skip to content

Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership (CISL)

COP21 entrance photo

COP21: Making history

By Eliot Whittington, Deputy Director, The Prince of Wales's Corporate Leaders Group

4 December 2015

This article was originally posted on the website of The Prince of Wales’s Corporate Leaders Group and is republished here with permission.


“This can be done. We have the knowledge, the tools and the money.”

HRH The Prince of Wales at the opening plenary of COP21


So it’s finally here. The long-awaited COP21 – the conference that is due to finally deliver a truly global agreement to address climate change has arrived. And what a beginning.

150 heads of state and government, over 40,000 official attendees (and a similar number in town for events outside the conference), and a conference centre the size of a small town. A series of major new commitments were unveiled, such as the pledge made by 20 countries to significantly increase R&D spending on clean tech, India’s new alliance to scale up solar investment and the official inauguration of the Carbon Pricing Leadership Coalition.

The Prince of Wales’s Corporate Leaders Group was at the heart of it. Most notably with the event that we organised with the Friends of Fossil Fuel Subsidy Reform bringing together heads of state and governments and CEOs, to present a multi-sector call to end fossil fuel subsidies, backed by nearly 40 governments, as well as hundreds of businesses and international organisations to UN climate chief Christiana Figueres. The issue of fossil fuel subsidies, described by Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg as “negative climate finance,” was irrevocably put on the agenda as part of the climate challenge.

The official schedule for the next few days has negotiators meeting in multiple overlapping formal and informal discussions; while at the same time a series of thematic sessions bring together businesses, investors, cities, and regions to talk about their contributions to reducing emissions and improving climate resilience.

These negotiations are unlike any that have been held before. COP21 is simultaneously a tough, legalistic negotiation, with diplomats debating an agreement text word by word and paragraph by paragraph; side by side with a thriving, energy-filled expo of ideas and products and national pride in a new, growing green economy. And crucially these two halves which have previously run in parallel isolation, now increasingly link.

The final outcome is planned to consist of four parts – a negotiated agreement text, complemented by national commitments to climate action, a flow of finance to support such action and unprecedentedly a fourth component of non-state actor commitments.

And there are very promising signals about that outcome. A huge amount has already been tabled in terms of national commitments, finance and non-state actor commitments, while negotiators, such as US climate lead Todd Stern are optimistic that “the stars are more aligned now for an historic universal agreement than they have ever been before”.

However even with all of these positive signs and strong foundations it is impossible to be purely optimistic. This is not simply because the negotiations are grinding and difficult, as can already be seen from the first days of the discussions. It is because there is so much at stake.

A global agreement is probably the one single action that can do most to support a global economic transition and make it smooth, cost-effective and supportive of the needs of business. While there is a visible and inevitable transition towards a low-carbon economy underway, the plans and trends in place are not currently sufficient to bring global warming down as much as we need to do. And the fact that the conditions are better for striking a deal than they have ever been before makes the cost of failure so much higher – it will take years to recreate this momentum should Paris fail, and every year that passes sees more carbon emissions enter the atmosphere.

So as HRH The Prince of Wales said in his keynote speech at the opening ceremony of COP21: “If, at last, the moment has arrived to take those long-awaited steps towards rescuing our planet and our fellow man from impending catastrophe, then let us pursue that vital goal in a spirit of enlightened and humane collaboration.”


The Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership is running or supporting a number of events at COP21. 

In addition, The Prince of Wales’s Corporate Leaders Group, to which CISL provides secretariat, have a full schedule which can be found here.


Articles on the blog written by employees of the University of Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership (CISL) do not necessarily represent the views of, or endorsement by, the Institute or the wider University of Cambridge.

The secretariat to the Corporate Leaders Group (CLG) is provided by The University of Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership (CISL). Decisions or positions of the CLG do not represent the policies or positions of CISL or of the wider University of Cambridge.

About the author

Eliot Whittington

Eliot leads a body of work to support business and policy action on climate change. He is the Deputy Director of The Prince of Wales’s Corporate Leaders Group which brings together businesses to work towards a step change in policy and action on climate change.

Eliot has over 15 years’ experience in working to unlock systemic change, including providing policy analysis around climate action for Save the Children and Christian Aid, leading Christian Aid’s UK lobbying work with parliamentarians and political parties, and working on mobilising grassroots campaigning in locations from Addis Ababa to Birmingham.



Zoe Kalus, Head of Media  

Email | +44 (0) 7845652839