COP21 Summit: Highlights and Key Takeaways

The 21st session of the Conference of Parties (the COP21 summit) began with the goal to achieve a legally binding agreement among all nations to limit global warming to below 2°C by 2100. COP21 appeared poised to attain this objective. It was attended by 147 heads of state and 40,000 other delegates from government, intergovernmental organizations, UN agencies, NGOs and civil society. The diverse nature of COP21's participants seemed to ensure that all stakeholders would be involved in formulating and implementing the provisions of the COP21 agreement.

The COP21 Agreement: An Inclusive Approach to Fighting Climate Change

The COP21 agreement reflects the inclusive nature of the summit. First, all signatory countries are required to reach the peak of their respective greenhouse emissions as soon as possible and then gradually reduce them as the century progresses:

  • …[All] Parties [should] aim to reach global peaking of greenhouse gas emissions as soon as possible… and to undertake rapid reductions thereafter in accordance with best available science, so as to achieve a balance between anthropogenic emissions by sources and removals by sinks of greenhouse gases in the second half of this century…

Second, all signatory countries are mandated to help keep any increase in global temperature well below 2°C, as well as to help limit any increase in global temperature to 1.5°C:

  • Emphasizing with serious concern the urgent need to address the significant gap between the aggregate effect of Parties' mitigation pledges in terms of global annual emissions of greenhouse gases by 2020 and aggregate emission pathways consistent with holding the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and pursuing efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C.

Third, countries' pledges must be reviewed every 5 years:

  • The Conference of the Parties serving as the meeting of the Parties to the Paris Agreement shall undertake its first global stocktake in 2023 and every five years thereafter unless otherwise decided by the Conference of the Parties serving as the meeting of the Parties to the Paris Agreement.


Fourth, developed countries are to send developing countries USD 100 billion in climate finance each year from 2020 onwards (the said amount is expected to increase with time):

  • Resolves to enhance the provision of urgent and adequate finance, technology and capacity-building support by developed country Parties in order to enhance the level of ambition of pre-2020 action by Parties, and in this regard strongly urges developed country Parties to scale up their level of financial support, with a concrete roadmap to achieve the goal of jointly providing USD 100 billion annually by 2020 for mitigation and adaptation while significantly increasing adaptation finance from current levels and to further provide appropriate technology and capacity-building support.

It is logical that the COP21 agreement has an inclusive approach to fighting climate change, as it is a problem that affects rich and poor nations alike. In April 2015, the Australian Medical Association (AMA) warned that climate change can render Australia more vulnerable to vector-borne diseases such as dengue. In Bangladesh, climate change resulted in more cyclones, storm surges and coastal erosion.

Moreover, inclusivity ensures that the reforms stipulated in the COP21 agreement will have longer and more lasting effects on society as a whole. All stakeholders who signed the COP21 agreement are urged to integrate reforms into their respective institutional practices. Governments, for example, can provide subsidy for renewable energy projects. Companies can devise more sustainable business operations. Schools and civil society groups can educate communities regarding climate change and how to mitigate its impact. If stakeholders do their share in fighting climate change, the COP21 agreement has a greater chance of achieving success.

People or Profits?

While COP21 was viewed by some as a well-intentioned attempt to counter climate change, critics argued that it treated the symptoms, rather than the root of the problem itself. COP21 addressed the need for an international climate change agreement, but failed to recognize the social, political and economic factors behind climate change. Resolving climate change involves getting countries to agree to help keep the planet from warming more than 1.5 degrees, and also involves addressing issues such as joblessness, homelessness, poverty, food security, gender equality and access to health care.

Massive unemployment deprives governments of a stable tax base that is needed to fund "green" projects like renewable energy facilities and cleanup drives. Poverty, homelessness, lack of food security, gender inequality and inadequate access to health care force people to resort to unsustainable practices (e.g., agriculture, fishing, etc.) in order to survive. These unsustainable practices, in turn, increase the impact of climate change.

Why did COP21 not address the root causes of climate change? Some argue that an inherent conflict of interest was at work, given sponsorships by companies with uncertain sustainability credentials. Likewise, some of the world leaders who attended the summit have been responsible for policies that do not support climate change mitigation initiatives.

Still, some COP21 delegates did introduce or promote important innovations. Microsoft founder Bill Gates introduced the Breakthrough Energy Coalition, an initiative that intends to provide funding to companies engaging in clean energy research (e.g., energy efficiency, transportation, agriculture, etc.). Other executives behind the Breakthrough Energy Coalition include Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos, Virgin Group founder Richard Branson and Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg.

India's Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, promoted the use of clean energy by launching a global solar alliance of 120+ countries. He considers solar technology the hope for prosperity in the developing world, and said, "Solar technology is evolving, costs are coming down and grid connectivity is improving. The dream of universal access to clean energy is becoming more real. This will be the foundation of the new economy of the new century." He described the solar alliance as the "dream of universal access to clean energy...becoming more real."

The World Bank, along with Germany, Norway, Sweden and Switzerland, unveiled the Transformative Carbon Asset Facility (TCAF), a USD 500 million initiative that aims to limit carbon emissions in developing countries. The TCAF initiative will start in 2016 with a budget of USD 500 million. The World Bank and other creditors will increase this budget by USD 2 billion worth of investments and policy-related lending.

At the summit, British broadcaster and naturalist Sir David Attenborough urged people to switch to clean energy. In his speech to the summit's delegates, Attenborough claimed that solar energy is essential to humanity's future happiness and the natural world's survival. He said, "Developed nations should be able to solve many of the world's emissions problems by devising better ways of gathering, storing and transmitting energy derived from the sun. And to do so at a price that will undercut the cost of energy obtained from oil and coal. These problems facing the planet can be solved easily, and if tackled correctly over the next 10 years then that would limit the problems of global warming to a very considerable degree."

The Consumer Goods Forum (CGF), a coalition of big companies including Marks & Spencer, Unilever and APRIL, announced at the summit their goal to stabilize forest cover by 2030. This coalition aims to put an end to deforestation by prioritizing the development of sustainable commodities like palm oil, beef and paper. According to Marc Bolland, Marks & Spencer Chief Executive and CGF Vice Chairman, sustainable supply chains are no longer enough to address deforestation-companies must already work together to come up with policies that will promote more sustainable forest management. During the summit, he said, "We have learnt that working alone in our own supply chains is not enough. We need partnerships to solve the deforestation crisis at a whole landscape level. It is about produce and protect."

The Next Steps

COP21 can still increase its chances of winning the fight against global warming. It started on the right track by adopting an inclusive approach to fighting climate change with the COP21 agreement. The next logical step is to reconcile science with society by addressing the social, political and economic factors behind climate change. The fight against climate change must go beyond marketing and political rhetoric; it must work to solve root problems such as poverty and resource depletion.

Investing in the "green economy" (sustainable energy, agriculture, manufacturing, etc.) is one way COP21 can work to mitigate the negative impacts of global warming. If both the private and public sectors use the summit's "climate fund" to invest in the green economy, carbon emissions, pollution and resource depletion will all decrease. This, in turn, will result in less poverty, joblessness, homelessness and lack of opportunity.

Investing in the "green economy" will take time, effort and money. But our perspective is that it is a worthy investment.

FirstCarbon Solutions (FCS) provides expert advice on sustainable supply chains and resource management to help companies and governments around the globe recognize challenges and turn them into opportunities.