For starters, the world is not on track to keep global warming within the threshold of two degrees Celsius. Scientists can now provide a clearer picture of what the world can expect without immediate and dramatic action: by the end of the century the global mean temperature could rise by up to 3.6 degrees under a business-as-usual scenario, according to climate policy initiative the International Energy Agency.  The devastating disruption to natural and human systems expected as a result has been articulated countless times — extinction of animal and vegetable species and threats to food security are just two examples.
But the money needed to slow down this process before it is too late is still lacking. Recent reports confirm that global climate investments from the public and private sectors, spent mainly on implementation of mitigation strategies, are insufficient for the world to transition to a low-carbon economy. And when funds do materialise, the challenge will be how to allocate them effectively, taking advantage of scientific evidence to inform policymaking and set priorities that safeguard the planet without compromising countries’ efforts to develop sustainably.
These are some of the challenges that delegates from 195 member countries will have in mind as COP20 opens today.
The conference is a crucial opportunity to take stock of where countries stand on climate action and how they are shaping their climate agendas, and to open up a conversation that for the rest of the year happens behind closed doors.
Encouragingly, the draft negotiating text states that science should be part of the framework for assessing the adequacy and fairness of commitments on financing as well as adaptation, technology and capacity building.  The draft also specifies that commitments should be gender-sensitive, be participatory, take into account vulnerable groups and be based on science and traditional knowledge.
The conference has been largely labelled by the media and international policymaking community as a mere transition towards next year’s appointment in Paris, where the parties are set to sign a legally binding agreement to curb global emissions, to be enforced by 2020. So why are we talking about this year’s meeting? There is, in fact, much more worth exploring. The conference is a crucial opportunity to take stock of where countries stand on climate action and how they are shaping their climate agendas, and to open up a conversation that for the rest of the year happens behind closed doors. The importance of this event lies not only in the progress of international agreements, but also in the public’s interest in it and its power to give a voice to key stakeholders including scientists and communities that are vulnerable to the impacts of climate change.
Behind each negotiation protocol signed once a year, there is an ongoing effort on the part of researchers, NGOs, the private sector, local governments and communities to integrate adaptation and mitigation in the fabric of people’s everyday lives. Technology transfer, balancing the need for international actions and locally appropriate interventions, and designing adaptation programmes that can work effectively are among the practical issues that are key to negotiating and enforcing international treaties.
We won’t leave this conference with a historic agreement on carbon dioxide mitigation in our pocket. Even a draft of the document, a starting point for next year’s meeting, would be an unexpected success.
But in the next two weeks, we expect to catch up with the policies, current thinking, science and grassroots movements as the world grapples with climate change. COP 20 is the platform for this complex debate to take a step forward.
Stay up to date with all SciDev.Net’s coverage of the conference over the next two weeks on our dedicated COP page and follow @SciDev.Net on twitter for more frequent updates.