Paris 2015 Climate Change Conference: Key issues for the 2015 Parliament

In December 2015 all eyes will be on Paris. This is where representatives of 196 countries will attempt to reach an agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions with the aim of limiting a global temperature increase to below 2oC.

If this Conference of the Parties (COP 21) is successful it will be the first time, from 2020, that both developed and developing countries will commit to tackling greenhouse gas emissions.

Individual commitments

Paris will also be the first time that individual countries will set their own commitments using a bottom up approach, based on Intended National Designated Contributions (INDCs).

This is in contrast to the 5.2% global greenhouse gas emissions reduction target for 2012, compared to 1990 levels, which was agreed in Kyoto in 1997 and only applied to developed countries.

Countries had an informal deadline of 31 March 2015 to submit their INDCs. The EU, the US, Switzerland, Norway, Mexico, Russia and Gabon did so. These countries currently represent 29% of global emissions. 

The aggregated effect on global emissions of all INDCs submitted by October will be analysed by the UNFCCC and published before the Paris conference.

Preparation and progress

World leaders visibly failed to reach a satisfactory agreement on a successor to the Kyoto Protocol at the Copenhagen COP in 2009. The lessons learned from this failure have resulted in a great deal of preparatory work in advance of the 2015 Paris COP.

The last two conferences, in Lima and Warsaw, very much focused on necessary steps for ensuring agreement is reached in Paris. If there is no clear prospect of this many world leaders may be reluctant to attend.

The landscape has changed significantly since Copenhagen. The US and China, the world's two biggest emitters, have made a joint commitment to reduce their emissions.

Away from the negotiations, there are already signs that efforts to reduce emissions are having an effect. Coal use in China may have peaked. There is increased evidence that renewables, such as wind and solar, may be economically competitive in many parts of the world by around 2020. Energy storage, including battery technology, is also seeing progress.

The International Energy Agency provisional figures show that in 2014, for the first time, there was global economic growth (of 3%) without any associated growth in emissions from energy use. Over the same period, the UK saw 2.8% growth and an 8.4% reduction in emissions. There is also an ongoing international fossil fuel divestment campaign, aimed at institutional investors, which is gaining momentum in the run up to Paris.

Chart: Economic growth associated with carbon emissions

Decoupling? Economic growth has been associated with growth in carbon emissions

Global GDP growth (horizontal axis) vs global growth in CO2 emissions from the energy sector (vertical axis); 1980-2012; darker points indicate later years
chart showing global GDP growth versus global growth in c02 emissions from the energy sector between 1980 and 2012

UN Negotiators have so far agreed a draft text that is 86 pages long, which includes many proposed options and variations, and a lot of duplication. This is generally seen as good progress.

The text will be discussed further in Bonn in June, with the aim of trimming it down to something that can be agreed to by all parties in Paris. The text refers several times to achieving net zero global emissions by the end of the 21st century at the latest. 

There are also references to limiting any temperature increase to a maximum of 1.5oC, instead of 2oC.

Agreement not only needs to be reached on how much each country will aim to limit emissions:  there also needs to be progress on providing the $100bn of funding for adaptation and mitigation for poorer countries; and on the more recent and controversial issue of compensation to these countries for loss and damage caused by climate change. Some form of agreement on how emissions reductions are to be monitored and verified effectively is also seen as important.

Government views

The previous Government was committed to the process, stating that the most cost-effective and reliable way to achieve a safe limit on temperature increases was through an international, legally binding agreement with mitigation commitments for all. This position was broadly reflected in the main parties’ manifestos (see Party Lines below).

There is a near-universal acceptance by governments of the need to act and to be seen to act. As a result, the expectation is that some form of agreement will be reached in Paris.

However, as countries will be putting forward their own INDCs it is unlikely that any agreement will set the necessarily stringent targets that would reflect scientific advice, as set out by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Even if it did, this would only ensure that it is likely that global temperature increases will be limited to 2oC. 

Because of this, the previous Government called for countries to make commitments to pre-2020 mitigation actions, together with more ambitious long-term commitments.

There are also calls for a flexible agreement that is reviewed periodically and can be ramped up if necessary.  Unless they fail spectacularly in Paris, the big annual climate negotiations are here to stay for the foreseeable future.

Climate change: the IPCC’s assessment

The IPCC 5th Assessment Synthesis Report (2014) concluded:

  • Warming of the climate is unequivocal
  • Human influence on the climate system is clear
  • Increased greenhouse gas concentrations have led to uptake of energy by the global climate system.
  • Continued emissions of greenhouse gases will cause further warming and changes in all components of the climate system

Limiting climate change will require substantial and sustained reductions of greenhouse gas emissions
The IPPC estimated that having a likely or 66% chance of limiting global temperature increases to 2oC would require total emissions from human sources to be limited to 1000Gt CO2 from 2011. In 2013 global emissions were 39.3Gt CO2. This means that this 1000Gt budget would be used up in 21 years if emissions continued at current levels.

Party Lines

  • Greens: (…) work to ensure that the UK will be running a zero carbon economy by 2050
  • Conservatives: will meet climate change commitments and cut carbon emissions
  • Labour: will push for an ambitious target in Paris to get to goal of net zero global emissions in the second half of this century.
  • Liberal Democrats: will introduce a new legally-binding target for Zero Carbon Britain by 2050
  • SNP: will ensure that the UK matches, and supports, Scotland’s commitments to carbon reduction and play a constructive role at the UN Climate Change Conference
  • UKIP: (…) repeal the climate change act


Current Briefing Papers

The Key Issues articles were published in May 2015. However, the Commons Library produces new briefings as topics evolve.

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