COP21 debrief: what did our staff and academics think?

Find out what University of Edinburgh staff members and academics interested in climate change thought of COP21.

The December 2015 COP21 climate change summit in Paris ended with a global deal reached to attempt to limit the rise in global temperatures to less than 2°C.

Many staff, students and academics from The University of Edinburgh followed the action from both Edinburgh and Paris; here are some of their reflections.


Dave Reay, Professor of Carbon Management & Education, School of Geosciences; Assistant Principal, Global Environment & Society

The Paris Agreement represents a major breakthrough in global climate change policy. Those long nights of negotiations in December paid dividends as common ground was found on many long-running points of contention - such as 'loss and damage', the '2 degree target', 'climate financing' and 'common but differentiated responsibilities'.

For climate change researchers there was plenty to be cheered by, and the identification of lots more work for them to do. The Agreement ramped up the commitment to embed the best available scientific evidence in climate policy, with an undertaking for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to provide its assessment of how the world can achieve a target of limiting warming to just 1.5oC. All nations will also reassess their individual climate change commitments by 2020, with a 'ratchet mechanism' then pushing each nation to increase its ambition every 5 years. National and global targets will be informed by a 'global stocktake' every 5 years of how far we have got on tackling climate change and how far there is still to go.

For the University of Edinburgh, and all institutions involved in education and research, the Paris Agreement delivered a new mechanism to improve and accelerate climate change capacity building around the world. The 'Paris Committee on Capacity-Building' will now be established and will identify current and future gaps and needs, especially in developing world nations. As a leading institution in the delivery of world-class climate change research, teaching and training, Edinburgh is set to play a significant role in helping to deliver the capacity-building that is required.

In my view, the Paris Agreement is a step forward on our collective way towards avoiding dangerous climate change. There will be bumps in the road ahead, steep inclines and muddy wallows to overcome, but the negotiations in Paris have skilfully avoided hitting a climate change dead end.'


Professor Roy Thompson, FRSE and Senior Honorary Professorial Fellow, School of Geosciences

Quo tendimus post Parisius?

Article 2.1(a) of the Paris Agreement pledges “ pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels...” Is the Paris limit sensible? I find 1.5 °C to be a genuinely astonishing aspiration. First temperatures have already risen nearly one degree during the last 125 years, so a 1.5 °C limit seems to be unfeasible because of the momentum in the system from existing concentrations of GHGs. Secondly, despite the immense difficulties in estimating damage costs, it is difficult to see how any unprejudiced damage function could point to so low a limit. Thirdly, what does “pre-industrial levels” actually mean? Do any of the lawyers or politicians who agreed the Paris deal really know?

In broad terms the UN normally follows the science of the most-recent assessment report of the IPCC. But the fifth assessment report does nor define the pre-industrial temperature (or even settle on a date, or time-period, that represents pre-industrial!)

Finally what about the Paris policy instruments of choice? Both cap-and-trade and command-and-control have in the past struggled to succeed in the international arena. So instead count me in with Alberta, the major European oil and gas companies, James Hansen, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, Exxon and all who call for a carbon tax. In short, Hail Pigou!


Annalisa Savaresi, Teaching Fellow in Global Environmental Law, School of Law

The almost miraculous adoption of the Paris Agreement at COP21 has potentially opened a new season for international climate governance. Though not perfect, the agreement represents a fairly balanced compromise, probably the best that could be achieved at this time and place. Furthermore, the agreement can be regarded as an expression of political will to tackle climate change in a way that brings together actors at all levels, in conformity with the all-encompassing nature of efforts required to address this epochal problem. In this regard, the Paris Agreement seemingly marks the emergence of a cooperative spirit that breaks away from the rancorous rhetoric that has long characterized international climate diplomacy.

Whether the Paris Agreement will prove fit for purpose, and how it will be implemented, remains to be seen. COP21 was thus just the beginning of a new regulatory season in which States will flesh out the rules for the implementation of the Paris Agreement. This predictably long and complex regulatory season will begin in 2016 and will reveal whether COP21 has indeed marked a new beginning. At least for the time being, however, the outlook for international climate governance is certainly the most hopeful it has been for quite some time.


