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COP21- What actually happened at the Paris Climate Talks?

Want to read what we think about the accord? Scroll to the bottom of this post to see our responses!

In December 2015, representatives from almost 200 UN countries met in Paris for COP21 to discuss climate and the future of our planet. The group deliberated for almost 2 weeks before finally drafting an accord that was approved by everyone.

Here are some of the major points in the agreement (the entire document is online here):

  1. Hold global average temperature to 2°C above pre-industrial averages (or lower, with hopes of keeping it below 1.5°C)
  2. Reduce greenhouse gas emissions significantly and prepare plans to adapt to adverse effects of climate change (without harming food production)
  3. Make finances consistent with a pathway towards lowering emissions and increasing climate-resilient development (ie: tax breaks for hybrids, alternative power, etc…)

To read more about Paris, check out this great Grist article or the video below.


Here are a few more detailed descriptions of exactly what was agreed upon (taken directly from the actual accord):

  1. In order to achieve the long-term temperature goal set out in Article 2 (the main points listed above), Parties aim to reach global peaking of greenhouse gas emissions as soon as possible, recognizing that peaking will take longer for developing country Parties, and to undertake rapid reductions thereafter in accordance with best available science, so as to achieve a balance between anthropogenic emissions by sources and removals by sinks of greenhouse gases in the second half of this century, on the basis of equity, and in the context of sustainable development and efforts to eradicate poverty.
  2. Each Party shall prepare, communicate and maintain successive nationally determined contributions that it intends to achieve. Parties shall pursue domestic mitigation measures with the aim of achieving the objectives of such contributions.
  3. Each Party’s successive nationally determined contribution will represent a progression beyond the Party’s then current nationally determined contribution and reflect its highest possible ambition, reflecting its common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities, in the light of different national circumstances.
  4. Developed country Parties shall continue taking the lead by undertaking economy-wide absolute emission reduction targets. Developing country Parties should continue enhancing their mitigation efforts, and are encouraged to move over time towards economy-wide emission reduction or limitation targets in the light of different national circumstances.

There are pages more of these in the actual document (available online for free here)


The COP21 logo. Imagef rom

Major steps forward:

This accord contains plenty of wording that makes it clear that this is not up to 1 nation or just the largest nations or biggest polluters. It is a world issue and there we all have a collective responsibility to make changes. Each nation agreed to a reduction known as an Intended Nationally Determined Contribution (INDC).

The agreement states that the accord will be assessed every 5 years to check on progress and attempt to hold everyone accountable. This also forces regular accountability for countries as they will have to share their progress on emission reduction and clean energy production every 5 years at least.

The big negative: It’s just an agreement. It’s not international law and it is not actually a physically lawfully binding contract. Nations can pledge to curb emissions and then not actually do anything. They may face scorn for doing so, but there is no wording that requires them to do anything. Additionally, we still haven’t proved that we have alternatives to fossil fuels in every sector in which they are used. Until we have cheap and readily available renewables for everyone we will not be able to eliminate emissions entirely (which is essentially the stated goal of this accord). 


The UNdertheC blog team answered a few questions about COP21 last month. Their responses are as follows.

Justin, Alex, and Kathleen all weighed in:

Q1: Are the goals set forth in COP21 meaningless?

Alex: I don’t think the goals are meaningless, however, I 1) don’t think they are strong enough to hold countries accountable and 2) the goals might be a day late and a dollar short. We definitely shouldn’t discount the huge step forward that has been taken – the fact that nearly 180 countries from around the world have formally decided that, globally, we must work together to limit the effects of climate change is huge (i.e., when have that many countries ever agreed on anything?). However, because the agreement is not binding and, possibly more importantly, there are no guidelines for what happens when a country fails to complete what they have promised, I don’t think the agreement is strong enough to make the difference it says it will. I’m also concerned it might be too little, too late. Most projections say we have to completely cut emissions to zero by 2050 (which, is less than 35 years away). Considering it’s been 50 years since the idea of climate change first started making waves, I’m a little concerned that 35 years is just not long enough for the drastic changes needed.

