Paris, like Beirut and Baghdad, has been rocked by a terrorist attack in the past few weeks, resulting in many casualties and a nation in panic. Despite a backdrop of grief and introspection, world leaders have decided to move forward with the 21st session of the Conference of Parties (COP21) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) to take action on global climate change. While dissimilar in its level of devastation, global climate change poses many global risks to environmental and human health. The urgency of this conference is bolstered by a number of harrowing facts. Concentrations of carbon dioxide have reached a record high, new research links climate change to the severity and likelihood of the extreme weather events that occurred in 2014, each coming month breaks the record for hottest month ever recorded, and one of the major contributors to climate change, China, was recently outed for underestimating how much coal it burned in the past decade—hence under-reporting its contribution to CO2 emissions.
However, not all the facts leading to the Paris talks are negative—far from it. Slated to have attendees from 190 nations, COP21 in and of itself is a testament to the global commitment to hold every nation accountable for its contribution to climate change. Additionally, President Obama rejected the Keystone XL Pipeline, indicating his commitment to elevating the United States as a key player in addressing rising CO2 rates.
This year’s COP21 will run from November 29th to December 11th, continuing an effort that began in 2011 in Durban, South Africa. The ultimate outcome of this conference will be to create a legally binding, multi-national agreement to keep global warming below 2 degrees Celsius—considered by scientists to be the tipping point towards catastrophic climate change. Provisions in this treaty will likely include strategies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, adapt to climate change impacts, and help countries that need assistance.
Two years ago at COP 19 in Warsaw—well in advance of the Paris conference—countries were asked to provide their “intended nationally determined contributions” (INDCs), illustrating each country’s self-determined mitigation goals starting in 2020. While 156 countries submitted their INDCs, a UNFCC analysis shows that the INDCs submitted fall short of the 2 degrees Celsius benchmark. In order to get back on track with the intended goal, this Paris agreement will aim to create a flexible but sustainable global framework, building in provisions that require countries to return to the table periodically, potentially working to revise their INDCs or encouraging them to draft new ones.
COP21 is significant not only in its commitment to creating a system of accountability for global climate change but also in highlighting the potential of the world to come together on an issue of grave importance regardless of religion, ethnicity, culture, or national border. This week the world is still healing from immense tragedy; however, our collective hope and the power of human progress keep us going—in Paris and beyond.