David Somervell, Sustainability Advisor, Department for Social Responsibility and Sustainability

The Paris Agreement is clearly historic. I was there - initially because I wanted to witness the whole denouement as a civil society spectator - but then found I was able to gain formal UoE UNFCCC accreditation / access to the Blue Zone as some colleagues were prevented from attending.

It was of course a "coup de theatre" and kudos to French diplomacy for pulling it off. A triumph according to many - or a sham according to the thousands of committed activists who see it as too little too late / just empty rhetoric.

My abiding reflection is that the change needed is going to have to come from below - from all the little people and the big organisations too. So the University of Edinburgh will really have to dramatically up the attention paid, the investment made in buildings and the priority we accord in our research and teaching to genuinely contribute to solutions. It will be a massive challenge / change and we're not always great at change. Are we up for it?


Jelte Harnmeijer – Fellow, Carbon Management & Carbon Finance programmes, School of Geosciences / Business School

The outcome of CoP21 is as good as could possibly have been expected.  The conference had fortuity on its side: new heads-of-state open to embracing the climate challenge in key member states of Australia and Canada, a US president committed to climate change as a legacy issue, and French diplomatic machinery that pulled out all the stops to facilitate a new global accord.

Perhaps a good way to think about the CoP21 result is that international climate legislation has, for the time being, done it part – now it's up to national and regional governments, municipalities, communities, households and individuals to secure and advance on mitigation- and adaptation commitments at all levels.


Ed Craig, Head of Innovation & Enterprise, ECCI

Ed attended the 6th annual Sustainable Innovation Forum at Stade de France on 7 - 8 December.

My initial thoughts are that the event attracted a wide range of very powerful and interesting organisations and enterprises to the 2 day innovation conference. The talks on the whole were useful and fascinating and the networking highly useful.  However it lost much of its integration possibilities by being separate from the main COP event, Held a limited and uninspiring exhibition; limiting the time for network and providing no mechanism to encourage meetings and networking and the fact that VIPs did not stay and network on the whole.  After all this is the delivery end of COP! After we have agreed our self-regulated targets our minds must turn to how to identify, share, adapt and implement solutions. 

I also thought the concept of asking for payment or sponsorship to deliver a speech or attend a panel did not guarantee the best speakers or ideas would be presented and in my mind was not in keeping with the values of COP.

However, overall, it was worthwhile, I made many useful contacts and it was a useful experience but loads of room for improvement.


Hannah Ritchie, Online Learning Educator, School of Geosciences

Reaching an international deal whereby all UNFCCC countries have committed to contributing to limiting global temperature increases to a safe level (i.e. 2C) is probably the best outcome we could have hoped for. This is the first time we’ve achieved such a level of cooperation in the twenty years that this process has been running—the optimism we can take from that shouldn’t be underestimated. In terms of mitigation policy (my particular area of interest): the deal is certainly not perfect. Current global commitments for greenhouse gas reduction still fall far short of the level of reductions required to meet a 2C target. However, the deal has two key additional components: the ratchet mechanism and 5-year stocktake review. These components are vitally important to increase the level of commitments in line with the most up-to-date scientific analysis of what needs to be done to achieve our 2C target. The open nature in which the agreement has been reached provides a level of flexibility that can be influenced and built upon in the coming years as additional research, analysis and understanding becomes available.

How would I summarise the final deal in one sentence? An ambitious agreement commitment that certainly has gaps and room for improvement, but none so large that we can’t develop a range of viable filler options to bridge them.

  Read Hannah's blog


Urte Macikene, Vice President Services, EUSA

Should we be inspired or disappointed by COP?  I don’t think it’s obvious, and neither triumphalism nor despair will serve us here. A partially binding agreement by all countries to move towards a carbon neutral economy has been arrived at: this is an achievement. Still, the agreement is disappointing in many ways, and I fear it may be too little too late to avert some of the damage which has been done.

More importantly, my two days at COP caused me to reflect on bureaucracy, decision-making, and political engagement.  COP made me realise that whilst it is crucial to have principled and committed people in the negotiation rooms, the structure of the conference and negotiations is still exclusionary and conservative. It has led me to re-commit with vigour to be critical and often pessimistic without being cynical, and to allow for the positive presence of different types of power, even if not always of its actualization.

Read Urte's blog


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