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What you need to know about COP21

Monday 30th November 2015

Starting tomorrow, leaders from across the globe will gather in Paris to try and tackle one of earth’s biggest problems: global warming. Here's everything you need to know about the COP21.

World leaders get ready to tackle climate change

Photo: AFP / Citizenside / Richard Milnes

What is it?

It’s not the catchiest of names, but COP21 is one of the most important events this year. An acronym for Conference of Parties, it’s an annual meeting for world leaders to assess how we’re dealing with climate change issues and set goals to tackle it.

The first COP took place in Berlin in 1995 and since this is the twenty-first meeting, it has been cleverly called “COP21”.

You can think of it just like any twenty-first: an expensive event (€187 million) with lots of people giving long speeches.

You might remember past meetings like COP3 in Japan, which brought about the Kyoto Protocol, COP11 in Canada gave birth to the Montreal Action Plan, or the COP15 in Denmark which is basically known for being a huge failure.

COP21 is happening in Paris, France and despite the recent terror attacks, it will go ahead as planned but with heightened security.

Is this what all the protests over the weekend were about?

Yes. Over the last couple of days, hundreds and thousands of people around the world took to the streets to call for a strong deal at COP21.

There were marches in London, New York, Kathmandu, Mexico City, Sydney and Beirut to name a few. We got in on the action too, with more than 20,000 New Zealanders taking part in about 30 marches throughout the country.

Kiwi protest at Wellington climate change marches

Photo: RNZ / Michael Cropp

Paris, the host of the conference, was meant to be the heart of the worldwide marches, but police banned large public protests following the terror attacks that killed at least 130 people on November 13.

Despite the ban, hundreds demonstrated near the Place de la Republique in Paris on Sunday. Protestors clashed with riot police who used teargas to try and disperse the crowds. 

Police fired tear gas at demonstrators in Paris

Photo: AFP / Citizenside

Is climate change really that big of a problem?

Absolutely. Glaciers are shrinking, ice is disappearing and sea levels are rising. Scientists have warned our planet is already a whole degree closer to the  2 degrees C threshold, which if we get to, will be catastrophic. We're talking more draughts, floods, storms, and forest fires all over the world. Already sea levels have risen nearly 3 inches since the early 1990s; all we can do now is try to reduce the harm we've already caused. 

Every country has a part to play because if the earth goes kaput, there isn’t anywhere else for us to go. Some countries have more work to do like the US, China, Russia, Brazil and India which are thought to be the world’s biggest polluters.

Who will be there?

There will be more than 40,000 delegates from 195 countries. It's a huge meeting, in fact, the biggest COP ever.

This year’s high numbers can be put down to the fact that global warming isn’t an obscure, tin-foil helmet problem anymore. People are seriously worried about how higher temperatures will affect their countries and this means we could actually get some useful outcomes from this meeting.

Among the big names that’ll be there are Barack Obama, China’s Xi Jinping, the UK’s David Cameron and India’s Narendra Modi.

New Zealand is part of the mix, too with Prime Minister John Key attending as well as a nine-strong youth delegation.

What’s the point?

Simply put, the goal of COP21 is to reach an agreement on how to reduce greenhouse gas emissions so global temperatures do not exceed that deadly 2C threshold.

The treaty has already been drafted so the meeting is a place for leaders to thrash out the details, and argue over who burdens what costs.

It might sounds easy, but it’s not. The last time we tried to come up with an international agreement was in Copenhagen in 2009 and it was an epic disappointment.

On top of that, we’re already halfway to the 2C boiling point and many scientists say the gases we have already emitted into the atmosphere mean it’s kind of too late.

It’s going to take significant reductions in emissions soon, especially from the largest United States and China if we have ANY chance or reducing the harm to our home planet. The big players are also going to have to help finance less-wealthy nations to do the same.

There haven’t been great success in the past with these types of conferences, essentially because some countries throw hissy fits and pull out. For example, in 1997 in Kyoto, only rich countries promised to cut emissions in a deal that the US didn’t approve and Canada abandoned.

But this time might be different. The United Nations’ climate change chief told The Independent that, “what is unique here is that everyone is realising that this truly is a very, very urgent moment in the history of addressing climate change, that this is a moment we cannot afford to miss.”

Hopes of a successful outcome to COP21 are also hiehgtened by a unprecedernted display of unity from big business, with chief executives from about 70 of the world’s largest companies signing a statement urging leaders to "reach an ambitious climate deal". 

What happens if no deal is reached?

Worst case scenario, we all die.

A warming climate could see entire countries, like Kiribati, disappear. It also means more wildfires, droughts and flash floods across the globes. Not to mention, it puts 30 per cent of animals at risk of extinction. Guys, think of the animals! 

Why should I care?

Because we've all been part of screwing up this planet and we need to all be part of fixing it. 

TL;DR

Important people are meeting in Paris to discuss an international treaty to try to prevent global warming getting worse. People are optimistic, so fingers-crossed it doesn’t fail. 



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