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A game changer? Here's what's actually happening at the Paris climate conference

COP21 is seen as the last best chance for the world to stop an environmental disaster.

COP21, THE CLIMATE change conference happening in Paris at the moment has been grabbing a lot of headlines.

The event, which sees representation from the governments of more than 190 nations, aims at reducing global greenhouse gas emissions quickly enough to prevent irreversible environmental damage to the planet.

If that sounds familiar, it’s because these conferences have been happening annually for more than 20 years.

This will be the 21st Conference of the Parties (hence the acronym COP21) since the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change took place in Rio.

Obama France Climate Countdown India's PM Narendra Modi, French President Francois Hollande and US President Barack Obama Source: AP Photo/Evan Vucci

Why hasn’t this been sorted out before now?

A number of previous conferences have managed to make progress but without tying down the world’s worst offenders to concrete targets.

In 1997 the Kyoto Protocol was produced, laying out an aim of bringing down global emissions by around 5% compared to 1990 levels by 2012.

However, dragging of feet by China and the United States in setting emission levels meant that the protocol failed to gain traction.

KYOTO PROTOCOL A sign outside the White House urging the then President to sign the Kyoto Protocol Source: AP Photo/Ron Edmonds

The 2009 conference in Copenhagen was also seen as a breakthrough at the time as it was the first time that the world’s major developed nations collectively agreed that greenhouse gas emissions needed to be restricted.

Despite what seemed like a positive outcome, nothing legally binding was set out – something that COP21 aims to change.

Speaking about the conference shortly after its launch earlier today, French President Francois Hollande said:

Never have the stakes been so high because this is about the future of the planet, the future of life.

Stumbling blocks

More than 100 poor countries and low-lying, small-island states – many of them in a bloc called the Climate Vulnerable Forum – are calling for a tougher goal of 1.5°C.

Timing is important too: To have a 50-50 shot at 2°C, global CO2 emissions must peak by 2025 and drop dramatically thereafter, scientists say.

One of the few concrete decisions to come out of the 2009 UN climate conference in Copenhagen was a pledge from rich economies to muster €93 billion a year in financial support for poor countries from 2020.

The money will help develop technology and build infrastructure to cut emissions. It will also be used to adapt to climate impacts like rising seas and spreading deserts.

Exactly where that money will come from and how it will be distributed have yet to be worked out. Developing nations want at least half of it to come from government sources, and oppose including loans in the mix.

More recently, least-developed countries, small-island and developing states have sought additional payment for climate “loss and damage.” Rich nations balk the concept of “compensation”

What needs to happen?

The central aim of the conference is to come to an agreement on preventing average temperatures from rising more than 2°C above pre-industrial levels. Scientists claim that the world’s climate would be thrown into irreversible disarray if temperatures were to rise above that mark.

Potential exists for a deal to be struck as the major players appear to be throwing their weight behind a multilateral agreement.

Source: Guardian Wires/YouTube

Speaking earlier today, Barack Obama said that the negotiations represented an act of defiance after the brutal Paris attacks that killed 130 people two weeks ago.

He declared:

This is the moment that we’ve finally determined that we would save our planet.

Many of the world’s biggest polluters have already laid out big cuts they’ll be making to their carbon emissions.

Earlier this month, China revealed plans to have its emissions peak by 2030. The United States is pledging to cut its emissions by more than 25% compared to 2005 levels by 2025.

The European Union has also committed to cutting its greenhouse gas emissions by at least 40% by 2030. Together, these three currently account for around 55% of the world’s total carbon emissions.

Where does Ireland stand on all this?

In the past Ireland’s relationship with climate change targets has been complicated by a need to appease the agricultural sector and guarantee Ireland’s ability for food production.

Currently agriculture accounts for around 30% of Ireland’s emissions.

British-Irish Council press conference Enda Kenny was speaking before the COP21 earlier today (Photo: File) Source: Dominic Lipinski/PA Wire

In his speech at the conference earlier today Taoiseach Enda Kenny said that Ireland had “lost a decade” of progress on climate goals due to the financial downturn.

He said that EU targets for movement of 20% on 1990 levels in the areas of greenhouse gas, renewables and energy efficiency had been “unrealistic” but that Ireland was fully committed to hitting the target of a 40% reduction in emissions by 2030.

Other targets that he laid out during his speech were:

  • An additional €175 million in public funding over the next four years in developing climate funding, 
  • Contributions by Ireland to the Least Developed Countries Fund, and,
  • Mobilisation of private finance from Ireland to contribute to the 2020 goal.

He went on to say:

Let’s send the signal the world is waiting for and let us not deprive our successors and their children of a real future before they are born.

Legislation is currently making its way through the Dáil that will see substantial reductions to carbon emissions in the electricity, transport and built environment sectors by 2050.

With reporting from AFP 

Read: At least 100 arrested at Paris climate change protest

Also: This year is going to be the hottest ever recorded and “time is running out”

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