The Paris 2015 UN Climate Change Conference

Penny Becklumb and Tim Williams
Economics, Resources and International Affairs Division

Despite over 20 years of annual UN climate change conferences, global greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise. Many hope that this year’s Conference of the Parties, known as COP 21, to be held in Paris from 30 November to 11 December 2015, will be different. Canada, along with virtually every other country in the world will try to reach a legally binding and universal agreement that will finally put the world on a realistic path to avoid dangerous climate change.

Following the current path, without additional efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the world is likely to be about 3oC warmer than it is now by the year 2100. However, there is general consensus that any temperature rise greater than 2oC above pre-industrial temperatures – which is just over 1oC from current conditions – poses a dangerous risk for humanity. A rise of 2oC or 3oC may not seem like much, but the rate at which it is occurring exceeds the capacity of ecosystems to adapt naturally, threatening food production and economic development.

In a world of 7 billion people, where many already struggle to find adequate food and clean water, climate change, with its associated changes to the water cycle, is likely to cause even greater human hardship.

To avoid dangerous climate change, the world’s primary energy supply, 80% of which is currently derived from fossil fuels, will effectively need to be “decarbonized.” This can occur through a combination of measures: increasing energy efficiency; electrifying much of today’s transportation and heating; converting to non-carbon energy sources; and removing carbon from the products of fossil fuel combustion (such as through carbon capture and storage).

Source: Map prepared by the Library of Parliament. Scale: 1:25,000,000. Based on data from Canada`s National Inventory Submissions (1990-2013) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change; Statistics Canada Boundary Files, 2011 Census: Catalogue no. 92-160-X; Census Tables and Natural Earth, 1:50M Cultural Vectors v.2.0. Using: ArcGIS [software], v. 10.3.1. Some information licensed under the Open Government Licence – Canada.

Source: Map prepared by the Library of Parliament. Scale: 1:25,000,000. Based on data from Canada`s National Inventory Submissions (1990-2013) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change; Statistics Canada Boundary Files, 2011 Census: Catalogue no. 92-160-X; Census Tables and Natural Earth, 1:50M Cultural Vectors v.2.0. Using: ArcGIS [software], v. 10.3.1. Some information licensed under the Open Government Licence – Canada.

The global response

When climate change became widely recognized as a problem in the 1980s, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was established to “prepare … assessments on all aspects of climate change and its impacts, with a view of formulating realistic response strategies.” Since then, the IPCC has issued five assessment reports.

Its first assessment in 1990 fed directly into the 1992 adoption of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). The stated objective of the UNFCCC is to “achieve … stabilization of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system” (art. 2).

The 196 countries that have ratified the UNFCCC are referred to individually as “Parties to the Convention”. Collectively, they are known as the “Conference of the Parties”, or COP, the decision-making body that meets annually to review the UNFCCC’s implementation.

These annual meetings are denoted by sequential numbers – this year’s is COP 21. Negotiations under the umbrella of the UNFCCC have led to several agreements.

The Kyoto Protocol

The Kyoto Protocol was reached in 1997 under the UNFCCC at COP 3. This agreement imposed individual, binding reduction targets on 37 industrialized countries and the European Union for a first commitment period of 2008 to 2012.

In December 2012, Canada became the only country to withdraw formally from the Kyoto Protocol. Although the first commitment period is now over, in 2012 at COP 18 in Doha, Qatar certain parties agreed to a second commitment period running from 2013 to 2020. This agreement is still not in force.

The Copenhagen Accord

The Copenhagen Accord was a political agreement among five parties outside the formal process at COP 15 in Copenhagen, Denmark, in 2009. It has since been agreed to by 141 countries and officially incorporated into decisions of the UNFCCC.

The Accord accepted the 2oC limit and contemplated that countries would determine their own domestic emissions targets, or mitigation actions, toward avoiding this threshold.

COP 21’s goal

The major goal of COP 21 in Paris is to adopt “a protocol, another legal instrument or an agreed outcome with legal force under the Convention applicable to all parties” that is to “come into effect and be implemented from 2020”.

To that end, since 2011 at COP 17 in Durban, South Africa, a working group known as “ADP” has been meeting to develop the draft text of the anticipated agreement.

The new agreement, which is central to meeting the objectives of the UNFCCC, will require nations to set their own “nationally determined contributions,” or targets. The COP had already invited parties to communicate their intended nationally determined contributions in advance of COP 21.

According to a recent UN report, the global emissions reductions pledged to date, if kept, would slow the rate of growth in global emissions. However, emissions would continue to rise; by 2030, they would reach levels that are 37%-52% higher than they were in 1990.

