COP21 ‘to decide on the very future of the planet’

The most important climate conference ever has kicked off in Paris. COP21 – the 21st Conference of the Parties – has entered its first full day, with nearly 150 heads of state in attendance. 

Opening the conference, French President Francois Hollande said: “Everything depends on us. The hope of all humanity rests on your shoulders.” 

The overarching goal of COP is to create a global framework for countries to reduce their carbon emissions, so that the average global temperature does not increase by more than 2°C. 

The UN’s climate agency says an increase greater than that will be catastrophic for the world’s life support systems. Oceans will warm and storms will become more frequent and damaging. Sea levels will rise and ice caps will melt. 

That impact will be most keenly felt in the tropical regions of the world. Temperature extremes will change weather patterns and dry up rainfall. For South Africa, the interior will be up to 5°C hotter by 2050. Coastal regions will warm by half that rate, but will have to deal with rising sea levels.

The stakes have created a great deal of rhetoric on the opening day. Laurent Fabius, France’s foreign minister and the chair of COP, said, “Either we fail in Paris and spread desolation everywhere, or we succeed and spread a bright future.” 

Success will come over the course of two weeks, with world leaders departing after today so their negotiators can hammer out a deal. Those negotiations started on Sunday evening, a day ahead of schedule.

The last time negotiations came this close to an agreement – at Copenhagen in 2009 – they fell apart because too much detail was left until the last moment to discuss. It took COP17 in Durban to bring countries back to a point where they could agree that another attempt should be made. 

The deadline given in Durban was COP21. And this time, a draft document has been discussed over the course of 2015 and cut down to some 30 pages. 

Most countries have also given roadmaps for what they’ll be doing to tackle their carbon emissions and adapt to a changing climate. These Intended Nationally Determined Contributions picture a future where renewable technology has largely replaced fossil fuels and communities have adapted to the impacts of the changing climate. 

But these are not enough to keep the world from warming by less than 2°C. With average global temperatures already up by 1°C, the UN says that – if implemented – the intended contributions would still see the world warm by 2.7°C. 

Over a hundred countries have added more pressure to this target, by saying that the maximum allowable increase should be 1.5°C. These are countries that are already being hard hit by the climate changes brought on by existing temperature increases – with most island states and African countries asking for this target to be included in any agreement that does come out of COP21.

Their demand represents a further splintering of positions. The big block to any previous climate agreement has been the divide between the developed and developing world. 

When negotiations started in the 1990s, the world was split into those two blocks, those that recognise that developed countries were responsible for the majority of carbon emissions – so should do the greatest amount of work to lower their emissions – and that those emissions would disproportionately affect developing countries. 

The intention then was that developed countries would pay developing countries to develop in a more sustainable manner, and help them adapt to the worst effects of climate change. But very little finance has been forthcoming. The Green Climate Fund –established to handle $100-billion a year in climate funding by 2020 – has only raised half of the capital it needs. 

This has seen developing countries loath to sign an agreement that essentially allows developed countries to escape paying for the damage caused by their carbon emissions. 

For their part, developed countries have resisted an agreement that would see the rapidly growing economies of China and India benefit from climate finance and technology transfer. 

But many of the leaders speaking on Monday have said the climate extremes evident this year have given COP21 additional impetus. 

This year has seen every month except January and April break a temperature record. It is also on course to be the warmest on record, after 2014 set the previous record. October was the hottest October ever. That month also set the record for the greatest increase from month to month, showing that the rate of warming was increasing. 

With the effects of global warming becoming more evident, leaders have said COP21 should create a world that can lower its carbon emissions and adapt to the changing climate. 

Speaking on Monday, United States president Barack Obama said: “There is such a thing as being too late and I believe that hour is almost upon us.”

Sipho Kings
Sipho is the Mail & Guardian's News Editor. He also does investigative environment journalism.

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