Looking ahead to the Paris 2015 Climate Change Conference: Are we doomed to have a repeat of Copenhagen?

Freddie Neve


World leaders talk during the 2009 Copenhagen Climate Change Conference. Pete Souza, via Wikimedia Commons

On the 30th of November 2015, Paris will host the UN Climate Change Conference, also referred to as the Twenty-first session of the Conference of the Parties (COP21). After the Copenhagen Summit’s failure in 2009 to deliver a meaningful solution, the onus in Paris is on government leaders to deliver a universal, legally-binding, and effective agreement to enable countries to begin their transition to low-carbon intensive economies.

However, this will be easier said than done, and a number of obstacles exist which have the potential to mar this crucial summit.

The Road to Paris

On June 1st 2015, leaders sat down in Bonn to begin reducing a ninety-page negotiating document by the end of summer. The Copenhagen Summit (COP15) failed partly because there was a lack of dialogue between leaders prior to the summit. Whilst attempts in Bonn to produce a workable document to debate in Paris is an effort to resolve this issue, it should be noted that the document being negotiated – which was finalised last December at COP20 in Lima – contains a bewildering variety of proposals, a number of which are contradictory, and likely to produce substantial disagreement amongst various states.

Promisingly, unlike Copenhagen, a number of states have produced ‘intended nationally determined contributions’ (INDCs), a series of pledges to be considered in the negotiations leading up to Paris 2015. The United States, for example, have promised to cut greenhouse emissions by 26-28% from 2005 levels, by 2025. Whereas, the European Union, has pledged a 40% reduction in greenhouse emissions by 2030 compared to 1990 levels. However, these pledges may alter depending on how negotiations develop in Bonn and, as the section below explains, these negotiations are likely to be politically challenging.

Which States should face the burden of preventing Climate Change?

Last December’s COP20 in Lima agreed, in the lead up to Paris 2015, that states’ responsibilities to climate change will be based on ‘common but differentiated responsibilities’. Whilst there is a consensus that all states will need to battle against climate change together, determining which states have the greatest responsibility in this battle will be the key consideration for many leaders heading into negotiations.

It is often assumed that the transition towards a low-carbon economy will slow or even reverse economic growth. Despite the various investment opportunities present in renewable energy, a tension between Paris delegates will be in deciding which states should bear the economic burdens associated with reducing greenhouse emissions.

The four solutions often suggested to this quandary are as follows:

  1. Equal Pay (EP): States contribute to the reduction of greenhouse emissions in equal proportions.
  1. Ability to Pay (AP): Those states who are most able to transition towards a low-carbon economy should do so.
  1. Beneficiaries Pay (BP): Those states who have benefited most from causing climate change should pay the price to prevent catastrophic climate change.
  1. Culprits Pay (CP): Those states who have contributed the most to climate change should be burdened proportionally with the responsibility to reduce greenhouse emissions.

Whilst EP might seem reasonable, developing nations will feel particularly aggrieved, if COP21 enshrines EP within a universal agreement. EP requires developing states to reduce greenhouse emissions at the same rate as more developed states, who have enjoyed the economic benefits of using fossil fuels as a source of energy for longer periods historically (some since the Industrial Revolution). States such as India and Brazil will feel that they will lose the potential economic benefits of having a carbon-intensive economy, which developed nations have already enjoyed. Indeed, the acrimony between developed and developing nations was one of the key reasons why the Copenhagen Summit failed to bring about a meaningful agreement.

Developing nations are likely to favour solutions 2-4, as this will place a greater responsibility for reducing greenhouse emissions with developed nations such as the United States and European Union members. These nations are proportionally more responsible for the current levels of CO2 in the atmosphere, and arguably have benefited the most from this pollution. As leading-polluters, they would also have the greatest impact on preventing catastrophic climate change if they made significant reductions. However, leaders of these nations are unlikely to accept the burden of reducing greenhouse emissions without hard negotiation, especially considering that, in their defence, a significant amount of the pollution that they are being held responsible for, took place before knowledge of climate change existed.

These arguments are one of the reasons why the UN’s Green Climate Fund was implemented in 2010, which commits developed nations to raise $100 billion per annum, by 2020, in order to finance green growth within developing countries, and make EP a more palatable solution for developing nations. However, developed nations have been slow to deliver contributions.

In short, Paris 2015 is not about climate change, but economics. A universally binding agreement would require over 200 states to fundamentally alter their plans for economic growth, and, most solutions offered, are likely to disappoint a large number of delegates attending. This renders Paris 2015, one of the toughest negotiations in the history of international politics.

So Who Are The Key Players?

Developed nations such as the United States, European Union members and China, will be important players in the upcoming negotiations. Despite President Obama’s sympathy towards green politics, the United States as a whole has often been suspicious of multilateral agreements on climate change, as evidenced by their rejection of the 1997 Kyoto Protocol. Even if a universal agreement is adopted at Paris, Obama is likely to face an uphill battle in ratifying a new treaty in a Republican Senate before his presidency is over.

The 2009 Copenhagen Summit failed because the key players were not involved. However, importantly, the world’s three major emitters of greenhouse emissions – China, the United States and European Union member states – are all deeply involved in the negotiations leading up to Paris. However, make no mistake that neither China nor the United States are likely to accept a deal which relatively disadvantages one power against the other.

Other key polluters such as India, Brazil, Mexico and Russia, are also likely to use the United States, China and European Union as benchmarks for their own INDCs. Thus, these key players will perhaps see Paris as an opportunity to promote ambitious climate change policy. Even if reducing greenhouse emissions does not suit these key player’s short-term interests as economic powers, there is little doubt that it will be in their long-term interests in terms of their security and survival.


Extreme Weather, such as Hurricane Ike which devastated in Texas in 2008, will become more frequent because of climate change. Jocelyn Augus/FEMA, via Wikimedia Commons

What is at Stake?

Considering Kyoto and Copenhagen both failed to achieve meaningful change, perhaps it is sensible to be sceptical over the potential for success in Paris. Despite a blossoming of green politics since Copenhagen, and a general sense that governments sincerely want an agreement in Paris, the strains between the interests of both developing and developed nations means that, drafting a universal and legally-binding agreement, will pose a considerable political challenge.

However, what is certain is that these talks hold great importance. A report from the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in 2014, argued that CO2 emissions would have to halve by 2050, in order to avoid global temperature rises of between 2-4°C by 2100. Such temperature increases are likely to be catastrophic for various countries, as well as for global food production. As Ruth Davis, the Political Director for Greenpeace UK, argues, ‘it is important for people to understand that the 2°C goal is not an aspiration, it is an obligation’.

Climate Change has the potential to be the greatest security threat the international community has ever faced, the casualties of which could make history’s most violent wars pale in comparison. Hopefully, leaders attending Paris 2015, will realise that there is a lot more at stake than merely stifled economic growth.

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