Paris Agreement


A text with universal scope,
adopted by 195 countries

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COP 21 : The issues

The COP21 was held in the Paris suburb of Le Bourget between 29 November and 12 December 2015. The outcome of the two-week conference was the Paris Agreement, an international pact being qualified as "historic". The following Q&A reviews the key points.


1. What is a COP?

A COP, or Conference of the Parties, is a meeting held to discuss climate change. There are 196 parties: 195 countries plus the European Union, which negotiates on behalf of its 28 member states. A COP has been held every year, usually between November and December, since 1995.

At each COP, the 196 Parties negotiate targets and measures to limit climate change. The talks deal with subjects like the reduction of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, adaptation by developing countries to climate change, the financing of mitigation and adaptation initiatives, and technology transfers. Preparations for the two-week COPs are made at interim negotiating sessions.

The COP is the supreme decision-making body of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), which was signed by the 196 Parties at the Rio Summit in 1992. The three founding principles of the UNFCCC are: the principle of precaution, the principle of the right to promote sustainable development, and the principle of common but differentiated responsibility. Its secretariat, located in Bonn, Germany, organises the COPs and helps countries to prepare for the negotiations. The UNFCCC's current executive secretary is Christiana Figueres.

The Paris Conference is the 21st session of the Conference of the Parties.

2. Who participated?

Usually there are between 10,000 and 20,000 participants in a COP, but about 40,000 people were accredited to attend the COP21. They included the negotiators, of course, but also ministers and delegations from the State Parties, representatives of companies, NGOs, trade unions, journalists, and many others. However, the participants did not all have the same status.

Only countries are authorised to negotiate, through their negotiators, who are often high-ranking civil servants who deal with technical issues. However, these negotiators are not always empowered to make policy decisions, so environment and/or foreign affairs ministers are present during the second week of the COP and at certain preparatory meetings. Heads of state do not always attend the COPs. They did participate in the final stage of the Copenhagen COP in 2009, but to no avail. For COP21, which is to produce a universal legally binding agreement, many are expected to come. They are also the ones who give political impetus to the fight against climate change at major events like the G7 and G20, among others.

Other organisations attend as observers. These include business and industry non-governmental organisations (BINGO), environmental organisations (ENGO), trade union organisations (TUNGO), indigenous peoples organisations (IPO), local government and municipal authorities (LGMA), research organisations (RINGO), young people's organisations (YUNGO), religious organisations (Faith) and women's organisations (Gender). These organisations may coordinate with one another to state their positions more forcefully to negotiators and other organisations as well as to hold informal discussions with UNFCCC representatives and other groups, countries and journalists.

3. What are the major coalitions of countries in the climate negotiations?

The negotiation processes are organised around five regional groups in the United Nations: Africa, Asia-Pacific, Eastern and Central Europe, Latin America and the Caribbean, and Western Europe and the Others. However, a dozen or so coalitions of countries with common interests have also emerged and significantly influence the direction the negotiations take. They include:

