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COP21 Climate Talks: Paris Impressions

December 9, 2015Megan ButlerEnergy Transition BlogComments Off on COP21 Climate Talks: Paris Impressions


COP21 Climate Talks: Paris Impressions

By Energy Transition Lab Executive Director Ellen Anderson

The U.N. climate talks, or COP21 (Conference of the Parties of the United Nations Framework Conference on Climate Change) is the 21st such meeting since 1995, being held at a convention center in the Paris suburb of Bourget. It’s not a typical-looking convention, given the green walls, tent-like cover, and wind turbine trees, all protected by armed police.

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It’s an incredible experience to be in a place with people from over 190 countries—almost the entire world– gathering with a common transformative idea in mind, but with very different perspectives and specific concerns. My first three encounters:

First, a business person from Cameroon (Cameroun in French) who works in waste management. When I told him I was American, he scoffed at the U.S. commitment to climate change commitments, and said “then why won’t they sign an agreement?” I said Obama will likely sign the Paris agreement, but Congress still won’t support it. Cameroun’s climate commitment to the U.N. (its Intended Nationally Determined Contribution in U.N. parlance or INDC) calls for a 32% reduction in CO2 equivalents by 2032; read more detail if your French is good.Pic 3From Scotland, I had the pleasure of meeting a young woman from Birnam, a town in Scotland made famous for its woods in Shakespeare’s Macbeth. The town held Birnam Live Earth, an arts and climate change event where they created flags (“bunting”) representing the things they love about the place they call home.Pic 4Next, I was shown a 3D video telling the story of the “Great Green Wall” project, an 8000 kilometer band of forest planned across the continent of Africa to hold back the desertification, increase climate resilience, food security, green jobs, a sustainable alternative to forced migration, and a symbol of peace amidst conflict. See the video:

Besides the official work of the COP21, the tens of thousands of visitors here from around the world are all here to learn from each other and to share their opinions about climate solutions.  See the tweet from Christiana Figueres, the ever-optimistic Executive Secretary of the UNFCCC.

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The official real work of the COP21 is negotiating a global agreement that builds upon all 157 climate plan pledges (INDCs) made by nations. Meeting rooms across the sprawling convention center are filled with parties representing nations, haggling over specific word choices, additions, and omissions. Some of these are open to observers like us, and some not.

As one of the largest gatherings of world leaders in history, many speeches called the COP21 process an important first step. But President Obama was right in characterizing it instead as a critical turning point. “There is such a thing as being too late,” said Obama, quoting Martin Luther King Jr. “That hour is almost upon us.”

COP21 is a remarkable turning point, where for the first time since the UN has endeavored to address climate change, nearly every country of the world is making some sort of self-determined commitment. In 1997 Senator Byrd (D-W. VA) and Senator Hagel (R-NE) unanimously passed the Byrd-Hagel Resolution, which said that the U.S. should not ratify the Kyoto protocol which required wealthy countries (Annex I in UN parlance) to reduce emissions but did not require such commitments from developing countries like China and India. A COP21 Paris agreement will meet those requirements for the first time because China, India, and other developing countries who are large carbon emitters have made major pledges.

There are still many issues left to be resolved, especially to ensure national commitments are strong enough and will ramp up over time, and to ensure equity so less developed countries can adapt to climate change and adopt clean energy. Here in Paris, the momentum for change is strong and growing. While our American media may not highlight this important effort, it is clear from recent polling that a strong majority of Americans want to see progress.


Cover Photo Credit: Photo Credit: Takver (CC BY-SA 2.0)



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The Energy Transition Lab is a strategic initiative of the University of Minnesota's Institute on the Environment in partnership with the Law School.
Funding for the Energy Transition Lab is primarily provided by the Institute on the Environment. Other funders include McKnight Foundation, Energy Foundation, Carolyn Foundation, US Department of Energy, Wind Energy Foundation and the University of California Berkeley Energy and Climate Institute. Support for energy storage work is provided by the Minneapolis Foundation, Great River Energy, Mortenson Construction, AES Corporation, Next Era Energy Resources, and General Electric. Funders have no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of any manuscript.