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COP21 has been described as humanity’s last chance for tackling climate change.

With only days remaining before the start of the United Nations’ Paris Climate Talks, it’s important to understand the backstory of COP21, very likely the most critical of all previous Conference of Parties meetings.  Over 100 world leaders, some 40,000 delegates and hundreds of thousands of protesters will descend on Paris starting on November 30 with the aim of reaching a global binding agreement on emissions.

I’m a Climate Reality leader (Chicago2013). The following material is sourced from The Climate Reality Project. (Rolly Montpellier, Editor for BoomerWarrior).

The Backstory of COP21, boomer warrior

What exactly is happening in Paris? Even if the conference’s themes and goals are clear, who precisely is involved and what actually happens can still seem a bit of a mystery. Plus, how did we get here in the first place?

These are important questions if you’re going to follow along through the upcoming weeks of negotiations. So we’ve put together a short primer below to give you the Who/What/When of international climate negotiations leading up to Paris and then beyond.

While it’s been a long road to get here, one of the factors that make the Paris talks different from previous negotiations – and means we have a real chance at a historic agreement – is that negotiators have learned from past attempts and have adjusted their approach accordingly.

The Backstory of COP21


Countries agree to the Montreal Protocol to quickly phase out the chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) creating a hole in the ozone layer. Then, two years later the protocol goes into effect. Think of the Montreal Protocol as establishing a global working model of a framework agreement where countries agree to a set of environmental goals and then separately implement measures to achieve them. We’ll see later on how important this framework has become.


One hundred and fifty-four countries sign the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), a framework agreement binding all signing nations and the EU (known as “parties”) to prevent “dangerous anthropogenic interference with Earth’s climate system” and to monitor and report their activities on climate change. It also crucially separated developed countries and developing countries into “annexes” with differentiated responsibilities. Today, 195 countries and the EU have signed the treaty. The UNFCCC is a big step forward, but it doesn’t – on its own – commit countries to actually doing anything to reduce emissions.


Nations make the first serious attempt at an agreement to move forward on the UNFCCC’s goals – and the result is the Kyoto Protocol. The agreement sets up a structure that follows the UNFCCC treaty’s annexes, where industrialized countries who ratify the protocol are legally bound to work towards targets set at the international level for reducing emissions, beginning in 2005 (developing countries were not bound to any targets). Splits between developed and developing nations led to some countries, including the US to not formally join the agreement, but it did bind the EU and some industrialized countries to emissions reduction targets they ultimately met.


The UNFCCC holds its 15th Conference of the Parties (COP 15) meeting in Copenhagen with the goal of finding a new and more inclusive way forward for international efforts on climate change. For several reasons, COP 15 didn’t meet the climate movement’s expectations, but it did push the international community towards the idea of nationally determined targets.


At COP 17 in Durban, South Africa, negotiators set COP 21 in Paris in 2015 as the time and place for a new global climate agreement, this time applicable to allparties.


Negotiators at COP 19 in Warsaw, Poland establish Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs) as the tool for countries to make and submit commitments to climate action as part of the Paris agreement. What separates INDCs from previous policy efforts is that they:

  • Allow countries to set their own targets under a common framework, instead of having them set by the international community;
  • Were supposed to be submitted in advance of the Paris talks, enabling citizens and other nations to see each country’s commitments;
  • Include the policies countries would use to make good on their commitments; and
  • Are expected to be submitted by all nations, not just developed nations.

The result is that for the first time, countries are setting real goals under an established system, saying how they’ll meet them, and exposing themselves to public scrutiny.


COP 21 is just ahead. Think of the agreements and decisions that came out of the earlier meetings as steps to get here. The format itself is pretty simple: 196 parties to the UNFCCC (195 countries and the EU) send delegates chosen by their national governments. Who these delegates are and who leads them varies from country to country: the US, for example is sending US Special Envoy for Climate Change Todd Stern from the US State Department to lead its delegation, while China is sending Xie Zhenhua, the vice chairman of the National Development and Reform Commission, and other nations are sending their environment ministers. Regardless of their title, these delegates are there to represent their nation’s position and have the power to give and take on what they’re willing to commit to as part of negotiations.

So far, INDCs representing over 150 nations have been submitted and according to the UNFCCC and scientists who’ve considered what these commitments will together do to restrain global warming, we’ve still got some ways to go to limit temperature rise to 2 degrees Celsius or less. Which is why citizen calls for negotiators to get even more ambitious with their commitments are so critical to ensuring we get an agreement in Paris that can actually address climate change in the timeframe we need. If you haven’t already, add your voice here.

With respect to what they’ll actually be negotiating in Paris, at a meeting in Geneva back in February, all the nations participating weighed in with their perspectives on what the agreement in Paris should contain. Two UNFCCC co-chairs then took on the job of distilling all these opinions over the course of the year, eventually coming to a 31-page draft agreement that will be the starting point for negotiations, not to mention separate decisions to supplement the draft agreement.

Moving Forward

Regardless of what the final text of the agreement that comes out of these negotiations is, it’s important to remember that it will be just a starting point – an important one but a starting point nonetheless. After the talks end, it will be up to us – people like you – to make sure our policymakers not only make good on what they promised in Paris, but also progressively make their commitments more and more ambitious. We’re pushing for an agreement that formalizes this process with a review period every five years to evaluate what countries have done and what more they could do, keeping the momentum going and taking us closer to a future where carbon-powered economies and the worst of climate change are things of the past. If all goes well, a vision of that future will be written into the agreement in the shape of a long-term goal of zero greenhouse gas emissions, sending a strong signal to the world that the age of fossil fuels is over. And that’s a goal worth fighting for.

