to help vulnerable societies adapt to the unavoidable impacts of climate change. The intention of the fund is to raise $100B per year in climate financing.  To date $10.2B have been pledged by 33 governments with the largest pledges being from Japan, Germany, Sweden and France.

#9 – Legally Binding Climate Agreement

Many are hoping that Paris will result in all nations signing a legally binding agreement to keep global warming under 2°C by the time the Kyoto extension expires in five years. But what exactly does that mean?  Legally binding essentially means the ability to enforce commitments.  What does enforcement look like?  Essentially, it looks like fines, sanctions, and other international instruments for penalizing those who don’t meet their obligations.  This has always been the challenge in the climate arena. However, many policy analysts argue that being legally binding is not necessarily a make or break condition if the agreement is sufficiently robust and detailed and has pathways to eventual enforcement.

What else can we tell you? Bread plate is on your left hand side; water glass is on your right.  We look forward to eating h’orderves ungracefully with you and discussing some of these important issues!