A quick guide to the COP21 climate talks

Representatives of more than 190 nations will soon meet for the 21st Conference of Parties (COP21) UN climate negotiations in Paris, even as the city is still mourning the deaths of 129 civilians in terrorist attacks.

Rooted in a complex web of history and culture, the tragedy also serves as a marker of the human risks of an unstable climate. A 2015 National Academy of the Sciences study demonstrated links between climate change and the political and economic instability in Syria that bolstered ISIS’s growth.

With the inextricable and unpredictable links between the world’s nations clear in this as in so many other examples, the stakes for the negotiations are extremely high. But for many people working in the built environment, what exactly the conference is, how it differs from previous iterations, and how it might affect designers, developers, policy makers, and other stakeholders is somewhat unclear.

Below: our quick guide.

A new emphasis on cities

COP21’s official negotiations put a primacy on cooperation at the country level, seeking to achieve a legally binding international agreement to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions enough to prevent global temperature rise from exceeding 2° Celsius.

But with half the world’s population living in cities and 1.5 million more people migrating there each week, urban areas will play a greater role at this COP than ever before. Cementing their status at the talks, former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg is the first appointee to a new position: UN Secretary-General’s Special Envoy for Cities and Climate Change.

Risk and responsibility

“When natural hazards are occurring, when we’re having hurricanes, and flooding, and tsunamis, it is cities that are faced with the implications of those events and are at the front lines of addressing the citizens’ protection, livelihood, and well-being,” says Brian Swett, Director of Cities and Sustainable Real Estate for Arup in the Americas. “I think that is being more readily appreciated.”

Africa’s most populous city, Lagos

Cities can also play a major role in cutting emissions. They account for a significant proportion of the world’s GHG emissions, with their buildings and transportation systems among the highest contributors.

Leading the charge

Past COPs have failed to reach international agreement on climate change mitigation, but that has not stopped cities from forging ahead of their nations, setting ambitious targets and emerging as laboratories for adaptation and resilience.

2014’s COP20

Under the auspices of the Carbon Neutral Cities Alliance, 17 cities worldwide have committed themselves to reducing GHG emissions 80% by 2050. In September, Aspen, Colorado, became the third US city to run on 100% renewable energy. The Rockefeller Foundation’s 100 Resilient Cities initiative has encouraged long-term resilience planning in metropolitan areas worldwide and created a dialogue around best practices among municipal officials. C40, which bills itself as “a network of the world’s megacities committed to addressing climate change,” now represents nearly one in ten of the world’s population — not to mention a significant percentage of global emissions. Individual mayors are also stepping onto the global stage and leading by example.

Swett believes that the energy generated by these and other urban initiatives will bring a new spirit of productive competition and collaboration to COP21, encouraging a “bottom-up approach to federal policy.” Although not every ambitious mayor will be in the negotiating room, “there will be attention that cities have clearly stepped up,” he says. “Now nation-states need to step up and make similar commitments.”

Filling the gaps

In advance of COP21, countries have already been publishing their commitments in the form of Intended Nationally Determined Contributions, or INDCs. These plans outline how they intend to reduce carbon emissions and adapt to climate change within their borders, forcing all conference participants to carefully consider their plans and means of measuring success before they show up at the negotiating table. More than 146 countries, representing nearly 90% of global emissions, have published INDCs so far.

However, while the plans represent significant improvements on current trends, a UN study of already-published INDCs concluded that all those actions combined are still insufficient to limit global warming to the 2° threshold. COP21 participants will likely need to create a new mechanism for ramping up these commitments every few years.

Sea ice

Non-state entities have an important role to play in filling the gap. Online database NAZCA, or the Non-State Actor Zone for Climate Action, accepts climate pledges from entities other than national governments, including cities, regions, companies, and investors.

In the build-up between COP20 in Lima and COP21 in Paris, NAZCA received over 3,693 commitments from 1,601 cities at the time of writing. Of these, 1,407 involve renewable energy projects; 1,266 energy access and efficiency; 289 resilience; and 37 transit.

Private businesses are stepping up to the plate as well, with 3,630 NAZCA commitments.

