Despite attacks in Paris that killed 130 people, the United Nations Climate Change Conference set to start at the end of the month will go ahead in the French capital. The government has announced that two major street demonstrations that activists had planned for before and after the conference have been banned for security reasons. But events held indoors will go ahead as planned, and activists vowed to find other ways to mobilize support to put pressure on countries to reduce carbon emissions.Below is essential background on the COP 21 climate conference, set for Nov 29-Dec 11.

For more “decoders” on big events, click here.

By Sue Landau

The timeline for COP 21:

1988 – The United Nations set up the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to review and assess scientific findings on climate change.

1992 – The Rio Earth Summit created the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), which instigated an annual summit, the Conference of the Parties (COP), with the aim of forging a global pact to reduce greenhouse gases.logo_tousensemble

1997 – The Kyoto Protocol setting targets for industrial countries to cut emissions was agreed at COP 3. It was ratified by 175 countries, but the United States rejected it in 2001. Applied in 37 industrial countries plus the European Union from 2008 to 2012, it led to a fall of 24 percent in their greenhouse gas emissions from 1990 levels. But overall fossil fuel use has kept on rising, and so have greenhouse gas emissions, particularly carbon dioxide (CO2).

2009 – The Copenhagen summit (COP 15) was to extend the Kyoto Protocol, but there was bitter dissent and no binding agreement was reached. Instead, it set voluntary emissions targets, and richer countries pledged to set aside $100 billion a year by 2020 to help developing countries adjust their economies to climate change.

Since Copenhagen, numerous factors have combined to increase international cooperation. Pollution continues to worsen, affecting more and more people; ice caps are melting at an alarming rate; extreme weather events are perceptibly on the rise; and technologies for cleaner energy advance.

2015 – COP 21 in Paris appears to have a reasonable chance of forging a global accord. Most countries have submitted a plan to cut their carbon emissions. But money for developing nations to adapt to climate change could yet be a deal-breaker.

What is involved in a global climate pact?

  • The target – To adopt measures to limit the rise in average global temperatures to 2° Celsius, or 3.6° Fahrenheit, by 2100 compared with before the industrial era.
  • The plans – By November, 155 countries had submitted 128 detailed plans to cut emissions, called “intended nationally determined contributions” (INDCs).
    The difference with the past: these plans cover almost 90% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Analysts believe the commitments would not be enough to cap average temperatures at +2°C, even if they would mark a major first step in that direction.
  • The money – With five years to go to achieve the $100 billion/year goal, climate finance reached $62 billion in 2014 from $52 billion in 2013, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. This issue is critical for keeping developing nations, which bear the brunt of climate change and need to improve their people’s living conditions, on board.

The following interactive graph provides details on how much each country has pledged to cut its emissions. Click on a country for information on that country’s plans. Issued by the host French government, the text in the graph is in French.

At and around the summit:

Climate marches – Following the attacks in Paris on November 13, climate marches planned in Paris and other French cities for November 29 have been cancelled. Marches will still take place in towns and cities across the world to express support for radical action to combat global warming.

COP 21 – Nov 30 – Dec 11 at Paris-Le Bourget is to go ahead, with 40,000 participants, including 1,300 top officials and political figures from 195 countries, the European Union and its 28 member states, and representatives of non-state organisations. Many heads of state still plan to attend despite the attacks. Security at Le Bourget will be reinforced.

The summit follows a complex diplomatic process of negotiations this year, which produced an official text for the summit, and the submission of countries’ plans to cut their emissions.

To see the countries’ commitments, click here.


  • Dec 1-11 at Le Bourget, a ‘Climate Generations Area’ open to the public, and ‘The Gallery’, an exhibition space for companies. These exhibitions are maintained;


After the summit:

  • Next steps – Ways to monitor implementation of countries’ plans to cut emissions will likely be part of an accord, and there are already calls to go further, with reviews every five years and more stringent criteria by 2030 to cap rising temperatures to +2°C or less.
  • Political risk: It’s not entirely clear whether the United States will stick to an accord if one is reached. Several leading Republican candidates for the U.S. presidency question the extent to which humans are responsible for climate change, and the party is considered close to the oil and coal industries. The U.S. presidential election is set for November 2016.
  • Industrial lobbies: Although many multinationals have environmental policies, carbon-heavy industries stand to lose from moves towards a low/no carbon economy. They may try to hinder progress, as seen with VW falsifying emissions data for its diesel cars, and emerging questions over Exxon’s funding of the climate denial lobby from 1998 to 2005.
  • Misleading terms: Renewables are touted as green but they are not always clean. For example, energy from biogas/biomass is classed as renewable, but the industry drains peat bogs and encourages deforestation for wood burning, which destroys carbon sinks and releases CO2.

Sue LandauSue Landau is a freelance writer and translator based in Paris. She worked in financial and business journalism for 25 years at the International Herald Tribune, Reuters and the Investor’s Chronicle, chiefly in London and Paris. She reported on energy, new technologies, media and advertising, corporate and industry issues, wealth management and investment, and regional development.

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Climate decodersA brief guide to the Paris climate summit