Three Things I Learned at COP21

Why is climate action crucial to manage migration flows and improve gender equality? And why could the voluntary agreement reached at the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP21) be more likely to achieve these goals than an internationally binding commitment? In the first part of this two-part series, Fannie Delavelle challenges common assumptions on climate change and the international agreement reached at COP21, discussing three key takeaways from her experience as a delegate in Paris.

1) Climate action can strengthen gender equality.

The interlinkages between gender issues and climate change were mentioned in the final COP21 agreement, as a result of intense civil society mobilization. The agreement, which was unanimously adopted by over 190 countries, repeatedly refers to the importance of mainstreaming gender in climate actions –a particularly crucial victory considering that women are disproportionately impacted by climate change in developing countries, partly as a result of their pre-existing socio-economic vulnerabilities. Most notably, the agreement’s language highlights the importance of promoting gender balance in governing bodies such as the Committee to facilitate implementation and promote compliance with the accord. This represents quite an achievement considering the lack of women in leadership positions at the conference: less than one third of the heads of national delegations in attendance were female. As Mary Robinson, the former United Nations (UN) human rights chief and Ireland’s first female president, declared in an interview: “This is a very male world [at the conference]. When it is a male world, you have male priorities.” Guaranteeing gender balance in governing committees is a key step forward to ensure that their work priorities reflect the concerns and needs of all affected parties rather than only half of the population. While the final COP21 text—and thereby its reference to gender equality—is not legally binding, it goes a long way in promoting the inclusion of gender issues in climate change projects and in spurring interest and investment in gender specific initiatives such as those conducted by the UN’s organization dedicated to gender equity and female empowerment, UN WOMEN.

2) Climate change and migration are strongly interlinked

Human migration is an increasingly key issue in today’s world, and in many cases is intrinsically linked to the effects of climate change. In Central America, many communities are forced to leave their homes as a result of sudden or slow onset disasters; and in the Middle East, resource scarcity leads to continued security challenges. The inclusion of migration in the final COP21 agreement was an important step forward to foster decisive international cooperation to develop a legal status for climate migrants and to improve the management of migration flows in the near term. These two topics had so far proved controversial as a result of the interlinkages between climate change and other migration push factors, which make it difficult to consider any migration flow as purely “climate-induced.” However, the current migration crises have led several parties to realize the importance of addressing this issue, and as a result 20 percent of the intended nationally determined contributions* contain pledges to address migration challenges. While obstacles remain, COP21 provides a stepping stone to leverage concrete solutions for climate migrants.

3) Voluntary does not mean ineffective

One of the major points of contention highlighted by civil society groups following the negotiations concerns the voluntary nature of the text, particularly regarding mitigation efforts by developed countries. The last-minute replacement of the imperative “shall” with the word “should” in Article 4 Paragraph 4 resulted in a critical section of the text reading, “developed country Parties should continue taking the lead by undertaking economy-wide absolute emission reduction target” [emphasis added]. A result of U.S. diplomatic pressure, the change instantly deprived the text of its binding nature. This substitution, which was undertaken minutes before the text’s adoption, and subtly mentioned by French Foreign Minister Fabius as a “typo” made by sleep-deprived UNFCCC employees, entirely modified the nature of the agreement. While one might argue that this outcome was the result of a last minute U.S. negotiating tactic rather than a typo, the agreement’s voluntary language may actually prove more effective than a binding deal to meet its goals.

First, a legally binding agreement would likely have had to be ratified by the U.S. Senate and other national assemblies. This would have represented a major obstacle for its implementation, considering the politically charged nature of environmental issues in the United States and the continuing strength of climate deniers in policy-making circles (56 percent of the conservative Republican electorate say there is no solid evidence of climate change). Second, the power of political shaming and international social pressures should not be underestimated. A large number of international agreements rely on countries’ desires to ensure good relations with their counterparts. These simple rules of social interaction guarantee the respect of international agreements by each party. Furthermore, the transparency and reporting requirements set out in the text provide another tool to ensure implementation. Civil society, through public opinion, will become an enforcer of the agreement, offering an effective vehicle toward compliance. Finally, the voluntary nature of the agreement is likely to encourage the adoption of more ambitious national targets over time. Negotiators of an international agreement are often faced with a trade-off between its ambition and its legal strength: the more binding the agreement, the less likely negotiators are to make ambitious pledges. In the case of climate change, privileging ambition over legal strength will allow for a ripple effect to take place: as innovation in clean technologies intensifies, and as green policies such as the deployment of infrastructure for electric cars prove successful and profitable, stakeholders will be more likely to regularly ratchet up and reach their pledges over time, thereby reaching a more ambitious outcome than would have been achieved through a binding mechanism.


At a time when the death of multilateralism has been announced by many commentators, the unanimous agreement by over 190 parties to cooperate on climate action appears to be nothing short of a miracle. While COP21 demonstrated that multilateralism is still an achievable goal, it highlighted the role of plurilateral and multi-stakeholder initiatives—or ‘building blocs’—to bridge positions over the years, along with the importance of participation by civil society. COP21 provides lessons beyond the climate change sector, on which multilateral organizations should build to ensure their long-term sustainability.


*Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs) are pledges of what post-2020 climate actions each country intends to take under the new international agreement. They were prepared by each government in preparation of COP21, and largely contributed to the success of the Paris summit by fostering a cooperative environment ahead of the negotiations.

Fannie Delavelle is a trade and public policy attaché at the Embassy of France in Washington DC. She has served in leadership capacities in several organisations, most recently as President of the International Relations & Sustainability Committees for young professionals at the European Commission. She graduated from the London School of Economics and Sciences Po Paris in 2014, where she studied International Political Economy. After graduation, Fannie worked at the European Commission on a climate change adaptation initiative. Previously, she had conducted research on climate-induced migration at the Earth Institute (Columbia University), and developed a risk assessment model for food security for the World Food Programme.

Image credit: Presidencia de la Republica de Mexico/Flickr.

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