Laura Bliss is CityLab’s west coast bureau chief, covering transportation and technology. She also authors MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Los Angeles magazine, and beyond.
Fairness, finances, and local action will all play a part in the COP21 talks.
Heads of state from around the world gathered in Paris on Monday for the kickoff of COP21, the UN climate change talks. Over the next two weeks, representatives from 195 countries will work towards a legally binding universal agreement to reduce carbon emissions and keep global warming to 2 degrees Celsius.
COP21 has been called the “last chance saloon” to save the planet. Scientists largely agree that heating beyond that two-degree threshold equates to catastrophic climate change: higher sea-level rise; more pervasive droughts, storms, and floods; and more dramatic divides in access to food and water. The world’s poor are, and will be, particularly vulnerable to these shocks, especially in countries that lack the resources to adapt.
With so much at stake, what can citizens expect from leaders?
Fairly addressing the needs of all nations will be a major focus of the conference. Many developing nations feel that industrialized countries, such as the U.S., China, and the E.U., should be responsible for the biggest carbon reductions given that they account for the vast share of the world’s carbon emissions.
Some poorer nations (and those on low-lying islands) have also called for a more rigorous (some might say realistic) warming target of 1.5 degrees Celsius. Rich countries are also expected to create a clear financial strategy to support developing nations as they mitigate and adapt to climate change.
Many leaders and scholars have expressed doubt that the conference will be able to achieve all of its vital ambitions. Still, COP21 has already brought about some first-time successes: 183 countries (out of the 194 that are parties in the conference) have already submitted pledges (INDCs, in UN parlance) detailing and quantifying their plans to reduce to global carbon emissions—representing a much larger global buy-in than ever before. Those national plans will likely shape the hoped-for universal agreement.
There have also been major strides over the last few years on the part of “non-state actors”—cities, provinces, investors, corporations—to reduce carbon emissions. These localized efforts will be recognized and touted as inspirations to world leaders over the course of COP21. Most days of the conference will feature “focus” events highlighting actions in different arenas of the fight, from forests to private finance to renewable energy.
“It’s been shown that we don’t need to choose between economic development, security, and addressing climate change, but rather, that these things go hand in hand,” Christiana Figueres, Executive Secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, told reporters last week.
But the work is hardly finished, and nor will it be by the time the conference ends on December 11. “Paris is an event, but it is also a process,” Figueres said. The world is watching.