State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School

The Paris Climate Change Conference – What You Need to Know

Editors’ note: This is the first in a series of posts on the 2015 Paris climate summit. You can follow all of our coverage on a special State of the Planet feature page.

 The difference in average surface temperatures from 1970-79 (bottom) to 2000-09 (top) due to global warming. Photo: NASA
The difference in average surface temperatures from 1970-79 (bottom) to 2000-09 (top) due to global warming. Photo: NASA

What is it?

COP21, the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference, will be held outside of Paris in Le Bourget, France, from Nov. 30 to Dec. 11. It is called COP21 because it is the 21st annual meeting of the Conference of Parties to the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. The parties meet each year to assess their progress in dealing with climate change; its objective is to achieve “stabilization of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system.”

Who’s participating?

The 195 countries who make up the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change will send over 40,000 delegates to the talks in Paris. At least 80 world leaders will attend, including the leaders of Germany, South Africa, Brazil and England, and those of the three biggest carbon emitting countries: President Barack Obama from the United States, Chinese President Xi Jinping and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

What is the goal?

The goal of COP21 is to negotiate a new international climate change agreement that can keep the average global temperature rise below 2° C by 2100 compared to pre-industrial levels. The agreement will be universal and include pledges from the parties to limit and reduce greenhouse gases, implement strategies to adapt to the impacts of climate change, and commit financial support to help developing countries deal with climate change. The agreement will also likely establish five-year reviews to make sure countries are keeping their commitments and to ratchet up emissions reduction targets in order to meet the 2˚C goal.

Why does it matter?

Human activities have generated greenhouse gases—carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide and fluorinated gases—that have collected in the atmosphere and warmed the planet. Between 1990 and 2014, global greenhouse gases increased 36 percent. In 2011, Asia, Europe and the United States were responsible for 82 percent of total greenhouse gas emissions. Some of the carbon dioxide that we have already pumped into the atmosphere will remain there for hundreds of years.


The increase in greenhouse gases over the last 100 years has so far caused average global temperatures to rise .85˚C. Data for 2015 from the Met Office, the United Kingdom’s national weather service, shows that Earth’s global mean temperature will reach 1˚C above pre-industrial levels for the first time this year. While this does not sound like much, we are already feeling the effects of this warming with more extreme heat, heavy downpours, increased wildfires, insect outbreaks, loss of glaciers and sea ice, sea level rise and flooding.

Scientists and over 100 nations have agreed that limiting the global temperature rise to 2˚C is critical to avoiding more catastrophic climate change effects. According to the World Resources Institute, if we continue on a “business as usual” trajectory of generating greenhouse gases, we will reach 2˚C by 2045. This will increase the risk of sea level rise, intensify wildfires and make them more frequent, exacerbate heavy precipitation events and the severity of droughts, acidify the oceans, cause extinction of animal species and jeopardize our food supplies. With each degree above the 2˚C limit, the impacts of climate change will be more severe and the risks greater that tipping points could be passed, resulting in abrupt and irreversible changes in the global climate system.

The oldest Arctic sea ice is disappearing. Sea ice coverage in 1980 (bottom) and 2012 (top). Photo: NASA
The oldest Arctic sea ice is disappearing. Sea ice coverage in 1980 (bottom) and 2012 (top). Photo: NASA

In May, a UN Framework Convention on Climate Change report  concluded that 1.5˚C would be a preferable limit, but would require a faster reduction of energy demand and an immediate scaling up of low-carbon technologies to curb greenhouse gases.

When does COP21 go into effect?

In 1997, at COP3, 192 parties adopted the Kyoto Protocol (the United States did not ratify the protocol), which legally bound developed countries to reduce their emissions. Kyoto’s first commitment period went from 2008 to 2012. A second commitment period, known as the Doha Amendment, began in 2013 and ends in 2020. The COP21 agreement will take effect in 2020 when the Kyoto Protocol ends.

How will it work?

At COP15 in Copenhagen in 2009, the 195 countries involved in the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change pledged to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions by 2025-2030.

