COP21: what it is and why it matters

Christian Hartmann/Reuters

Environmental protection took its first steps toward becoming a global movement in 1992. The UN conference in Rio de Janeiro that year was the first true “Earth Summit”, and enabled not only the adoption of a now-famous Declaration of Principles but also the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) and the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). The first highlighted the importance of preserving the earth’s biodiversity, while the second recognized the harmful effects of climate change and sought to stabilize greenhouse-gas emissions. Its overseeing body, the Conference of Parties (COP), is composed of 195 nations and the European Union, and meets annually.

Some of the COP summits are little-remembered, while others remain famous, and not always for the right reasons – Copenhagen, which took place in 2009, is recalled primarily as resounding failure. The 2015 COP, to be held in Paris-Le Bourget from November 30 to December 11, 2015, will be the 21st summit.

While often referred to as COP21, the Paris summit is more properly called COP21-CMP11 – the 21st Conference of Parties as well as the 11th meeting of the parties to the 1997 Kyoto Protocol on Climate Change. The goal is to strengthen the foundation of the UNFCCC by establishing new targets for reducing emissions. The expectations are immense given the importance of taking global action against climate change and accelerating the transition to a low-carbon world.

An “international climate organization”?

Each COP summit is essentially an immense global conference whose mission is to produce multilateral environmental agreements (MEA), of which there are currently more than a dozen. Within the framework of the UNFCCC, the COP is the decision-making authority, working in a quasi-parliamentary fashion. Each year, the COP adopts a set of important decisions. For example, the December 2014 COP in Peru resulted in the “Lima Call for Action”, which set the stage for this year’s Paris COP. Because it’s long-lasting – even eternal – the COP is thus a virtual international organisation.

Unlike traditional diplomatic conferences, a COP summit results in collective legal acts that establish rights and obligations between the negotiating parties, and an organised and sustainable system of cooperation between them. This “secondary law” is not subject to ratification by each party and its implementation depends on their good will. The effectiveness of MEAs – like the UNFCCC itself – is therefore dependent on the voluntary commitment of all parties. That is why the overall body of law on climate issues often faces unilateral challenges from individual nations. For example, the United States and others refused to ratify the Kyoto Protocol for a range of reasons, many of them economic.

US President George W. Bush on his country’s refusal to ratify the Kyoto Protocol.

COP21, the symbol of UN multilateralism

Since the adoption of the UNFCCC in 1992, the international community has made multilateralism the foundation of international climate negotiations. Built on the universal values of the United Nations charter, the UNFCCC incorporates the principle of “one country, one vote”. Consensus applies to all decisions made by the COP, which reintroduced unanimity and veto power: any one country, big or small, can block the initiative of the entire international community.

One major drawback of such a system is that decision-making is a painfully drawn-out process – a 2012 report from France’s Alexandre Koyré Centre called the COP a “factory of slowness”. In the build-up to COP21, little seems to have changed: “The negotiation pace is too slow, far too slow,” UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon said in June. “It is moving at a snail’s pace.” Moreover, discussions tend to be consumed with procedural questions rather than substance.

Despite such difficulties, multilateral climate negotiations have one considerable advantage: they ensure the participation of the most powerful nations on earth as well as the poorest – those most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. Consequently, the legitimacy of the decisions and agreements adopted is all the greater.

Between governance and geopolitics

Making decisions by consensus greatly explains the weakness of climate governance, which is directly confronted with strongly divergent national interests and pure geopolitics. Governance is also multilevel and multiactor: states must deal with nonstate actors such as regional authorities, cities, NGOs and other stakeholders. During the COP other forums are held simultaneously in addition to side events – more than 40,000 people are expected at the COP21 in Paris, and Copenhagen was every bit as large – allow consensus to crystallise.

Climate diplomacy is still marked by the activism of some parties, including the European Union, the United States, China and developing countries. With continuing tensions between North and South, the G77, made up of 134 countries plus China, is a major player in the negotiations. It includes the oil rich, island states, African nations, and the most underdeveloped countries, as well as rising powers such as Brazil, South Africa, India and China. This logic favors the dynamics of negotiation, but requires the search for a final compromise satisfactory to all parties. As in previous COP summits, the COP21 is a key challenge in the climate-negotiation process.


Translated from the French by Leighton Walter Kille.

This article was originally published in French