COP-25 in Madrid: Welcome to Acronymlandia

I have researched comparative climate policy in Canada, the US, and other countries for the last 15 years. However, because I don’t focus on negotiation of international climate treaties, I’ve never attended one of the big international climate negotiations – until now.

What does a professor do in advance of a new conference? Homework! International negotiators navigate a very complex legal and procedural framework with the help of a lot of acroynyms. (Lest you doubt, check out

Here are some of the most important acronyms for those who want to follow along with my posts from Madrid this week.

COP refers to the “Conferences of the Parties” (meaning countries) that have ratified the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (also known as the UNFCCC – the acronyms come fast and furious.) The Parties have met annually since the Convention took effect, with the year denoted by the number after “COP.” The biggies have included COP-3 in Kyoto in 1997, where the Kyoto Protocol was negotiated, and COP-21 in Paris in 2015, which yielded the Paris Agreement. We’re now at COP-25, which takes place for the next two weeks.

In ratifying the Paris Agreement, which is akin to an appendix to the UNFCCC, 196 countries committed to work together to limit global warming to “well below” 2C and ideally 1.5C. Since then, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC, yet another acronym) produced a major report in 2018 that underscored the severe impacts that can be expected at 1.5C of global warming, let alone 2C.


The Paris Agreement process is that individual countries set targets, called Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs), to reduce their territorial emissions by a particular date. Two features of this approach warrant elaboration.

First, it’s a bottom up process. Countries set their own targets and devise their own policies to meet them. However, in doing so together, they’re reassuring each other that no one’s effort will be wasted, while also minimizing impacts on economic competitiveness.

Second, it’s an iterative process. Rather than trying to fix climate change in one fell swoop with a distant target that invites procrastination, signatories to the Paris Agreement committed not just to initial NDCs, but also to a process by which they’ll “take stock” and report back to each other on their progress every 5 years (the Global Stock Take or “GST”). The intention is to ratchet up collective ambition via new NDCs two years later.

That ratcheting process is critical because the current NDCs are only enough to limit global warming to between 3 and 3.5 C. Much greater ambition is needed to avoid devastating impacts on planetary ecosystems and human well-being. Canada’s current NDC, adopted in 2015, is to reduce our emissions to 30% below 2005 levels by 2030. Not only do we need to strengthen our existing policies to meet that target, but we and other countries will need to up our game in 2020, the first 5-yearly NDC update, if we are serious about limiting global warming to 2C or less. COP25 this year is an important opportunity for countries, including Canada, to signal that they will announce more ambitious NDCs next year.

There are lots of groupings of countries with similar economic and/or environmental circumstances. Canada has traditionally negotiated with a group of carbon-intensive countries, including Australia and (until recent years) the US, at times joined by oil- and gas-producing post-Soviet states.

In contrast, AOSIS is the Alliance of Small Island States, which are especially vulnerable to rising sea levels caused by climate change. At the limit, entire countries could be submerged.

LDCs are the 47 Least Developed Countries as defined by the UN. The 780 million people in those countries produce just over half of the annual carbon emissions of 35 million Canadians. Put another way, the average Canadian surpasses the annual emissions of an average resident of the LDCs in just 11 days. Yet through a combination of unlucky geography and limited financial resources to adapt to a warming climate — annual GPD per person in the LDCs averages roughly $3000 compared to Canada’s $43,000 — they are already suffering most from extreme heat, storms, flooding, and declining crop yields in countries where hunger is already commonplace. How much worse it gets depends on how quickly we return to net zero global emissions.

This one stands for Common but Differentiated Responsibilities and Respective Capabilities, a fundamental principle established by the UNFCCC treaty. It recognizes that countries that have contributed the most to the climate crisis and/or that have the greatest capacity to contribute to its solution have a disproportionate responsibility to take more ambitious actions to reduce their emissions, as well as to provide financial assistance to those most vulnerable.

The stakes posed by the climate crisis are immense for all countries. By virtue of our northern location Canada will continue to experience double the global average temperature increase. Yet the extreme vulnerability of LDCs and AOSIS states, who have contributed almost nothing to the problem yet will suffer the most, is a stark reminder of our responsibility as one of the countries with the highest carbon footprints and highest per capita incomes in the world.

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