[2015 Paris Climate Conference | 30/11/15 - 11/12/15]
From 30 November to 11 of December, the eyes of the world will turn once more to the annual gathering that is the COP - or Conference of the Parties - the 'supreme body'of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).
This is the 21st such meeting and it would be fair to say that the previous 20 have carried the world's hopes for a credible, ambitious political solution to climate change into a few more troughs than they have to the top of peaks.
Since 1995 we've been through: Berlin (The Berlin Mandate), Geneva (findings of the IPCCs' 2nd assessment accepted), Kyoto (the Kyoto Protocol that, amazingly, is still operating), Buenos Aires (twice, including creation of the Buenos Aires Plan of Action and the meeting that failed to fully resolve issues with the Kyoto Protocol), Bonn (twice), The Hague (collapsed, leading to Bonn II in the same year), Marrakech (enabling Kyoto Protocol ratification), New Delhi (Delhi Ministerial Declaration), Milan (Adaptation Fund), Montreal (Montreal Action Plan and 1st meeting of the parties to the Kyoto Protocol - CMP1), Nairobi (support for developing countries and clean development mechanism), Bali (Bali Action Plan and establishment of the Ad Hoc Working Group on Long-term Cooperative Action under the Convention: AWG-LCA), Poznan (mechanism to incorporate forest protection and focus on Kyoto Protocol successor), Copenhagen (or 'Hopenhagen' as it infamously became known, but it was actually more effective than it's usually given credit for), Cancun (Green Climate Fund and agreement to limit warming to 2°C), Durban (set-up legally binding agreement for post-2020 to be agreed in 2015), Doha (The Doha Climate Gateway), Warsaw (progress towards 2015 agreement) and, last year, Lima (continued groundwork for this year's COP21/CMP11).
The past 20 years have seen a host of agreements, protocols, mechanisms, declarations, gateways, plans and mandates, but, on balance, whilst there's certainly been progress during that time, given current predictions have us heading for at least 3.8°C of warming against the 2°C goal (and today it was announced that the world is already 1°C warmer), it's fair to say all these annual meetings have under- versus over-achieved.
COP21/CMP11, otherwise know as the '2015 Paris Climate Conference', has a stated objective of achieving "a legally binding and universal agreement on climate, from all the nations of the world".
The general consensus seems to be that, whilst some form of universal agreement (probably legally binding) is possible, the likelihood of it being strong enough to limit global temperature rise to less than 2°C is pretty slim. Given the nature of the UNFCCC though, that's not particularly surprising - in fact one could even argue it's to be expected. There's just too many contrasting views and complex, conflicting interests for it to be otherwise.
But I'm certainly no international climate negotiations expert, so if you want to get up to speed as painlessly as possible on what the Paris negotiations mean, The Climate Institute (TCI) has it's usual great annual summary available here (I should admit to a certain amount of bias here, having worked at TCI from 2011-15). If you then want to dig a little deeper, there's more background available on this COP21 site (which also houses a link to the official conference website).
These annual negotiations are undoubtedly important but, despite what some of the media reporting will scream at us, they aren't the only way for solutions to climate change to emerge. Whatever happens in Paris, the negotiations will neither be a total failure nor unrivalled success. They'll just be another small (or large if you're feeling optimistic) step along the way.
In some ways, the most important outcomes from COP21 could actually come from the Sustainable Innovation Forum (SIF15) that runs in parallel to the main conference.
Ambitious global political solutions to climate change will always be hard to create and sustain (remember Australia's Carbon Tax anyone?) and are, let's be honest, highly unlikely to happen at the speed we need them to. However, as each year goes by it becomes more and more apparent that the technological and accelerating investment shifts are where the seismic transformations are most likely to come from. The Sustainable Innovation Forums are slowly becoming a powerful tool for accelerating both these trends, which is why I believe their importance will only grow in coming years.
In my opinion, the technological and investment pathways are where the momentum sits at the moment. Which is not to say the political side of things is lacking momentum, as there's been a huge amount of effort to build it over the last 11 months to make Paris as successful as possible. It's just that there's now serious money starting to be made in cleantech innovation and, given we live in a capitalist system, that's driving the scale and speed of change we need much more than the political side of the equation.
Having said all that, I truly hope I'm wrong. I hope Paris does what no COP has ever done and wildly exceeds all expectations to finally set us on a track to a net zero carbon future. If that happens, I'll be the first person cracking open the organic, carbon-neutral champagne.
But even if the 21st COP doesn't go that far, I'll still crack open a micro-brewed beer or two if Paris, as I suspect it will, successfully opens up the market just a little bit more for the cleantech entrepreneurs and investors who are rapidly putting their money where the zero-carbon economic opportunites lie.
Because that will be an outcome worth celebrating and will probably create more lasting momentum in the fight to address climate change than any hard-fought-for compromise of a political solution ever will.