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COP21 decoded: A glossary for the Paris climate talks

Here's a quick guide to decipher what's really happening at the United Nations climate negotiations.

Two days into the COP21 Paris climate talks, and there has been no shortage of presidential speeches, big-dollar financial commitments and haggling over policy proposals.

Unless you're a real climate change wonk, however, it can be tough to understand what's actually going on.

At a high level, national delegates are looking to agree on individual emissions reduction targets and new mechanisms to increase accountability for climate commitments.

Big business also has been brought into the fold of the United Nations proceedings more than ever before, with the government looking to corporations and NGOs to help hit new climate targets.

So, who's doing what, and what are the key issues at hand? Here's a field guide to help cut through the climate jargon:

Who's who?

Let's start with who will be on the ground in Paris.


The U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), is the convener of the climate talks. The international body was created in 1992 and is lead by Executive Secretary Christiana Figueres, who hails from Costa Rica and has participated in global climate negotiations since 1995.

Non-state actors

While the UNFCCC deals directly with heads of state (think Obama, Putin and Modi), the "Non-State Actor Zone for Climate Action" at COP21 is an avenue for businesses, investors, cities and regional governments to weigh in. The initiative is part of the Lima Paris Action Agenda that launched in 2014 to mobilize support for a Paris deal.

Within the private sector, groups such as We Mean Business, CDP, the RE100 and Ceres have been busy soliciting new corporate commitments for renewable energy, deforestation, carbon disclosure and other issues. On the flip side, activists already have targeted corporations with close ties to the fossil fuel industry participating in the talks as sponsors.

Civil society

The polite term for "everyone else." While organizers of the conference initially condoned some opportunities for advocacy groups, everyday citizens and protesters to weigh in on the climate talks, the role of civil society has become a major point of tension in the wake of the Nov. 13 terrorist attacks in Paris.

With France still under a three-month government state of emergency, multiple large-scale climate marches and other public events in Paris have been cancelled. Police have also put two dozen activists on preemptive house arrest and cracked down on those who have gathered despite orders not to do so.

What are they doing?

The various participants in COP21 have different motivations — some financial, some social, some related to national security or political interests — but they all revolve around acronym-heavy U.N. procedures.


As the 21st installment of the annual Conference of the Parties, COP21 is the official moniker of the Paris climate talks. The meeting has four stated priorities: country-specific emissions commitments; the legal text of an international climate agreement; a financing plan; and the action program.


Even before getting to Paris, national delegates submitted Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs) with specific carbon reduction commitments. The U.S. for instance, has pledged to cut emissions 26-28 percent by 2025. 

Much like corporate emissions goals, however, the primary question is whether these internally calculated goals are ambitious enough to make a dent in the overarching objective of keeping global warming below 2 degrees Celsius. So far, analysis suggests that they aren't.

Closing the 'emissions gap'

To avert catastrophic climate damage, world leaders agree that average global temperatures need to be kept in check. The UNFCCC has espoused a 2 C threshold, while leaders of particularly vulnerable island and developing nations stick to a mantra of "1.5 to stay alive."

The task at hand with COP21 is to close the so-called "emissions gap" between current pollution levels and what is needed to avert those temperature increases. Closely related to this pursuit it the idea of a finite "carbon budget" that should spur world leaders to limit future emissions.

Ratchet mechanism

Government officials from the U.S. and the European Union already have signaled disagreement over what a "binding" climate agreement might look like. It is unlikely the American contingent will sign onto sworn emissions reductions, owing in part to the need for approval from the Republican-controlled U.S. Congress.

This recalcitrance has increased global emphasis on a so-called "ratchet mechanism," or the creation of a system that would require agreement signatories to return to the negotiating table at unspecified frequencies to increase their levels of commitment. How legally binding that sort of provision might be also remains to be seen.

Who picks up the tab?

In the U.S., partisan politics often get in the way of substantive debate over climate policy. On the world stage, economics tend to be the sticking point.

Climate finance

One crucial pillar of the intended Paris agreement is a climate finance plan for adaptation and mitigation. This can include "local, national or transnational financing, which may be drawn from public, private and alternative sources," according to the UNFCCC. Also at issue are existing government subsidies of the fossil fuel industry, which inherently undercut efforts to slow the pace of climate change.

Exactly how the public sector and private sector could come together on climate finance remains a question mark, although the White House successfully has mobilized multiple large-scale capital commitments. Wall Street banks are also starting to show an interest in clean energy, and earlier this week tech billionaires Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg announced a new $1 billion-plus clean energy fund (for which logistics remain to be worked out).

Loss and damage

Aside from ongoing controversy over how to pay for the transition to a low-carbon economy, there are large wealth disparities between rich and poor countries to keep in mind. The issue of loss and damage — officially a "work programme" of the UNFCCC — cuts to the core of how cash-strapped developing nations are supposed to confront more immediate impacts of climate change.

From island nations facing rising sea levels to the African country of Chad's alternating struggles with extreme drought and flooding, increasingly volatile weather and resource scarcity are projected to cost both lives and money. Without funds to respond to such damage, issues such as mass migration and social instability could rise to the fore, along with the potential for disruption of increasingly global business supply chains.

Want to know more about COP21? Head over to our continuing coverage of the Paris climate talks.

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