Skip to main content
paris climate talks

French President Francois Hollande meets his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping before a working dinner at the Elysee palace in Paris, France, on Nov. 29, 2015 ahead of the World Climate Change Conference 2015 (COP21).PHILIPPE WOJAZER/Reuters

An estimated 40,000 people will descend on Paris for the COP21 climate summit, beginning Monday. Under a cloud of anxiety and heightened security following the terrorist attacks on the city earlier this month, and surrounded by an expectant international press corps, delegates from 195 countries will try to hash out a deal to slow the growth of greenhouse-gas emissions and prevent a global warming disaster. The plan to achieve that remains a source of contention.

What are the goals?

The aim is to cap global temperature growth at 2 C over pre-Industrial Revolution levels by 2100. That's the point above which ice caps are expected to start melting irreversibly, causing catastrophic rises in sea levels.

The world temperature has already increased by 0.8 C since 1880, according to NASA, and the rate of heating has only increased in recent years.

How do they plan to get there?

It depends on whom you ask. Right now, there's a patchwork of plans. Participating countries have sent in their commitments for reducing national carbon emissions, a jumble of documents in different fonts and formats listed on a central United Nations website. But while the commitments vary, most are in a similar ballpark. Canada, for example, is promising a 30-per-cent emissions drop compared with 2005 levels by 2030, the European Union a 40-per-cent drop compared with 1990 levels by 2030.

The biggest question is how, or whether, to enforce those pledges. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has said there will be no Paris treaty with legally binding targets, like the one that emerged from Kyoto. Instead, the summit will spur investment in low-carbon energy and infrastructure, he said in an interview with the Financial Times.

The EU, meanwhile, is seeking a deal with teeth. In a statement on the European Commission website, the continental government called for "a robust system to track governments' performance and hold them accountable for delivering on their targets."

What are the pitfalls?

Disagreements over the stringency of a potential deal could strain the talks, if not scuttle them. But whoever gets their way – the U.S., with its non-binding approach, or the more demanding Europeans – any agreement will face a long road to implementation. Any legal pact would risk crashing on the shoals of the U.S. Congress, both houses of which are controlled by conservative Republicans cold to action on climate change. And a Republican might win the presidency in 2016 and pull his or her country out of the deal anyway.

Without the U.S., the world's second-biggest carbon emitter, smaller countries would be likely to curb their own commitments.

Why might this time be different?

Summit-watchers should be forgiven if they are beginning to feel like Charlie Brown trying to kick a football. The pomp and promise of these meetings rarely amounts to concrete action. But this time might be different: Barack Obama is in his last term as U.S. President and starting to swing for the fences on foreign policy (the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact, the Iran nuclear deal) and the environment (rejecting the Keystone XL pipeline, new regulations for power-plant emissions).

The U.S. and China, the world's biggest emitters, have already signed a bilateral pact to cut carbon emissions. And developing countries such as India, often resentful of environmental demands from industrialized neighbours, seem to be on board in part thanks to overwhelming air pollution in their cities. It's a promising set of omens – though not, given the history of these summits, a guarantee of success.

----------------------------------------------------------------------------------

GLOSSARY

PPM: Parts per million. Refers to the proportion of carbon dioxide molecules in the atmosphere. Many climate activists and researchers believe we need to revert to 350 ppm to avoid catastrophic climate change. We're currently at 400 and adding 2 ppm per year.

GHGs: Greenhouse gases. Gases that can absorb infrared radiation, which traps heat in the atmosphere and contributes to global warming. The biggies are methane, nitrous oxide, fluorinated gases and, especially, carbon dioxide.

INDCs: Intended Nationally Determined Contributions. These are the emission reduction targets that delegate countries have set for themselves ahead of Paris. If the pact underwhelms, those two qualifiers – "intended" and "nationally determined" – could go a long way to explaining why.

COP21: Refers to the 21st Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). The ultimate mouthful – and the title of the summit. The framework in question was established at the Rio Earth Summit in 1992 to fight global warming.

----------------------------------------------------------------------------------

TIMELINE

Stockholm, 1972: Stockholm didn't usher in the beginning of the modern environmental movement – Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, widely credited with that distinction, was published a decade earlier – but it did help legitimize it. Never before had world leaders gathered to talk about the health of the planet on this scale: 113 countries, from Australia to Zambia, were invited. Its concerns may seem quaint to us now – pesticides, whaling, mercury poisoning; catastrophic climate change wouldn't come to dominate the environmental agenda for another 15 years – but the meeting's declaration that countries must work together on the environment contained the seed of Kyoto, Copenhagen and Paris.

Rio, 1992: The Earth Summit had big ambitions. It brought together more than 170 countries and eventually produced treaties on climate change, soil erosion and species loss. But in what would become a pattern for these meetings, recalcitrant governments began watering down the agreements right away. And lax enforcement reduced many of the conference's best plans to toothless half-measures.

Kyoto, 1997: The only global climate deal that most Canadians have heard of, it's also seen by environmentalists as the one that got away. Established in 1997, Kyoto committed signatories to reducing greenhouse-gas emissions by an average of 5 per cent compared with 1990 levels. The agreement was legally binding, with penalties for failing to comply. But again, the deal was plagued by loopholes. It didn't kick in until 2005, and its first "commitment period" didn't start until 2008. Meanwhile, it suffered an early body blow. The U.S., then the world's biggest emitter, refused to ratify the protocol in 2001. By the time Canada withdrew from Kyoto in 2011, the pact was on life support, and global emissions continued to rise.

Montreal, 2005: The biggest climate summit since Kyoto launched discussions for what would come after the protocol ended in 2012. Canada's then-environment minister – now Foreign Affairs Minister – Stéphane Dion presided over the event and spoke stirringly at the conference's close. "We will reconcile humankind with its planet," he declared. Bruised by events in the intervening 10 years, Mr. Dion struck a more sombre note ahead of the Paris talks: "If you compare with what the science is asking us to do, it's very unlikely that Paris will deliver a 2 C agreement."

Copenhagen, 2009: Typically, global climate talks end on a cheerful note – disappointment sets in only later, when promises start falling through. Copenhagen dispensed with the honeymoon period: It was an acknowledged disaster from the moment it wrapped up. The goal was an international pact to tackle climate change, but the conference ended with no such pact. Instead, a group of emerging economies signed a side deal with the U.S., in an attempt to salvage a modicum of dignity for the whole affair. Copenhagen looms over the Paris meeting as a worst-case scenario.