  • The European Union (EU): The European Union is a party to the Convention and to the Kyoto Protocol. Its 28 Member States speak with one voice through the EU during the climate negotiations. Luxembourg will hold the presidency.
  • The Umbrella Group: The Umbrella Group is a loose coalition of non-EU developed countries that was formed in conjunction with climate change negotiations. Although there is no formal membership list, the group usually consists of Australia, Canada, the United States, Russia, Iceland, Japan, New Zealand, Norway, and Ukraine. The group does not have an official presidency, in part because these countries hold fairly diverse positions. Several of them, like Japan, Russia and Canada (which withdrew from the Protocol) have long been reluctant to extend the Kyoto Protocol or to support a universal agreement. Norway, on the other hand, largely shares the EU's position.
  • The Environmental Integrity Group (EIG): The EIG was formed in 2000 by some OECD members (Switzerland, Mexico, South Korea, Monaco and Liechtenstein) that did not agree with the positions taken by the Umbrella Group. The EIG does not have an official chair.
  • The Group of 77: Despite its name, the G-77 is made up of 133 developing countries. South Africa is its chairman in 2015. China sometimes works with this group, in which case it is referred to as G-77+China. During climate change negotiations, however, the members of G-77+China occasionally take divergent positions, which they defend through other coalitions or regional groupings. These include:
    • The BASIC: a group of emerging countries (Brazil, South Africa, India and China) founded in November 2009 to reach agreement on a common position before the Copenhagen conference.
    • The Arab Group: 21 parties, including Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Qatar, that regularly call attention to the potential negative impact that climate change initiatives will have on their economies.
    • The Small Island Developing States (SIDS): 39 countries that are very vulnerable to climate change owing in particular to rising sea levels. The Maldives holds the chair in 2015. This group advocates limiting the global temperature increase to 1.5°C.
    • The Africa Group: 54 countries on the African continent that function as a true coalition and regularly put forward their positions on issues of common interest such as adaptation, the transfer of capabilities and financing. The chair is held in 2015 by Sudan.
    • The Least Developed Countries (LDC): 48 countries (34 in Africa, 13 in Asia and one in the Caribbean) among the least economically developed and that are very vulnerable to climate change.
    • The Coalition of Tropical Forest Countries: This group's aim is to gain recognition for the effort that countries in the large forest basins (Central Africa, Southeast Asia and Amazonia) are making to reduce GHG levels due to deforestation. This coalition is made up of 40 countries.
    • Like Minded Developing Countries on Climate Change (LMDC): A coalition of 24 countries in the Arab world, along with India, China, several emerging Asian countries and some active Parties from South America, it was spontaneously created during the Bonn climate change session in May 2012. Its aim is to strengthen and unify the G77+China.
    • The Bolivarian Alliance for Peoples of Our America (ALBA): Its members include Venezuela, Cuba, Bolivia, Ecuador and Nicaragua, and its positions are relatively conservative.
    • Independent Association of Latin America and the Caribbean (AILAC): a coalition of countries (Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Panama and Peru) that separated from ALBA after the Doha COP in 2012 to advocate more flexible positions and give more momentum to the negotiations.

4. What are the scientific foundations of the negotiations?

To avoid the most extreme consequences of climate change, the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) decided in December 2010 to commit to a maximum temperature rise of 2°C above pre-industrial levels and to consider lowering that maximum to 1.5°C in the near future. This level was considered "acceptable" by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a group of some 3,000 scientists from around the world whose work serves as the scientific basis for the negotiations. To meet these objectives, however, a rapid redoubling of efforts will be required, insists the IPCC in its fifth report, published in 2014. According to the IPCC, to reach this goal, carbon neutrality must be achieved no later than the end of the century, and the cumulative quantity of human GHG emissions must not exceed 800 GT of carbon. Since 1870, however, humans have already released 531 GT into the atmosphere! The IPCC thus calculates that, depending on the scenario, the global temperature increase could be between 0.3°C and 4.8°C by 2100.

The IPCC publishes a report every five years. Without providing all the data, these reports summarize what is scientifically known at the time about climate change. They are intended to help the negotiators and policymakers choose the best courses of action.

5. How was the COP21 different from other COPs?

If there was so much talk about the COP21, it was because of the urgency of adopting a new regulatory framework for reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. The Kyoto Protocol, which has set GHG emission reduction targets for industrialised countries alone since 2005 (a 5% reduction compared with their 1990 levels over the 2008-2012 commitment period for countries that account for about 55% of global GHG emissions), expires in 2020. Only Europe met its Kyoto commitments, which are now far too weak to respond to the climate change challenge. This is especially true since the largest emitters, like China (first in the world), are not parties to the Kyoto pact.

In 2009, at the COP15 in Copenhagen, the Parties failed to come up with an agreement to replace the Kyoto Protocol. Since then, the negotiation process has been renewed with the aim of adopting an agreement acceptable to all countries in 2015 that would come into effect in 2020.

An important new aspect of this COP is that before the meeting, the Parties were required to publicly disclose their contribution, i.e. the measures they are committed to taking to reduce their GHG emissions and any adaptation programme they envision.

6. What is in the Paris Agreement concluded at the COP21?

The agreement can be downloaded here in English.

  • The ambitions
  • The agreement calls for holding the increase in the global average temperature "well below 2°C" until 2100, and it urges the States to pursue efforts to limit the increase to 1.5°C. To attain this ambitious objective, the Agreement also calls for achieving achieving "a balance between anthropogenic emissions by sources and removals by sinks of greenhouse gases in the second half of this century".

    Though no quantities are mentioned for GHG emission reductions, it can be noted that according to the IPCC, a target of 1.5°C means, concretely, a 70% to 80% reduction in GHG emissions by the second half of the century and zero emissions no later than 2100.

