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COP21: A shaky start to negotiations

Climate & Environment

COP21: A shaky start to negotiations

US President Barack Obama was among the heads of state to address the COP21 on its opening day.


World leaders made a grand display of impotence at the opening of the COP21 in Paris on Monday (30 November). The ambitions of the big emitters remain as low as ever. EurActiv France reports.

After a morning orchestrated down to the last second, the organisers of the COP21 had a world of trouble getting a photo of the 150 attending heads of state and government, just before midday.

Asked to bring an entourage to the Paris conference, world leaders overran their allotted time slot for the photo shoot session, some by talking to their advisors, others coming and going with members of their team at crucial moments. France just about managed to place key ministers alongside President François Hollande in the official photograph.

The photo shoot chaos was an apt symbol of the difficulties lying ahead when the 196 countries get their heads down to thrash out a common agreement.

The climate negotiations that opened in Paris yesterday (30 November) “will not be a peaceful path”, said Tim Gore from Oxfam. They “could even get violent”, he added.

The tone at the opening was hopeful, however. Laurent Fabius, the French minister of foreign affairs, called on the negotiators to be ambitious. “The first condition for success is already fulfilled: 150 of you have turned up despite the turmoil. Your presence shows that resolution is stronger than barbarity.”

“Paris will not solve everything, but we will get nowhere without it,” he added.

>>Read: Jean-Paul Chanteguet: ‘Laurent Fabius must stay on as minister of foreign affairs post-COP21’

Shortly beforehand, François Hollande had also called for greater ambition in a speech that touched on the long and short term, and urged leaders to “free the world from terror and spare the planet from catastrophes”. He also encouraged action that would “keep global warming below +2°C and if possible, to +1.5°C”, a target judged by many to be unrealistic.

The efforts promised so far would allow for a temperature rise of almost +3°C, according to the calculations of the OECD.

Developed countries Vs developing countries

Despite the high hopes of NGOs and civil society, it quickly emerged that viewpoints were still broadly split, with developed and developing countries in opposing camps.

The President of Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe, who had recently placed France on a list of dangerous destinations “because of the inability of its leaders to ensure security”, accused developed countries of “leaving poor countries to clean up the problem they created”.

Xi Jinping, the president of China, raised the question of North-South finance, to which his country contributes. He also stressed the importance of the principle of “common but differentiated responsibilities” between countries. But the Chinese leader was criticised for only mentioning the post-2020 period, raising doubts over his country’s commitment to tackling climate change in the short term.

>>Read: France, China agree to fight carbon emissions

Among the day’s good news stories, US President Barack Obama for the first time publically recognised the concept of differentiated responsibility, and pledged to finance adaptation to climate change in the developing world.

The American president is due to meet with representatives from the small island states on Tuesday (1 December), which suggests that an agreement on one of the major stumbling blocks in the negotiations – on the issue of “loss and damage” – may be near.

Many of the most vulnerable countries hope to use the Paris conference to convince the Global North of the need to finance climate adaptation projects, like building dykes to protect low-lying land. But these agreements must be made bilaterally between states, and will not be included in the final Paris text.

Standing out for the wrong reasons

Several countries set out rather different stalls during their opening statements. Russia cunningly called for a legally-binding deal, touching a raw nerve in the United States, where Congress is hostile to any climate agreement.

>>Read: Civil society could force governments to stick to their climate commitments

But the Russian national contribution remains one of the weakest in the international negotiations. The biggest country in the world has put off all its CO2 emissions reduction targets from 2020 to 2030, and has shown no great willingness to commit to any kind of decarbonisation.

Rather than planning to enlarge the land area covered by forest, the country decided to use the CO2 storage capacity of its trees to compensate for the emissions of its other sectors, and thus cut its net emissions. This unorthodox methodological decision further weakened the credibility of an already unambitious national contribution.

Among the other troublemakers on the opening day of the COP21 were Venezuela and Nicaragua. Both announced that the negotiations lacked credibility and that they would not submit a voluntary commitment (INDC) to a process that was “leading the world towards a temperature rise of more than +4°C”.


The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) was adopted during the Rio de Janeiro Earth Summit in 1992. This Framework Convention is a universal convention of principle, acknowledging the existence of anthropogenic (human-induced) climate change and handing industrialised countries the major part of responsibility for combating it.

The adoption of the Kyoto Protocol at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in 1992 was a milestone in the international negotiations on tackling climate change.

For the first time, binding greenhouse gas emissions reduction targets were set for industrialised countries. The protocol, which entered into force in 2005, was intended to cover the period 2008-2012.

A longer-term vision was introduced by the Bali Action Plan in 2007, which set timelines for the negotiations towards reaching a successor agreement to the Kyoto Protocol, due to expire in 2012. It was expected that an agreement would be reached by December 2009.

Although Copenhagen, Denmark, did not result in the adoption of a new agreement, COP15/CMP5 recognised the common objective of keeping the increase in global temperature below 2°C. Furthermore, industrialised countries undertook to raise $100 billion per year by 2020 to assist developing countries in climate-change adaptation and mitigation. Cancún, Mexico, in 2010 made the 2°C target more tangible by establishing dedicated institutions on key points, such as the Green Climate Fund.

The willingness to act together was reflected in the establishment, in 2011, of the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action (ADP), whose mandate is to bring all countries, both developed and developing, to the table to develop “a protocol, another legal instrument or an agreed outcome with legal force” applicable to all the States Parties to the UNFCCC. This agreement should be adopted in 2015 and implemented from 2020.

In the interval, until a legally binding multilateral agreement is implemented in 2020, the Doha Conference (Qatar) in 2012 established a second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol (2013-2020), which was ratified by a number of industrialised countries, and terminated the Bali track.

The Climate Change Conferences in Warsaw, in 2013 and Lima, in 2014, enabled essential progress towards COP21 in Paris in 2015. All the states were invited to submit their Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs) towards reducing greenhouse gas emissions ahead of COP21.