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Vast rain forest reaches the seashore in Corcovado National Park, one of the most important biodiversity hotspots in Costa Rica. Credit: Juan Pablo Moreiras/FFI.

Inside COP21: demystifying the climate change conference

Posted on: 16.12.15 (Last edited) 17 December 2015

Writing in the run up to the announcement of a new climate change deal, Fauna & Flora International’s Nick Bubb explains what COP21 was all about, and shares some of the lessons he took away with him.

As I write, the world is awaiting the outcomes of COP21, which I was fortunate enough to attend. But what exactly is COP21? Well, COP stands for Conference of Parties and it’s the 21st gathering since the international political response to climate change began at the Rio Earth Summit in 1992. At that summit, the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) was adopted and came into force in 1994; it now has a near-universal membership of 195 parties.

The main objective of the annual Conference of Parties (COP) is to review the convention’s implementation. Significant gatherings included COP3, at which the Kyoto Protocol was adopted; COP11, where the Montreal Action Plan was produced; COP13 in Bali, which – through the Bali Roadmap – essentially gave birth to REDD+ (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation); the notorious COP15 in Copenhagen, which failed to produce an agreement to succeed the Kyoto Protocol; and COP17 in Durban where the Green Climate Fund was created.

The aim for COP21 has been to achieve a legally binding and universal agreement on climate, with the aim of ensuring that global average temperatures do not exceed 2°C above pre-industrial levels. So simply put, try to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions and thus avoid the worst threats and impacts of dangerous climate change. If it succeeds, it will mark a first in over 20 years of UN negotiations.

To add to the pressure, current commitments on greenhouse gas emissions run out in 2020, so governments are expected to produce an agreement on what should happen after that. Climate scientists agree that these agreements need to come with short, medium and long-term targets that are monitored.

Dead pines in the Pine Ridge, Belize. Credit: Juan Pablo Moreiras/FFI.

Dead pines in the Pine Ridge, Belize. Credit: Juan Pablo Moreiras/FFI.

Inside the conference

So what actually happened at the conference?

Well, alongside the negotiations (which go on behind closed doors) was an incredible schedule of side events that seemed to feature the vast majority of the world’s most influential people – a heavyweight talking competition!

The conference is reported to have hosted around 50,000 participants including 25,000 official delegates from government, intergovernmental organisations, UN agencies and NGOs.

I was at COP21 as part of a small Fauna & Flora International delegation. As an organisation we’re focused on protecting endangered species and in so many cases this involves protecting natural habitats – many of which are threatened by climate change.

Aside from using the conference as an opportunity to meet acquaintances, both old and new, it was also a fantastic opportunity to immerse myself in some of the most important discussions and debates of my lifetime.

I spent most of my time at COP in the main plenary sessions listening to Presidents, Prime Ministers and their representatives from around the world – all doing their very best to highlight their situation, unique challenges, and progress towards a greener future.

It was extremely interesting to hear so many global leaders speak with passion and purpose, but what really struck me was how vulnerable and desperate the low-lying small island nations are. Without fail they all spoke of how hard it was to face the reality that, despite being amongst the ‘greenest’ of nations, they are the ones most affected by the harsh realities of climate change.

In addition to the main event, there were nation pavilions with many choosing to exhibit their views, work and progress, and holding a mini-schedule of lectures, debates and social gatherings. In another huge hall you could find the NGOs, all huddled together, keen to demonstrate their work and ideas. Just outside the main COP village was the Climate Generations show, designed for the general public.

During the trip I also attended the Global Landscapes Forum with several of my colleagues from FFI who were keen to meet up with peers to share ideas. Billed as the largest and most influential event outside COP, the forum took an interactive approach to finding combined solutions to the complex challenges common to everyone on the planet.

Adding a bit of glitz to my schedule, I also managed to acquire a ticket to the World Climate Summit at the Paris Chamber of Commerce and joined over 100 global CEOs to hear how so many of them are changing the way they do business to ensure there is a planet to do business on in the future.

Certainly there was a fair amount of ‘spin’ flying around the room, but also many genuine leaders highlighting how, in so many cases, it can make economic sense to operate more sustainably.

One of the Kyrgyzstan´s innumerable breath-taking vistas. Credit: Juan Pablo Moreiras/FFI.

One of Kyrgyzstan´s breath-taking vistas. Credit: Juan Pablo Moreiras/FFI.

Green energy solutions

Finally, in amongst the hectic schedule, I found time to visit (via an eerily silent hybrid bus) one of the most fascinating displays of green tech I’ve ever seen. There can be no doubt that green energy solutions and the evolving challenge is exciting and demanding, but it is also logical, essential and in no small way, sexy! Whatever your views on climate change, clean energy solutions are very hard to argue against.