  • Finance
  • The much-publicised 100 billion dollars promised in Copenhagen by developed countries to aid developing countries with the energy transition is still the floor amount. However, this paragraph has been removed from the agreement and placed in the "Decisions" portion of the COP. The amount is supposed to revised in 2025.

    The developed countries are required to communicate qualitative and quantitative information concerning their climate financing every two years.

    The document stipulates that the developed countries "shall"assist developing countries financially both in adapting to climate change and in mitigating GHG emissions. Doing this presupposes in particular expanded use of renewable energies. The agreement also notes the importance of public resources and donations, but what portion of the assistance should come from them is not specified.

    Developing countries with the capacity to contribute to the financing (notably emerging countries as well as oil-producing countries) are also encouraged to do so.

    The final draft of the agreement also contains an article dealing exclusively with loss and damage. This represents a victory for the least-developed and small island countries, which have made this issue their number one priority. This Article calls on the developed countries to take concrete measures to support the countries adversely affected by climate change (rising sea levels, droughts, storms, etc.) and whose development is seriously hampered by it. However, this is primarily symbolic recognition of the problem, since the agreement "does not involve or provide a basis for any liability or compensation" on the part of the developed countries.

  • Revision and transparency mechanisms
  • In another major step forward, the agreement introduces a new version of the revision and transparency mechanisms for the intended nationally determined contributions (INDC). It also institutes a process for all the Parties to update their contributions every five years.

    A first meeting will be convened in 2018. Countries that have made commitments only until 2015, like the United States, for example, are encouraged to update them at that time.

    A first "global stocktake" of the impacts of these contributions will be done in 2013.

    How these provisions of the agreement will affect developing countries is left for future COPs to determine. These countries will receive assistance in the preparation of these reports. The least-developed countries and developing small island States will be allowed some flexibility.

7. Is the Paris Agreement legally binding?

Laurent Fabius describes the agreement as "legally binding". But is it really? As an additional protocol to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the agreement is a treaty under international law.

Several provisions of the agreement do indeed contain the word "shall" and thus are binding. But there are subtle distinctions to keep in mind. Take the intended nationally determined contribution (INDC), for example. Countries must submit an INDC and then update it every five years, but what their contributions are to be is not stipulated.

Above all, the United Nations is not empowered to impose sanctions, and as a result, no action will be taken if the agreement is violated. This limits the degree to which it can be considered legally binding.

The factor encouraging compliance is, instead, the risk to the reputation of countries that sign the agreement but then fail to abide by its provisions. This is why some legal specialists describe the agreement as "politically constraining". It is also up to civil society to put pressure on the States to comply with this agreement and to encourage States to achieve their objectives. The transparency and revision mechanisms are particularly useful in this regard, as they enable performance to be monitored. (Concerning this issue, see the work of the Commission environnement of the Club des Juristes - in French).

8. When will the Paris Agreement enter into force?

The entry into force of the Paris Agreement is not immediate, nor is it systematic. It is dependent on the adoption of the COP decision, since the agreement accompanies this decision. This is the step accomplished on 12 December.

Next, the States must sign the agreement. It will be open for signature for a one-year period starting 22 April 2016, the day on which a high-level ceremony organised by UN secretary general Ban Ki-Moon will be held.

Once it has been signed by the 195 countries that are Parties to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change and that took part in the two weeks of negotiations at this COP, the Paris Agreement must be ratified by 55 countries that account for at least 55% of global GHG emissions, according to procedures defined by the laws of each country. They will be able to do this as of April 2016. The agreement will then enter into force thirty days later – the experts calculate this will be in 2018 at the earliest – and no later than in 2020.

There is also a withdrawal mechanism. It is identical to the one in the Kyoto Protocol, except that the mechanism in that previous agreement applied only to the developed countries. After three years from the date the agreement enters into force, a Party may withdraw from the agreement at any time. The withdrawal will come into effect one year later.

It is not so easy to withdraw from such an agreement, however, because the countries that jump ship could be singled out for criticism by the other countries or civil society or both. Here again, the political and reputation risks are far from negligible.

