COP21: Have 21 years of negotiations paid off, or have they just led to false promises?

Daniel Perlaki, Carbon & Sustainability Intern, reports on the latest International Climate Change Agreement.


In December 2015, representatives from every nation of the world headed to Paris for COP21 – the 21st Conference of Parties. For twenty-one years, countries have been trying to come up with a global, legally binding agreement on climate change to prevent catastrophic warming and unpredictable consequences. And after twenty-one years of negotiations, a deal has finally been agreed. Nearly two-hundred countries signed the agreement to keep the atmosphere warming ‘well below’ two degrees Celsius.

The excitement has been considerable. David Cameron is thrilled the deal has ‘secured our planet for many, many generations to come’, and Barrack Obama says they reached the agreement the world needed.  But if the agreement has in fact saved us all, what could the twenty-thousand people protesting on Avenue de la Grande Armeé have to complain about? People from across the world – including a group of students from Falmouth – risked arrest at the hands of French police for gathering during a state of emergency, but why?

It doesn’t take a lot of research to find the shortcomings in this ‘historic’ agreement. Primarily, despite the ambitious targets and ‘soaring rhetoric’, there are no legally binding emission reduction commitments; it relies on countries making voluntary pledges to cut emissions. In the UK, that will actually mean a reduction in the carbon emission reduction targets set by the coalition government in 2011. And there are no consequences for not meeting these commitments.

The pledge for developed countries to give $100 billion per year to developing countries (as a form of debt to help developing countries move beyond fossil fuels and adapt to the already considerable impact of climate change) looks positive at face value. After all, it is developed nations who are responsible for the vast majority of carbon emissions so far. However, upon closer inspection, it appears that through creative accounting and definition ambiguity only $2 billion is being given annually, falling far short of the $400 billion research suggests is required.

There are further shortcomings, namely that carbon capture and storage (a controversial effort to capture carbon from the atmosphere) is to be relied on heavily. Carbon trading has the green light, and the deal excludes emissions from shipping, flights and agriculture. It appears that the deal makes no commitment to keep fossil fuels in the ground, but relies on creative but unproven market forces to solve the problem.

The deal that the government says will save certain doom appears to be leakier than the BP oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico, and given the Conservative government’s track record on climate policy (scrapping renewable subsidies, abandoning targets for carbon neutral homes, and allowing fracking in national parks), it is apparent this deal is going to have a somewhat limited impact.