50 days before the COP21: an overview

A contribution to explain the state of play in international climate change negotiations

It is highly probable that at the end of this year both developed and developing countries will agree on a new convention that will determine the form of the climate change regime after 2020. It will also influence the cost of energy bills all around the world. As the European Union will be one of the architects of the new agreement, its position has been thoroughly investigated as well.

COP21COP21 – what is it all about?

On the 30th November delegates from all over the word (195 nations and the EU) will gather in the capital of France for the 21st session of the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). The most important aim of the so-called COP21 is to adopt a new legally binding agreement that will be applicable to all Parties. Until now only developed states have been obliged to reduce their emissions, thus overcoming the division between the industrialised and developing countries will be at the centre of negotiations in Paris.

The discussions concerning the form of the agreement started in 2011 during the COP in Durban. After two years of relative standstill, during the COP19 in Warsaw, it has been decided ‘to invite all Parties to initiate or intensify domestic preparations for their intended nationally determined contributions’ (INDCs). In other words, by the first quarter of 2015 all countries ‘ready to do so’ should put forward the scope of post-2020 climate actions that they are willing to take under a new international agreement. In fact, it is the countries themselves (and not the convention) that determine their level of ambition in terms of emissions’ reduction, taking into account their capabilities and domestic circumstances. It is a so-called bottom-up approach.

On 15 September, only 60 countries (32 plus the EU countries) have submitted their INDCs. According to the World Resource Institute’s estimates, the declared INDCs cover almost 60% of global emissions. Obviously it is not a convincing number three months before the beginning of Paris conference.


EU ambitious as always

The first Party that submitted its contribution was the European Union. As early as in October 2014, the EU countries agreed upon the objective of reducing domestic greenhouse gas emissions by at least 40% by 2030 compared to the 1990 levels. This ambitious target was then submitted to the UNFCCC Secretariat in March 2015. It is based on the current undertaking of a 20% emission reduction by 2020 which constitutes a part of climate and energy package.

The Union went one step further and elaborated the criteria which a new international agreement must fulfil. First of all it should be legally binding and applicable to all countries, preferably in the form of the Paris Protocol. Secondly, commitments should be fair and ambitious with a long term target to reduce global emissions by at least 60% by 2050, to below the 2010 levels. Thirdly, a regular review of contributions should be launched (every five years starting from 2020) in order to increase ambition. Last but not least, the Parties should adopt common rules for transparency and accountability to ensure confidence that all countries fulfil their commitments.


Opening session of the desastrous COP15 in Copenhagen (2009)
Opening session of the desastrous COP15 in Copenhagen (2009)

Leading by example?

So, why has the Union submitted the most ambitious commitment? Traditionally, climate change was one of the areas in which the EU aspired to global leadership. In order to convince other Parties of the significance of the efforts to combat climate change, it adopted the strategy of leading by example. In other words, it set more and more ambitious objectives in terms of emission reduction to demonstrate effective solutions and technologies that could then be applied in other countries.

However, this plan may be undermined by increasing division among Member States. Central and Eastern European countries are not keen on supporting proposals of the European Commission. Poland led the coalition of CEE countries which agreed on a 40% reduction target during the European Council in October 2014 only after receiving the guarantee of additional funds for their energy transition. According to Susanne Dröge and Oliver Geden the idea of regular review of commitments may contribute to growing polarization in the EU as it is very unlikely that CEE countries will support ‘short-term changes or increases in climate targets within Europe’.


Negotiating mandate

As time is running out, Members States will have to chose the tactics and determine EU’s COP 21 position in mid-September. One of the backbones of the mandate will be the division of tasks. The Union itself and its countries will take on different roles during the conference. France, as the host country, will be responsible for facilitating and mediating of the whole process and successfully. The European Commission will be representing the EU during the climate conference in close cooperation with the Luxembourg Council Presidency. Germany may also play an important role in December.

Chancellor Angela Merkel has already convinced the leader of G7 countries to affirm their commitment to keep global warming below the 2 °C threshold during the last G7 summit at the beginning of June 2015. The issue of climate finance was also put on the negotiating table, but the major economies gave only vague assurances instead of commitments. It is highly probable that Germany will be encouraging others to support the mobilisation of climate finance of EUR 100 billion a year as of 2020.


For the first time, China and the United States committed themselves to climate objectives
For the first time, China and the United States committed themselves to climate objectives

USA and China more ambitious than ever

Even though the EU is the most determined negotiator, public attention has focused recently on the United States and China, which reached a landmark agreement on climate change on 12th November 2014. The USA set a new target of 26-28% net greenhouse gas reduction below 2005 levels by 2025, whereas China for the first time in the history of climate change negotiations committed itself to stop its emissions from growing by 2030. In fact, China and the USA account for over one third of global emissions, while the EU produces only 9%.

Prior to the meeting in COP15 in 2009 those two countries pledged to cooperate, but made no firm commitments to reduce pollutions. This attitude led to the adoption of the weak ‘Copenhagen Accord’. The significant shift in their position is a good sign for upcoming climate conference, but may undermine the role of the European Union. The possible adoption of the new agreement in December will prove that the support of the two biggest CO2 emitters is a key element in reaching a compromise, which will depend on their cooperation rather than the effectiveness of the EU’s strategy of leading by example.

Maria Olczak


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