As the indomitable Arnold Schwarzenegger said, “Renewable energy is great for the economy, and you don’t have to take my word for it. California has some of the most revolutionary environmental laws in the United States, we get 40% of our power from renewables, and we are 40% more energy efficient than the rest of the country.

“We were an early-adopter of a clean energy future. Our economy has not suffered. In fact, our economy in California is growing faster than the U.S. economy. We lead the nation in manufacturing, agriculture, tourism, entertainment, high tech, biotech, and – of course – green tech.”


Despite the many positive stories coming out of COP21, there was also plenty of greenwashing to be seen.

One of the more disappointing stories currently doing the rounds involves a high-profile government that announced in Paris that it will devote millions of dollars to researching methods for reducing agricultural emissions. What they failed to mention was that, earlier this year, they cut a great many jobs in the area of greenhouse gas emissions. Two steps backwards and one forward?

The hard liners will also point out that aviation and shipping emissions, which are equivalent to the total carbon emissions of the UK and Germany, are not included in national targets. These emissions are expected to grow by up to 270% by 2050. Should they really have been omitted from agreements?

Sunset over the mountains in San Mariano municipality. Credit: Juan Pablo Moreiras/FFI.

Sunset over the mountains in San Mariano municipality. Credit: Juan Pablo Moreiras/FFI.

Big announcements

For FFI, it was really pleasing to hear a lot of talk about REDD+ throughout COP21 and especially exciting to hear that the governments of Germany, Norway and the United Kingdom pledged US$5 billion for REDD, between 2015 and 2020.

FFI has a great deal of experience in REDD+ and indeed held its own side event on the topic at COP21. It was particularly heartening to hear speakers talk about the empowerment of local communities, especially smallholders, as central to successful REDD+ on a large scale.

Amongst the many big announcements made at COP21, FFI also took huge pride in hearing the leading pulp and paper company APRIL Group announce it would double its peatland restoration activities in Indonesia and invest US$100 million over the next decade in conservation and restoration activities.

This increased commitment to Riau Ecosystem Restoration (RER) is believed to be the biggest investment by a private sector company in a single eco-restoration project in Indonesia. The RER programme was established in 2013 by APRIL Group in partnership with FFI and local NGO Bidara. It protects and restores important peatland areas on the Kampar Peninsula in Indonesia’s Riau Province under eco-restoration licenses granted by the Indonesian Government.

Green awareness

As these negotiations move to their conclusion and various points of view get thrashed out in the world’s media it’s hard to know who to believe, what to take literally and what motivation is behind each viewpoint.

I’m no expert, but my awareness of the issues surrounding climate change has certainly skyrocketed as a result of meeting so many talented and committed people in this field. The more you learn, the more obvious it becomes that we all need a cleaner, greener world in order to survive in the long term.

Sunrise over the cayes, Belize. Credit: Juan Pablo Moreiras/FFI.

Sunrise over the Cayes, Belize. Credit: Juan Pablo Moreiras/FFI.

**Update: climate change deal**

Following the outcome of the climate change deal, FFI’s Director of Environmental Markets, Paul Herbertson, said: “Although far from being perfect, the Paris Agreement marks a major step forward in global climate negotiations.

“For 195 countries to unanimously agree to limiting the effects of climate change to 2°C (along with ambitions to limit to 1.5°C) is probably beyond most people’s expectations before COP21.

“Of particular interest to FFI has been the specific recognition of the role of nations to take action to reduce emissions from deforestation and forest degradation, and the importance of conservation, sustainable management of forests and enhanced forest carbon stocks in developing countries.

“It is especially significant that forests are so prominent in the Paris Agreement after having been specifically excluded from the Kyoto Protocol. This should help mobilise much needed finance for our work and raise the profile of the global importance of conserving forests and biodiversity.

“New funding commitments made by Norway, Germany, UK and US of US$5 billion for REDD+ over the next five years is proof of that, and hopefully only the start.

“Undoubtedly, there will be many debates on the details and what could have been included in the agreement, but from FFI’s perspective the agreement provides a critical platform for global progress, and for FFI to continue to demonstrate the value biodiversity provides to the global community.

“The real work now starts in implementation and, given the expertise and experience FFI has built in this area, we are well positioned to continue our leadership on demonstrating how forests can help the global community achieve the commitments made in the Paris Agreement.”


Written by
Nick Bubb

Nick Bubb is FFI’s Global Development Executive having previously worked as a professional ocean racer and as a wealth manager for Brewin Dolphin. A true adventurer at heart, Nick has always been passionate about the outdoors and the natural world. In 2012/13 he skippered the first and only authentic re-enactment of Sir Ernest Shackleton’s famous voyage across the Southern Ocean, for which FFI was the official conservation partner.

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