In just a few days it will begin. Two weeks of increasingly frenetic horse trading between 25,000 official delegates from government, intergovernmental organisations, UN agencies, NGOs and civil society. This will supposedly culminate in some compromised formula of words that will seal the fate of the planet for years to come.

There could not be more at stake.

On Sunday millions of people will be marching in cities around the world in an attempt to put pressure on their political leaders to produce the best possible result for reducing emissions and helping vulnerable populations at COP21 in Paris.

Millions of words are being written now, and will be written in the next few days, trying to interpret and to influence these negotiations.

This article is about some of the things to watch out for that could mean that the final agreement is less – or more – than could be hoped for. First, a summary of the situation:

The science and statistics of climate change

All three major global surface temperature reconstructions show that Earth has warmed since 1880. Most of this warming has occurred since the 1970s, with the 20 warmest years having occurred since 1981 and with all 10 of the warmest years occurring in the past 12 years.

Atmospheric CO2 has increased since the Industrial Revolution.

Even though the 2000s witnessed a solar output decline resulting in an unusually deep solar minimum in 2007-2009, surface temperatures continue to increase.

Global sea level rose about 17 centimetres in the last century. The rate in the last decade is nearly double that.

The Representative Concentration Pathways (RCPs) – four greenhouse gas concentration trajectories (possible predictions) adopted by the IPCC for its fifth Assessment Report in 2014 – are consistent with a wide range of possible changes in future anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions:

  • RCP 2.6 assumes that global annual GHG emissions peak between 2010-2020, with emissions declining substantially thereafter
  • Emissions in RCP 4.5 peak around 2040, and then decline
  • In RCP 6, emissions peak around 2080, and then decline
  • In RCP 8.5, emissions continue to rise throughout the 21st century
Pathways of global GHG emissions (GtCO2eq/yr) in baseline and mitigation scenarios for different long-term concentration levels.

Keeping the global temperature rise under 2°C

For a global temperature change of less than 2°C during the 21st century relative to 1850-1900 levels to be considered “likely”, CO2 concentration levels must be kept below 500ppm. This is consistent with the RCP 2.6 pathway.

For this to be achieved worldwide annual GHG emissions should be reduced to below 40 GtCO2eq/yr (equivalent of gigatonnes of CO2 a year). Current emissions are over 50 GtCO2eq/yr.

Global emissions in 2012 were 53.5 GtCO2eq, of which 4.7 came from the EU, 12.5 came from China and 6.3 from the United States.6

National commitments so far

Ahead of the Paris conference we already know what targets have been agreed by many of the major players. According to climateactiontracker.org, 148 submissions in the form of Intended Nationally Determined Contributions have been received by the UNFCCC, covering 175 countries (including the European Union member states), and around 93 per cent of global emissions in 2010 (excluding emissions from land use, land use change and forestry) and covering 94 per cent of the global population.

The submissions are of varying quality. Climate Action Tracker is currently analysing them, but so far has only completed analyses of one third, so it is not yet possible to give an accurate forecast. Besides, promises are one thing and what is actually delivered is another. However current policies will deliver a temperature rise of at least 3.6°C by the end of the century, and delivered pledges, taken at face value, will give a temperature rise of 2.7°C.

This is not sufficient. There is a gap. For this reason, countries have provisionally agreed (but this is to be confirmed at Paris) to review their actions and policies every five years.

Nations not the only show in town

At the beginning of this year the United Cities and Local Governments and the European Commission, together with four other important networks in local government, signed a historic agreement to work together on development issues in order to tackle global poverty and inequality, and to promote democracy and sustainable development.

The UCLG, based in Barcelona, represents and defends the interests of local governments on the world stage, regardless of the size of the communities they serve. In total, the organisations represent almost half the world’s local governments and populations.

Coincidentally, the Mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo, is the co-president of UCLG, and chair of the UCLG Standing Committee on Gender Equality. She is on record as saying: “Territorial actors now play a major role in the fight against climate change. They are the ones who take concrete action on the ground, every single day.”

In July, civil society representatives and local and regional governments from around the world met in Lyon and signed the Lyon Declaration. This committed all major local government networks to support their members in reducing greenhouse gas emissions between 2020 and 2050 in line with the goal to keep global average temperature growth below 2°C.

Particular proposals for COP21 negotiations include facilitating local and regional government access to green climate funds, which, as we noted last week, are projected to rise to $300 billion in 2016, and more in subsequent years. As we observed then, public bodies and green or climate bonds are particularly well-suited as partners for financing sustainable, climate-friendly development.

The bogeys in the room

If non-national actors and green bonds are the reinforcements that could come in and save the day, helping to close the emissions gap, what are the threats that we must beware of that could wreck an agreement?

Industrial agriculture and emissions: Emissions from land use and land use change and forestry suffer from poor accounting and policymakers are being lobbied by big agribusiness companies on a similar scale to the fossil fuel sector. Agribusiness proposals for so-called “climate smart agriculture” are more about greenwashing agribusiness companies rather than real action. Agriculture is not sufficiently on the agenda at COP21.

The world’s ever-increasing appetite for meat is particularly bad news for the climate. Monocultural farming, where vast areas of land just grow one type of crop, whether for humans, fuel or animal feed, entail systematic deforestation and require machinery, fertilisers and pesticides, which are highly reliant on fossil fuels. Cattle account for a huge chunk of direct emissions. All of this needs to be accounted for and controlled.

Other “false solutions” like climate smart agriculture will be put forward to confuse and distract negotiators. These include carbon trading and carbon offsetting, which, while potentially useful, are no substitute for real action and real emission cutting.

Current trade deals being negotiated such as TTIP and TPP bypass national governments’ potential ability to control all emissions within their territories, thereby undermining their ability to address climate change, regardless of the outcome of Paris.

The same is true for hidden emissions from shipping and flying, which are also not subject to national controls.

Corporations have historically sought to undermine effective action at the climate talks. This will be no exception in Paris where the “Solutions 21” exposition will present a smorgasbord of greenwashing.

The need for justice

Paris COP21 is an opportunity above all, to talk about climate justice. This means listening to the voices of the disenfranchised, particularly in the vulnerable and poorer parts of the world. It means using the solutions that address the climate challenge to simultaneously lift these people out of poverty and into a safe zone of green jobs, decent education and sustainable livelihoods. It means protecting them from extreme weather events and rising sea levels.

Justice is high on the agenda already in Paris following the terrorist attacks. As a result climate activists will not be able to fill the streets and put pressure on leaders as they have in previous years. Those leaders themselves may be distracted by issues such as terrorism, the austerity crisis and the Syrian civil war. These crises all demand a just response.

A solution to climate change is also not possible without justice, without a fair and proportionate response being given to those who need it, by those who are responsible for it. For we are all in it together, as never before.

Let us therefore send our good will to our political leaders. May they have the wisdom to look beyond the short term, and listen beyond the loudest voices, to take tough decisions and do what is necessary to protect the Earth for the benefit of our children and their future descendants. But may they know that we, and the rest of the world, are watching closely, and that we will hold them accountable for whatever they decide.

With thanks to Nemos Thorpe for some research.

David Thorpe is the author of: