In a few weeks, the nations of the world will be gathering in Paris to try to reach a global agreement on how best to respond to the challenge of climate change. The Christian Reformed Church will be participating in the negotiations both via a delegation in Paris and via a network of almost 150 CRC members from close to 30 congregations in the US and Canada. This effort is called the Climate Witness Project.
But what is COP 21, anyway? Isn't it just a bunch of diplomats speaking unintelligible jargon at each other? What's the big deal anyway?
First of all, COP is an acronym that stands for Conference of the Parties—but parties to what? Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. The UNFCCC was established in 1992 at the Rio Summit in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. It is an international treaty between virtually every nation of the world whose main objective is to “stabilize greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system." The UNFCCC went into full effect in 1994, and part of the design of the treaty is to hold standing annual meetings between all of the parties of the treaty. These standing meetings began the next year, in 1995. The meeting that year was called Conference of the Parties to the UNFCCC 1—or COP 1. Twenty years and twenty conferences later, we are now preparing for COP 21 in Paris at the end of the year.
Parties take turns hosting COP meetings and this year it is France’s turn to preside over the proceedings. The official meetings will occur over the course of 2 weeks, from November 30-December 11. The goal of COP 21 will be to reach a global agreement on cutting global carbon emissions enough to limit average global warming to two degrees C (3.6 F) over pre-Industrial Revolution levels.
There is a lot of hype building around this particular COP meeting for a few reasons. Perhaps the biggest reason is because, to this point, almost every COP meeting has been short-circuited because large emitters (mainly the US and China) have been unwilling to agree to the terms called for by the majority of the other countries. But in November of last year, the US and China announced a major agreement on their intention to cap carbon emissions and to work toward carbon reductions. This announcement shocked everyone because the US and China had been, to this point, at loggerheads both with each other and with the rest of the global community on the question of carbon reduction. This announcement signaled to the world that the two biggest emitters—and the two biggest obstacles toward global progress on climate change—not only intended to put significant skin in the game, but also would be willing to be the leaders that the rest of the world has been begging them to be.
There has also been significant grassroots movement—including the world’s largest climate march ever in New York last year—that is adding to the momentum going into COP 21. Another reason COP 21 is so important is because the only global agreement with carbon cuts attached to it on the books right now—the Kyoto Protocol—was originally set to expire at the end of this year. Though COP 20 extended the life of the Kyoto Protocol to 2020, COP 21 is where the world will gather to craft Kyoto’s successor. And if you need one more reason why COP 21 could be a milestone moment, it’s because the past 5 COP meetings have all been oriented and working toward COP 21. Because global treaties like these represent such a massive diplomatic effort, it has taken 5 years just to lay the groundwork for COP 21.
With all of this hype, it’s easy to get carried away and expect more from COP 21 than it can reasonably deliver. As Christians engaged in this process, it is critical for us to have realistic expectations for COP 21 and to remember that our engagement with the process is not about pinning all of our hopes on an ambitious climate accord coming out of COP 21, but about faithfully witnessing to the Christian hope that we have for this world. COP 21 is a crucial moment in the storyline of the world's response to climate change and, as Christians, we participate with prophetic urgency on behalf of God's creation and on behalf of the poor and vulnerable who are most affected by a changing climate. But we also participate with deep hope in the saving and redeeming power of Christ—the true Lord of all the earth who is continually reconciling all things to himself.