KathleenDefinitely not!  It’s frankly astounding that there even are goals, given that UN agreements must be unanimous and considering the kaput that was Copenhagen.  Before tearing apart the decisions that were reached, it’s important to think of the alternate scenario: no agreement whatsoever.  Given the disparate goals of each member nation, the results of COP21 were by no means inevitable, and the meeting could have easily ended with countries hurling ultimatums and refusing to budge.  The Paris Agreement is a sign of hope to me, because it formalizes the intention of every single member nation to limit climate change.  I don’t see how any goals based on that motivation could be meaningless.

Séance pleinière de la COP21 pour l’adoption de l’accord de Paris (Salle Seine - Le Bourget)

UN members celebrate after announcing the Paris Agreement. Image from

Q2: Do you think countries will ignore the agreement?

Alex: I think countries will ignore the agreement, unless there is constant support for it on a citizen level. Citizens must make climate change a political issue that is as important as say, economics and security concerns (this very much includes the US). If citizens care, the government will care. If the citizens don’t care, the government won’t care.

KathleenNo.  A major roadblock to previous international climate change agreements has been the fear that other countries would not cooperate.  For example, China had notoriously refused to curb its emissions, which some US politicians leveraged against reducing American emissions.  Why should the US work to cut emissions, they argued, if other major world players were going about business as usual?  In November 2014, however, President Obama facilitated an agreement with China that set a peak on China’s emissions and created ambitious reduction goals for the US.  Between making concrete steps toward sustainability and encouraging dialogue with traditionally reticent emerging nations, Obama has helped demonstrate that the US is serious about climate change, and that’s made other countries feel more comfortable about setting their own goals.

This is an example of countries overcoming inaction, and I’m not claiming that Obama is responsible for the success of the Paris Agreement.  That same spirit of mutual trust, though, was on display at COP21 and ultimately led to cooperation.  If countries ignore their INDCs, they risk violating the trust of every other signatory and going right back to square one in global climate talks.  The leaders who agreed to the Paris Agreement should take their goals seriously; doing otherwise risks invaliding the decades of work that have gone into building trust.

Additionally, although there is no enforcement mechanism in the agreement, the member nations do need to submit reports on their progress every other year.  These reports must include “quantitative and qualitative information … including, as available, projected levels of public financial resources to be provided to developing country Parties.”  (Article 9, Paragraph 5.)  The biennial reporting ensures a regular check-in, and member nations will be on the hook to explain themselves if they are not on track.  Hopefully this minor level of accountability will motivate nations to work towards meeting their INDCs and financial contributions.

Q3: Are these goals enough? Are the actual goals set forth in the agreement going to keep temperatures below 2C above pre-industrial levels?

Kathleen: No, the Paris Agreement will not keep temperatures below the 2℃ increase, but the document itself recognizes this in Paragraph 17.  Most articles I read expect a 2.7℃ increase if all signatories adhere to their INDCs.  In a perfect world, that increase would be a lot smaller, but I would honestly be impressed and relieved if we as a planet managed to keep the increase below 3℃.

JustinAbsolutely not. I find it interesting that they target 1.5℃ in this document. It’s just not very feasible. Ideally we could do it, but as I’ve said before, without a major infrastructure change and economic investment in cheap, readily available renewables we will not be able to stop emissions entirely. I think that we will see carbon emissions curbed drastically in our lifetimes, but will they hit 0? Probably not. In my experience we are more reactionary as a species than forward thinking. Changing that would likely bode well for us, but hey. I’m not in charge. 


If Tim Gunn wrote the slogan for COP21. Image from

Q4: What about detractors (such as the US GOP), can they easily derail this? If so, what happens next?