Global CO2

Ahead of COP21, all the states were invited to submit their “Intended Nationally Determined Contributions” that indicate what actions the countries will take to reduce their emissions. Each plan takes into account a country’s particular circumstances and capabilities, and may address adaptation to climate change impacts, and what support they will need from, or be willing to give to other countries.

One hundred-thirty-one of these “intended contributions” have been submitted. Here are a few examples.

The United States has pledged to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 26 to 28 percent below its 2005 levels by 2025, with best efforts to reduce emissions by 28 percent. Strategies to achieve the goal include the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s regulations to cut carbon pollution from new and existing power plants, tighter fuel economy standards for light and heavy-duty vehicles, and the development of standards to address methane emissions from landfills and oil and gas production.

China pledges that its carbon emissions will peak by 2030 or sooner if possible, and that the country will reduce carbon dioxide emissions for each unit of Gross Domestic Product (its “emissions intensity”) by 60 to 65 percent from 2005 levels, derive 20 percent of energy from non-fossil fuels, plant more forests and improve the country’s adaptation to climate change impacts.

India intends to reduce the emissions intensity of its GDP by 33 to 35 percent by 2030 from 2005 levels, increase forest and tree cover to provide additional carbon sinks and generate 40 percent of its electricity from non-fossil fuel sources by 2030 with help from the Green Climate Fund. (The Green Climate Fund was established by 194 nations in 2010 with the goal of raising $100 billion a year by 2020 to assist developing countries deal with climate change.)

Brazil will reduce its greenhouse gas emissions 37 percent below 2005 levels by 2025, then by 43 percent below 2005 levels by 2030. Strategies to achieve this include using renewable resources for 45 percent of its energy by 2030, stopping illegal deforestation by 2030, restoring forests and developing sustainable agriculture. It will also implement adaptation policies to make its population, ecosystems, infrastructure and production systems more resilient.

The European Union has committed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 40 percent from 1990 levels by 2030, in part by getting 27 percent of its energy from renewable energy resources and improving energy efficiency 27 percent by 2030.

Are the climate pledges ambitious enough to meet the goal?

The Climate Action Tracker, an independent scientific analysis, estimates that the climate pledges submitted so far will result in an increase of 2.7˚C of warming by 2100. This is an improvement over the worst-case scenario of a 4.5 to 6° C increase, which is what scientists estimate will result if we continue with business as usual; but it does not get us where we need to go.


However, the goal of remaining under the 2° C mark is targeted for 2100; these first climate pledges extend to 2025 or 2030. Much greater emissions reduction efforts will be needed after 2025 and 2030 to achieve the 2˚C limit. So a five-year periodic review mechanism will be critical to spur countries to set increasingly ambitious goals to reduce emissions.

What would a successful COP21 look like?

COP21 may or may not produce a treaty that legally binds countries to meet their emissions targets. If it does not, this should not be considered a failing, since legally binding treaties can cause countries to make overly modest commitments for fear of falling short, or opt out altogether.

COP21 will be considered a success if it:

  • Results in countries agreeing on shared long-term goals to reduce carbon emissions and work towards climate resilience.
  • Recognizes that all countries must take action.
  • Creates a climate financing arrangement that is acceptable to both developed and developing countries.
  • Establishes five-year reviews to encourage countries to continually set more ambitious emissions reduction goals.
  • Ensures that countries are transparent about their progress and actions through an effective reporting and verification process.

Why should you care?

COP21 is the best opportunity for the world to finally slow the rate of climate change. Its outcome will affect our lives and those of our children and grandchildren. If successful, COP21 will hopefully help us avert the most disastrous and potentially irreversible effects of climate change. As President Obama said, “We are the first generation to feel the impact of climate change, and the last generation that can do something about it.”


Banner featuring a collage of extreme heat images.

Recent record-breaking heat waves have affected communities across the world. The Extreme Heat Workshop will bring together researchers and practitioners to advance the state of knowledge, identify community needs, and develop a framework for evaluating risks with a focus on climate justice. Register by June 15

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