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Murray Edwards College
University of Cambridge

Science issue: Kyoto, Copenhagen, Paris – where next for the planet’s climate?

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    11 Feb
    8B Yvonne Deng (at the Eden Project) Yvonne Deng (at the Eden Project)


    You may have heard about a big climate event in Paris at the end of last year; maybe you recall the hype around Copenhagen in 2009 and the term ‘Kyoto Protocol’ probably rings a bell. These were three important UN gathering of nations or ‘COP’ (Conference of Parties) meetings, which have been held once a year since 1995. The COP meetings are the annual highlights of the intense negotiation calendar of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). Here, world leaders meet to discuss how humanity should deal with the threat of climate change. The UNFCCC process started in the early 1990s—yup, that’s over 20 years ago now (!) The Kyoto Protocol, adopted during the 3rd COP meeting back in 1997 after several years of negotiation, was the first international treaty in which countries committed themselves to action on climate change. It was another 10 years, 2008, when the first commitment period actually started, but it was a good and ambitious treaty which the public at large took little notice of. The latest treaty, the Paris Agreement, is almost the opposite: Small in substance, yet attracting lots of attention. This reflects the fact that as climate change has become more ‘mainstream’ the debate has heated up and consensus has become more elusive. The Paris Agreement does, for the first time, recognise that we should be aiming for less than a 1.5˚C global temperature rise, that this means phasing out fossil fuels in the medium term and that there is a responsibility for industrialised nations to help others by providing ‘climate finance’ so that all countries can ‘do their bit’. The actual action on emission reduction, however, is being left to individual countries themselves, an admission that legally binding agreements don’t work: Canada, for example, simply annulled their commitments under the Kyoto Protocol.

    8B Climate Action Tracker (single) The Climate Action Tracker.


    I am fortunate to be part of the team behind the Climate Action Tracker, one of the few tools available to the public at large in gauging progress. It is an independent assessment of the actions of individual countries showing not only the temperature increase to be expected if they meet their own stated emissions targets (‘what they say’), but also the temperature increase we can expect from existing policy (‘what they do’). This gap is still too big (see picture), but, more alarmingly, the pledges wouldn’t even achieve the Paris objective of 1.5C if they were backed up by policy.

    Ultimately, our climate’s future will be decided in the interplay between national governments, business, local government and grassroots action. We will need all levels of society to check their activities against the Paris benchmarks and change trajectory where necessary. From businesses deciding on investments in carbon intensive industries to governments planning local and national infrastructure projects to purchases we make in our own lives, the question in the back of our minds should always be: Is this compatible with the internationally agreed goal of a fossil fuel phase out?

    Yvonne Deng

    Image credit/caption: The Climate Action Tracker assesses the gap between countries’ emission reduction ‘targets’ and the actual policies governments have put in place to achieve these targets. The gap is expressed in terms of the expected long-term mean global temperature rise compared to pre-industrial levels.