At the last ADP session held 19–23 October 2015, difficulties arose in producing the latest text of the draft agreement. According to one analysis, a final agreement will be difficult to reach.

Much of the disagreement stems from long-standing differences between developed and developing countries. Developed countries emphasize the need for all countries – including developing nations such as China and India – to reduce emissions so as not to exceed the 2°C threshold.

In light of their lesser historic role in contributing to climate change and their more limited financial means, developing countries are reluctant to commit to emission reductions without sufficient financial and technological aid.

Canada at COP 21

Canada did not meet its first two commitments to reduce greenhouse gases under the UNFCCC and is reportedly not on track to meet its third (see Table 1).

In its report to the UNFCCC, the Canadian government argued that Canada has certain national circumstances that affect its capacity to reduce emissions. These include its climate, geographical size, fast growing population and energy intensive economy.

A recent analysis by the Council of Canadian Academies suggests that, despite the challenges, Canada can reduce its emissions significantly in the coming decades with existing technologies if the appropriate suite of policies is adopted.

Fossil and renewable energy resources, and energy-intense industry sectors, are unevenly distributed in Canada. Consequently, political and distributional considerations will be vital aspects of successful policies. (See discussion in the 2014 IPCC report.)

The federal and provincial distribution of legislative powers also must be respected in developing regulations and policies to tackle climate change. Provinces have exclusive jurisdiction to regulate certain subject matters relevant to climate change. These include non-renewable natural resources, electricity generation, intraprovincial transportation, and most buildings, businesses and industries within their borders.

However, Parliament has jurisdiction to regulate toxic substances, including carbon dioxide and five other greenhouse gases. Both levels of government have jurisdiction to institute a carbon tax. It is likely that both levels of government also have the power to put in place an emission allowances trading regime.

Table 1 – Canada’s Greenhouse Gas Emission Reduction Targets under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (Convention)

Target Context

Year Commitment Made


Average Annual Percent (%)
Reduction in Emissions Required to
Meet the Target from the Year the Commitment was Made

Original Convention target 1992 1990 levels by 2000 -0.2
Kyoto Protocol target 1997 6% below 1990 levels, on average, between 2008 and 2012 -1.5
Copenhagen Accord commitment 2010 17% below 2005 levels by 2020 -1.3
Intended nationally determined contribution (Paris) 2015 30% below 2005 levels by 2030 -2.1a
Note: a. Emissions for 2015 are assumed to be equivalent to the latest reported data for 2013.

Source: Calculations made by the authors based on the emissions reported in Environment Canada, National Inventory Report 1990–2013: Greenhouse Gas Sources and Sinks in Canada – The Canadian Government’s Submission to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, Part 3, 2015.

Table 2 – Acronyms

ADP Ad Hoc Working Group on the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action – an subsidiary body with international representation that the COP established in 2011 to develop a protocol, a legal instrument or an agreed outcome to be adopted at COP 21 in Paris in 2015


A session of the Conference of the Parties (COP) serving as the Meeting of the Parties to the Kyoto Protocol
COP Conference of the Parties – the decision-making body of the UNFCCC made up of delegates from the Parties to the Convention (countries of the world)
INDC Intended Nationally Determined Contribution – emissions reduction pledges that countries are submitting to the UNFCCC secretariat ahead of COP 21 in anticipation of a new agreement
IPCC Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change – an international body that periodically produces scientific reports on worldwide climate change (known as “assessment reports”) and also provides special reports and technical papers on climate change for the UNFCCC, governments and international organizations
UNFCCC United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change – the 1992 international umbrella agreement under which multilateral climate change negotiations take place. The UNFCCC is also the name of the body that has been established to facilitate implementation of the Convention’s provisions.

Related Resources

Tim Williams, Climate Change Negotiations: The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in Context, Publication no. 2014-03-E, Parliamentary Information and Research Service, Library of Parliament, 28 May 2015.

Summary of the Bonn Climate Change Conference: 19-23 October 2015,” Earth Negotiations Bulletin, International Institute for Sustainable Development Reporting Services, Vol. 12, No. 651, 25 October 2015.

IPCC, Climate Change 2014 Synthesis Report, Contribution of Working Groups I, II and III to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Geneva, Switzerland, 2014.

Fiona Harvey, “Everything you need to know about the Paris climate summit and UN talks,” The Guardian, 2 June 2015.

Government of France, 2015, November 30 to December 11 – Paris.

« Paris Climat 2015 – COP21 » [available in French only]

Penny Becklumb, Federal and Provincial Jurisdiction to Regulate Environmental Issues, Publication no. 2013-86-E, Parliamentary Information and Research Service, Library of Parliament, 24 September 2013.