Commentary | COP21 won’t change anything

International commitments are meaningless in rigged negotiations

Contrary to optimistic expectations in the Twittersphere, the UN Climate Change Conference in Paris (COP21) will not spark the climate revolution we want it to. If adopted, the current intended nationally determined contributions (INDCs) – pledges to reduce emissions, submitted by the states who are parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change – would not suffice to curb climate change. In fact, global temperatures would still have increased more than 2 degrees Celsius since the industrial revolution – the threshold at which rising sea levels would severely threaten many low-lying countries.

Because wealthy countries in the Global North have the most control over the decisions made in international negotiations, the INDCs are not an effective framework to fight climate change. Until richer countries commit to binding domestic regulations, international treaties won’t give poorer countries that are already facing the catastrophic consequences of climate change any opportunity to save themselves.

Historically, the impact of global treaties on climate change has been low. The 1997 Kyoto Protocol, an internationally binding treaty, was not ratified by the U.S., and Canada withdrew from it in 2011. Despite high hopes, the 2009 Copenhagen conference was not successful in producing an adequate replacement for the Kyoto Protocol; while an agreement was reached that asked countries to cut their emissions, it lacked a binding legal framework for its enforcement.

Richer countries have power over the terms of the UN negotiations, and they can thus manufacture consent among the poorer countries through bullying tactics. In January 2014, classified documents leaked by Edward Snowden revealed that the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) was spying on several delegations during the Copenhagen conference. The Copenhagen climate deal was ultimately drafted by only five nations: the U.S., China, India, Brazil and South Africa. According to the BBC, when the U.S. announced the deal, “most other delegations had not even seen it.”

Richer countries have power over the terms of the UN negotiations.

The U.S. then incentivized a number of countries with aid to acquiesce to the terms of the deal. These coercive measures gave an unfair advantage to Global North countries in negotiations, which they used to manipulate countries from the Global South, eliminating an opportunity for them to protect themselves from further climate change. We should expect COP21 to be marred by such power politics as the interests of hegemons prevail yet again, rendering the conference futile.

It may seem premature to equate the disappointing Copenhagen talks with COP21. Indeed, a consensus seems to be building around the urgency of concerted action on climate change, as global decision-makers become aware that low-carbon economies yield notable economic benefits: a net increase in jobs, lower energy costs in the long term, and greater energy security. The development of sustainable biofuels would also boost agricultural production. Indeed, if the #COP21 Twitter hashtag is any indication, many seem to be convinced that COP21 is where leaders will finally take action to significantly curb global warming.

However, optimism doesn’t suffice to bring about change. The negotiations are rigged because interests of powerful corporate lobbyists undermine the richer countries’ will to develop INDCs that reflect the scientific consensus. For example, in Europe, industry lobbying groups BusinessEurope, the European Chemical Industry Council, FuelsEurope, Eurometaux, and the International Association of Oil and Gas Producers have lobbied aggressively to weaken the European Union’s 2030 Climate and Energy targets and obstruct the reform of its emissions trading program. Underneath the Global North countries’ power plays in international negotiations lie the entrenched interests of wealthy capitalists and fossil-fuel addicted lobbyists.

There is a painfully obvious discrepancy between the consequences of global warming in the Global North and in the Global South. If Global North countries were low-lying and at risk of rising sea levels like Bangladesh, for example, their INDCs would be much higher, and much more effective toward the goal of limiting global warming to 2 degrees Celsius. Instead, inadequate targets will prevail and they will lead to dangerous consequences: food production and water reserves will plummet; droughts in the Sahel region of Africa, southern Asia, and the Mediterranean will be aggravated.

In the upcoming climate negotiations, we’ll witness the same power dynamics at the international level that we have seen in the past. Unless the largest emitters like U.S. and China make commitments backed up by domestic laws, COP21 will change little about the current climate crisis. Global treaties have proved faulty in the past, and INDCs leave little room for at-risk countries to make meaningful change – as such, polluting states must focus on binding domestic regulations to contribute meaningfully to the fight against climate change.

Ashley Yu is a U0 Arts and Science student. To contact her, email

Comments posted on The McGill Daily's website must abide by our comments policy.