Meanwhile, the World Business Council for Sustainable Development has launched an initiative to encourage public-private partnerships around low-carbon technology in advance of COP21. Its president and CEO, Peter Bakker, released a study earlier this month demonstrating that the initiative could deliver 65% of all the carbon emissions reductions necessary to meet the UN’s 2° target, provided world leaders create a robust policy framework at COP21 that will incentivize these partnerships.

Toward adaptation

Swett says that in all of these commitments and initiatives there is increasing awareness of the need not only to mitigate, but to adapt.

“Unfortunately, as late as a few years ago, it wasn’t uncommon to hear from folks saying we need to focus on greenhouse gas reduction because if we talk about adapting to climate change, that’s the equivalent of throwing in the towel,” he says. “The reality is we don’t have time to do one or the other. We’re living with climate change today.”


US temperature change between 1991 and 2012, demonstrating a clear and consistent warming trend

The role of buildings

Fortunately, both adaptation and mitigation present “far less of an engineering problem than they did a decade ago,” says Swett. The buildings sector is rife with opportunities for both.

For new-construction projects, designers can choose from among a number of green building standards and goals — Net Zero, Passive House, and LEED, to name just a few. Many cities have leapt ahead of their national governments in encouraging their use.

The LEED Platinum Syracuse Center for Excellence in upstate New York

Policy makers at the international level are taking note. “This is the first time in COP negotiations that there have been real conversations around buildings and how they contribute to climate change,” says Arup Fellow Fiona Cousins. “Architects and engineers have cared about these things for a really long time, but have not always been very good at convincing clients that these should be priorities.”

Buildings are the source of about one-third of global GHG emissions, largely because of energy use and energy inefficiency. Thus, Cousins says, retrofitting and evaluating the performance of existing buildings is at least as important as creating efficient new construction. In developed countries, the majority of buildings that will exist in 2050 are already built. Moving from design standards to performance standards and increasing public reporting on buildings’ GHG, energy, and water use could increase efficiency and trigger greater behavioral change.

“It’s very difficult to get real estate developers to agree to actually change their energy use, but the fact that they would have to report on it is quite often a useful trigger,” says Cousins.

This is the first time in COP negotiations that there have been real conversations around buildings and how they contribute to climate change.”

Money talks

But while the technology for retrofits and green construction exists, financing such activity remains a significant challenge, particularly for developing countries. Less-developed nations believe that their wealthier counterparts should be subsidizing their move toward carbon neutrality.

This has been a contentious point at previous COPs and is likely to be debated again. This year, developing nations, which contribute little to global emissions but are likely to feel some of the worst impacts of climate change, were also expected to submit INDCs, but a provision allowed them to outline how they plan to develop in a low-carbon, sustainable way.


Damage from Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines

All eyes on renewables

The real winner to emerge from COP21 may be the renewable energy sector. October’s UN analysis of INDCs concludes that most nations plan to invest in renewable energy. (Some specify funding mechanisms like tax incentives or international aid dollars; others do not.) That makes renewable energy investment the most commonly stated strategy for meeting emissions targets (beating out improving energy efficiency, cleaning up transportation, and halting deforestation, among others).

According to the World Resource Institute’s climate program, if Brazil, China, the European Union, India, Indonesia, Japan, Mexico, and the United States — which together account for 65% of global energy demand — follow through with their commitments, the amount of clean energy on the grid will more than double by 2030.

And the renewable energy sector will boom. The capacity implied by these INDCs is about 17% greater than business-as-usual growth.

Looking ahead in the United States

All of this represents an opportunity for the United States, says Swett, where “we have grossly underinvested in nearly every infrastructure system we have.” With the technology, municipal support, and — if COP21 negotiations are as ambitious as hoped — new international policy, green infrastructure will become even more attractive and viable.

“We’re beyond the point where any objective designer can say we can simply look backward for guidance,” says Swett. As the United States and the world increasingly adapt to this changing climate, “we have an opportunity to be more thoughtful.”


Questions or comments for Fiona Cousins or Brian Swett? Email fiona.cousins@arup.com or brian.swett@arup.com.

To see more COP21 coverage, click here.

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