9. Why is this agreement considered "historic"?

Many participants, observers and journalists have spoken of a "historic" agreement. The main reason this adjective is justified is that this is the first universal international climate agreement; that is, it involves a commitment from all the Parties and not just the developed countries, as the Kyoto Protocol did. And while that was the declared objective of the COP21, it was far from certain that negotiators would succeed in reconciling the widely divergent interests of the 196 Parties. The failure of the 2009 conference in Copenhagen, where such an agreement was supposed to have been signed, was also hanging over the corridors of the Le Bourget Exhibition Centre during the negotiations in December 2015.

10. What is the Agenda of Solutions or the Lima-Peru Action Agenda (LPAA)?

Alongside the Paris Agreement, which is an undertaking among States, an Agenda of Solutions, more commonly referred to as the LPAA (Lima-Peru Action Agenda) during the COP21, involves the commitments of non-state actors such as companies, local authorities, NGOs, indigenous populations and others, who are not authorised to negotiate an international agreement.

These actions and commitments are grouped together on an Internet platform called NAZCA (Non-state Actor Zone for Climate Action) or LPAA, which centralises all collective actions. In January, slightly less than a month after the COP21, some 10,825 commitments had been registered by cities, regions, investors and companies concerning deforestation, GHG emission reductions or transport.

This agenda was launched by U.N. secretary general Ban Ki-Moon at the Climate Summit in New York in September 2014 and then by Peru and France, the hosts of COP20 and COP21, which are promoting it today.

The objective of this agenda, also known as the Positive Agenda, which is unprecedented in the history of climate negotiations, is twofold: first, to encourage all actors to undertake strong measures to fight against climate change, and second, to send a political signal to the States to show that a broad coalition of economic, financial, and institutional actors is ready to act to achieve common goals and that this represents a development opportunity for everyone.

11. What role did France play in the COP21?

France asked to be the host of the 21st Conference of the Parties. It was not hard to be chosen to organise the event because Paris was the only candidate! As the host, France presided over the COP21 in the person of its foreign minister, Laurent Fabius. Its role was to welcome the conference participants and facilitate the negotiations – a crucial and incredibly complex mission because all decisions had to be taken by unanimous vote.

Given the high stakes, France set up a special intergovernmental team specifically for the COP21. Led by Laurent Fabius, President of the COP21, it also included Ségolène Royal, Minister of Ecology, who was France's European Union representative in the negotiations and who was also in charge of relations with civil society and the Agenda of Solutions, Michel Sapin, Finance Minister, and Annick Girardin, Minister of State for Development.

To help move the negotiations along, two other well-known personalities were on hand: Nicolas Hulot, the President's Special Envoy for the Protection of the Planet, and Laurence Tubiana, Ambassador for International Climate Change Negotiations. Paul Watkinson, who has headed the French climate negotiations team since 2007, was called back into service, and Pierre-Henri Guignard was the Secretary General for the preparations of the COP21.

For its role as the event's host and facilitator of negotiations – a role that required a great deal work well before the conference – France was widely praised by all the participants from the start to the finish of the COP.

12. How was the COP21 financed?

With a provisional budget of €187 million for a two-week conference attended by 40,000 people, the cost of the COP21 per day and per person was one-tenth that of an event like the G8 or the G20, according to Laurent Fabius.

To share the expenses, France enlisted about twenty companies as sponsors. They covered about 10% of the cost (less than the 20% Laurent Fabius had hoped for).

As for financial spin-offs from the conference, it was expected that €100 million would be spent on lodging, food and gifts in the Paris region.

13. How did the COP21 address the issues of sustainable development and climate change?

The COP21 was the largest diplomatic event ever organised by France. The government wanted it to be exemplary from the environmental standpoint.

Many measures were therefore taken to reduce the environmental impact of the event by reducing the consumption of resources and GHG emissions.

To minimise the carbon footprint of the COP21, gas heating was optimised by using the latest technologies; public transport was made more available and promoted; and short circuits were used, in particular to serve the more than 412,000 meals consumed during the COP. A carbon offset system was also implemented.

As for logistics, the aim was to have less waste. That meant reusing products and materials whenever possible, setting up a waste sorting centre on site, and providing water fountains and flasks to limit the proliferation of plastic water bottles. The wooden structure built specifically for the plenary sessions was 100% French made and could be dismantled and reused.

Amendments with sustainable development clauses were added to all the contracts between the Le Bourget site, where the conference was held, and service providers. The personnel were also informed about environmental issues.

The COP21 received ISO 20121 certification for Event Sustainability Management systems. In particular, priority was given to hiring people and suppliers from the surrounding area (Seine Saint Denis).