Image: © 2013 Dirk Vorderstraße/Flickr cc by 2.0


RollyRolly Montpellier is the Founder and Managing Editor of BoomerWarrior.Org. He’s a Climate Reality leader, a Blogger and a Climate Activist. He’s a member of Climate Reality Canada, Citizens’ Climate Lobby (Ottawa) and 350.Org (Ottawa), the Ethical Team (as an influencer)  and Global Population Speakout.

Rolly has been published widely in both print and online publications. You can follow him on FacebookTwitter and Linkedin.

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  1. Something I been wondering about is if the Paris talks turn out to be ineffectual, what is going to be the collective response? Will we just get mad and throw up our hands and say we’re dead? Or will we get madder yet and start rioting. I don’t support either one of these scenarios but I do fear them. We been saying, “Paris is the last chance”, if we really believe that and we fail there, I’d imagine the response will be severe with such a big build up coming into the conference.

  2. Danny – Paris is the last chance. You and I both know this. The answer to your question is NO. Movements such as 350.Org have a back-up plan to move forward in the likely event that we will not reach an agreement which will limit warming to 2 degrees.

    My prediction is that 2016 will see more aggressive and tumultuous climate action and more civil disobedience that we have yet witnessed. Brace yourself.

  3. Ah, Danny, you ask a valid question. The Russian peasants didn’t rise up until there was literally no bread left in the shops. Even with a lousy outcome in Paris (remember, any one country can scupper the whole thing because the UNFCCC confuses consensus with unanimity), we’re not there yet. Too many of us are still too comfortable.

    Do you remember the “collective response” following the tragic disappointment at the Copenhagen COP15? People — climate activists everywhere — just hung their heads and crawled into their holes. The climate movement hasn’t been the same since. It’s gone the way of breast cancer activism, which used to be about stopping upstream pollution (figuratively and literally) and which has turned into a pink ribbon circus. Got breast cancer? Come run and be joyful! And be sure to wear pink. (Who, me? Cynical?)

  4. Rolly, to me this is more the “official history” of COP21, not the backstory. The backstory is more like:

    1987 – Countries agreed to phase out ozone-killing CFCs. And two years later, once Dupont had figured out how to replace them, the Montreal Protocol was put into effect.

    1990 – When scientists in the new Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change were asked to report on the worst-case scenario, to let the world know what was possible, the idea was dismissed — a value judgement by a scientific body that since then has continually decreed that it cannot say what “dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system” is because it’s a value judgement.

    1997 till now – The wealthier, GHG-spewing nations of the world tell developing countries to go screw themselves. “No,” we tell them, “your survival doesn’t matter as long as there’s more money to be made — by us.” These wealthier, GHG-spewing countries take turns being the bad guy at the Conferences of the Parties. So the COPs have been festive parties of denial, obfuscation and delay, delay, delay.

    2015 – For the Paris climate conference, the goalposts have been moved. Whereas we used to be trying to avoid 2ºC of equilibrium (long-term future) warming, now we’re settling for “Hey, let’s see if we can keep it below 2ºC by 2100. After that, who gives a $#@!” And that 2ºC “target” (really, should we actually be *aiming* for the guardrail?) is BS, too. All the developing and vulnerable nations have asked for a 1.5ºC warming limit — you know, so they can SURVIVE.

    Even though big oil companies have suggested that a price on carbon would be a good thing, what has the Executive Director of the UNFCCC Secretariat told investors? Nope, no carbon pricing in the Paris agreement. W.T.F.?

    Oh, and did I mention that the UNFCCC analysis of the INDCs shows that greenhouse gas emissions will be higher in 2030 than they are today, on an increasing trajectory. And that’s when we’re supposed to suddenly turn it all around and start declining them.

    Folks, the IPCC has given us a best-case scenario (it’s called RCP2.6) — the only one that might keep temperature below 2ºC by 2100 and not go higher after 2100. But it says we have to start declining our emissions now, before 2020. So, is anyone in Paris talking about it? Of course not. Remember, these COPs are all festive circuses of denial, obfuscation and delay, delay, delay.

    (Who, me? Cynical?)

    • Julie (Greenhearted) – I totally understand your cynicism. And I also know that whatever we do in Paris will be insufficient but if the world can at least reach a binding agreement on emissions, that would be a major accomplishment. Is it going to be enough? Of course not.

      My guess is that when the rubber hits the road, that is when discussions about who will bear the costs of climate action start, leadership might start to wane. We will know soon enough.

      I think we can forget about RCP2.6. That will not happen.

      Thank you for your cynical interest. I mean that in a friendly way.

  5. Hmmm, Greenheart, I suppose the human condition being what it is, no-one really sits up and pays attention to the scary climate studies. The scenarios of seas rising several metres doesn’t hit their ‘reality mode.’ Rather like watching a doomsday Hollywood movie, they look at the climate projections with horror, then go about their business as usual. Most of what I hear is…”I don’t care, it won’t happen in my lifetime.” I think perhaps some of our governments have taken that attitude…certainly Britain isn’t taking climate change seriously enough. The other problem is the attitude ‘well if they aren’t going to do anything, then why should we?’ Nations are playing a ‘tit-for-tat’ game in the run up to COP21. I suppose the question is, what will it take to frighten people enough to really do something? A Biblical flood perhaps? But who will play Noah? Time is running out…it will come to this.


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