The deal that negotiators hope to clinch in Paris would build on the world’s original climate pact, the 1992 UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. Most nations of the world—195 of them—are parties to that 23-year-old treaty, which sets the broad goal of stabilizing greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere “at a level that will prevent dangerous human interference with the climate system.” U.S. President George H. W. Bush was among the world leaders who signed that agreement. The treaty called for the countries that were industrialized at that time to cut their greenhouse gas emissions but set no deadlines or amounts for those reductions.
The international community set timetables and emission levels for industrialized countries in 1997’s Kyoto protocol, which expired in 2012 and was symbolically extended to 2020. The U.S. never became a partner to the Kyoto protocol because of opposition from conservatives, coal interests, and many energy-intensive industries.
In 2009, negotiators meeting in Copenhagen sought to create a climate deal to build on the Kyoto protocol that would include emerging economies with burgeoning emissions, including China and India. Those countries balked, and the talks faltered. After U.S. President Barack Obama intervened at the 11th hour, negotiators settled on a deal that is noteworthy for setting a policy goal for future climate efforts, including the Paris accord: restraining global average rise in temperature to 2 °C over preindustrial levels by 2100.
In addition, rich nations agreed to provide $30 billion per year from 2010 to 2012 to help developing countries decarbonize their economies and adapt to climate change, and that amount is supposed to increase to $100 billion by 2020.
In a significant evolution of climate diplomacy, the Paris agreement is expected to include emission control efforts by all UN nations. Each country is making a written pledge called an intended nationally determined contribution that lays out what it will do to control its domestic emissions. Negotiators hope this so-called bottom-up approach, in which countries set their own emission goals, will be more effective than the top-down Kyoto protocol.
Cheryl Hogue oversees government and policy coverage at Chemical & Engineering News and has been covering climate issues for decades. Follow her coverage of #COP21 on Twitter @chogue