Kathleen: Internal politics in any country will probably be the biggest obstacle to implementing the Paris Agreement.   If the leadership that signed the Paris Agreement is replaced or overruled by detractors, the INDCs can be ignored.  There is no enforcement beyond international shame and the risk of dismantling global accord on climate change.  I would think these powerful motivators, but unfortunately, there are plenty of people in the US at least who would not be troubled by either consequence.  I think a major goal for the next Conference of Parties meeting should be to establish means of enforcement that cannot be derailed by detractors within any nation.

Q5: Warming is not the only problem here. What about sea level rise? What do we do with displaced people? Do they migrate? If so, where and who gets to decide?

Alex: I feel like this is one of the most tangible (and easily relatable) impacts of climate change. (Hopefully) everybody has seen some kind of iteration of the ‘drowning coast line’ maps that show where sea level is predicted to be in the future. Millions of people will be displaced from around the world. It’s also an incredibly difficult issue to grapple with and one that’s happening now (re: The Marshall Islands, Maldives, Republic of Kiribati, and even towns all along the US coast). And, so far, responses have been varied. Some people from the Marshall Islands are bent on staying put. Several thousand have migrated (in their specific case, to the US). Places in Alaska have moved their entire towns to higher ground. Others are building walls to keep the sea out. In addition to having globally reaching goals, legislation, and treaties that aim at limiting climate change, we also need a unified effort on the human impact of climate change.

KathleenThe Paris Agreement is encouraging in part because it emphasizes the human suffering that could result from climate change.  This echoes much of what Pope Francis wrote about in Laudato Sí and shows that world leaders recognize that climate change has dire human consequences.  Hopefully that will continue to prompt conversation on ways to help impacted populations.

JustinI just read a science fiction novel called The Windup Girl  that shows a post-apocalyptic future in which the city of Bangkok is below sea level and employs large sea walls and constant pumping to keep the city from drowning (and in the monsoon season they are unable to keep up and the city floods). The strange thing about the situation is that we are seeing it today. We all know about New Orleans, but did you also know that a good portion of The Netherlands/Holland is at or below sea level? Even without a rise in sea level we would be in trouble if not for some serious infrastructure. Sadly, things are just going to get worse unless we actually do something about it. COP21 is a step in the right direction but may not be enough of a commitment to solve our problems. What do we do with all the people? While they are just on island nations maybe we can convince them to migrate. We also have to convince other nations to harbor them (an issue that I wouldn’t have thought to be a problem, but then the migration issues in Europe came along and forced me to be even more pessimistic about human nature). What about when coastal cities like Venice, Miami, New York, etc are starting to go? Surely NYC will be able to put up a serious fight with pumps and seawalls, but what if it doesn’t? Where do we put the population of some of these large cities? It’s a question that no one wants to think about and it’s hard to find an answer (there is plenty of room in the US, Canada, and Russia I guess, but will they take the people?). It would be easier to curb emissions and prevent the root problem (this is always the case, treating symptoms can only help up to a point). 


Coral bleaching is one of the major threats to the ocean from climate change. Image from

Q6: What impacts is/will a 2°C rise in temperature (above pre-industrial levels) have on global ecosystems?

JustinI recommend reading our plethora of blog posts on these issues. Also, a quick google search will be more thorough than I am about to be. However, coral reefs are currently being altered significantly. Coral cover is on the decline and algal cover is ever increasing. Bleaching and mortality events are becoming more and more frequent and some species may have stopped successfully reproducing and recruiting (debate is still raging on this). Anyway, reefs as we know them are quite different from the reefs of last century and they will be even more different for the next generation. In addition to corals, other coastal ecosystems (oyster reefs, estuaries, tide pools, etc) are impacted. Perhaps worst of all, the state tree of Ohio (the buckeye) is migrating north into M*chigan and actually seems to prefer the cooler northern climate. What is Ohio without it’s buckeyes? There are plenty of other examples of range shifts, habitat loss, extinction, and more out there as well. 

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