‘Compare and contrast’ – COP1 and COP21

This is my third COP – so I am not a ‘rookie’, but by no means a ‘veteran’; indeed, in the crowd here in Paris, I might be somewhat ‘average’. What is somewhat unusual, however, is that my three COPs have been COP-1 (Berlin), COP-2 (Geneva) and COP-21 (Paris). Returning to the COP-fold after an almost two decade absence, I was encouraged to think about the similarities and differences across the years.[1] I offer some thoughts here across three areas.

  • Procedural

For my first point, I do not have to rely solely upon an occasionally-foggy memory: UN official documents reveal that there were just under 2,000 accredited participants in Berlin more than 20 years ago; in Paris, during this fortnight, preliminary figures note that there are more than 32,000 registered participants! Seeing that number, I now understand why everything here appears ‘bigger’.

Turning to how the negotiations are executed, there are some similarities: in both COP-1 and COP-21, for instance, a central focal point is a large plenary hall, with observers able to sit in the back. But there are also differences, with one that is particularly striking to me is the way in which documents are distributed (e.g., draft texts and decisions, as well as final ones).

Twenty years ago, UN officials would appear at key points during the deliberations with huge stacks of papers in their arms, and delegates would swarm around these young people, aiming to get the latest version as promptly as possible. While that still occurs occasionally today, there is also the electronic distribution of documents, with the smooth ‘Negotiator’ app being the real-time gateway to information. The need for highlighters and 5” binders has been replaced by the criticality of wifi capabilities and large hard-drives.


  • Professional 

Moving from ‘how it does its work’, to ‘what work it does’, there are some differences and some similarities with respect to the COP’s central purpose across the years. There has, undoubtedly, been much so-called horizontal and vertical scaling. First, there are many more sectors engaged, representing a variety of nongovernmental organizations – the side-events and non-accredited areas in Paris have much vibrancy and energy; indeed, they are sufficiently weighty that they could have easily been ‘events’ on their own! And second, there are many more interactions across the, to borrow the academic term, different ‘levels of governance’. Sub-national governments (regions, provinces and cities, for instance) are very visible and active here in Paris, highlighting their own roles, and also engaging with those at other levels. ‘States’ now share the stage.

But while they share the stage, I would also argue that this – in Paris – is still an ‘intergovernmental’ meeting (in the sense of being ‘among nation-states’), just as it was in Berlin 20 years ago. Yes, there are these multiple other actors – doing important work in different areas – but with respect to this process, the focal point is the set of discussions among nation-states. As we head towards the finish line here in Paris, that is clearly evident.

And while these negotiations are still concerned with the issue of climate change (and, arguably, still primarily concerned with ‘climate change mitigation’) – just as they were 20 years ago – there are some differences in focus. Some of these derive from the fact that, by definition, COP-1 could not have had the ‘experience’ that COP-21 necessarily does – in other words, the COP process in 1995 had not yet seen multiple ‘missed targets’ (as it has in 2015). As a consequence, virtually everyone in Paris is fully cognizant that whatever is achieved here will only be ‘the beginning of the next phase of work’, because successful implementation will be critical. By contrast, in Berlin, all eyes were on ‘the target’, focused on the position that the initial one in the Framework Convention was not enough (which, of course, it wasn’t).

There are of course other differences. For one, ‘ambition’ now has as its target a biophysical outcome (limiting warming to a 2, or perhaps a 1.5, degree Celsius increase); in Berlin, it was more about focusing on the emission levels as the measuring stick. For another, while North-South issues were similarly a concern 20 years ago, it is clear that ‘the China in 2015’ (let alone the BRICs and others) is very different than ‘the China in 1995’. Consequently, the North-South dialogue is – like many issues that have evolved over 20 years – much more complex now than it was then.

  • Personal

Twenty years ago, I was a newly-minted academic, trying to publish ‘important things’ – I am not sure how important it was, but I did write something after Berlin. Here in Paris, I am a mid-career academic, working – like many of my colleagues – to meet multiple goals. I still have research activity related to climate change – I am interested, like the broader discussion, more now in implementation (in my case, related to sustainable energy transitions). I am also interested in advancing the goals of my institution – working to make fruitful connections for the Faculty of Environment and the University of Waterloo. And I am working to empower our students – both here in Paris and at home in Waterloo – offering advice (or, more properly, ‘not getting in the way’) as they find the best way to make their own contributions to a low-carbon future. For some, it will be at international negotiations like these; for others, it will be in a different kind of field, perhaps something more local. In any case, ENV students are well-equipped to play a role in the future we all need, and I am delighted to be along for the journey as they learn and thrive.


Finally, it has been a pleasure to come across a few others here who were also at COP-1. Be it a quick hello or a longer catch-up, it has been wonderful to see:

  • Dan Bodansky (University of Washington at COP-1; Center for Climate and Energy Solutions at COP-21)
  • John Christensen (UNEP/Denmark; UNEP)
  • Michael Grubb (Chatham House; University College London) and
  • Detlef Sprinz (Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, PIK; Münster University)

And it is nice also to see that none of us looks any older at all! 🙂

Ian Rowlands, 10 December 2015

[1] My thanks to Julia Hawthornthwaite (ERS alum) for encouraging me to write down some thoughts
ian rowlands

This piece was written by Ian Rowlands
Ian is a Professor and Associate Dean, Strategic Initiatives in the Faculty of Environment at the University of Waterloo


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