Paris Climate Agreement: a good but insufficient step forward

Twenty-three years after the adoption of the Rio Convention on Climate Change, the failure of the Copenhagen climate summit in 2009 which was meant to have provided a new agreement to succeed the Kyoto Protocol, negotiations continued until December this year of which a deadline was set. And so with six weeks of official negotiations during the course of 2015, several international events and more than two weeks of talks in Paris, the world’s 196 countries have finally reached on a new climate agreement to start in 2020.

The Paris Climate Agreement is made of 12 pages and is accompanied with 19 pages of decisions which list all options to be implemented or further developed under this new deal. It will have consequences in various international agreements, from trade, to agriculture, to the sustainable development goals, to humanitarian aid and so on. Under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the implementation and further negotiations to develop solutions will continue on an annual basis.

One thing is certain, this deal will not be enough to limit global warming average temperature to 2°C and even less to the 1.5°C the agreement itself says is necessary. However due to domestic political reasons in most countries and the current geopolitical reality, this is the best deal we could get. That’s why we cannot put all our hope in such international agreement and action will need to be taken at all levels, involving all of us.

But let’s take a closer look at this new and universal climate agreement.

We can be more or less happy because:

There is a deal! This might sound very weak to cheer but it was by no means sure that all countries, and in particular the current biggest emitters, would agree to a deal until the very last day of the negotiations. Every politician, negotiator and other advocacy expert had still in mind the failure of the nightmarish conference held in Copenhagen in 2009. But reality had changed with more and more people around the globe aware of the threat of climate change and eager to act. Renewable and energy-efficient solutions are now considered viable alternatives, and nearly all sectors of our societies, from companies, to churches, to local public authorities have started acting voluntarily without regulatory pressure. Politicians, who are often influenced by corporate interests could not ignore the critical mass of people and other stakeholders. Additionally to these determining factors, the French presidency of this COP21 acted wisely to ensure an inclusive and party-driven process where all countries felt at ease to negotiate. In these diplomatic environments, delicate attention is key to find the best possible compromise without leaving anyone behind.

The Paris agreement to tackle climate change is universal in that it is applicable to all countries. It creates a new international climate regime, moving from the Kyoto Protocol which targeted only historical emitters and applied a top-down approach. Even most countries have not contributed to the great threat to human life which climate change is, but now all countries – not just the greatest historical emitters – must play their part; the remaining space in the atmosphere for greenhouse gases (also called carbon budget) is now too little to continue emissions if we want to prevent dangerous climate-induced impacts and irreversible consequences. The need to act is so high and urgent that no one on this earth can continue or wish living the fossil-fuel based and a Western consumerist lifestyle. And developing economies must avoid repeating the ecological mistakes of the historical emitters.

Concretely. In Paris, countries adopted two long term goals. One temperature goal to limit global warming to less than 2°C, and striving for 1.5°C. A difference of 0.5°C is significant and exceeding a 1.5°C increase could for many countries mean their land or part of it becoming inhabitable before the end of this century. And a second goal of net zero emissions by the second half of this century, between 2050 and 2100. To achieve these two long term goals, a mechanism was agreed upon whereby from 2020 onwards every five years, all countries will present their strategies for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Five years is short enough to ensure governments will act as often they are caught by short-term solutions coinciding with elections cycles. Language in the agreement allows developing countries to continue increasing their emissions but at a lower level than ‘business-as-usual’, depending also on the support they will receive from rich countries.

The adaptation section is perhaps one of the best outcomes with the creation of a qualitative goal to review the actions undertaken and the needs of improving resilience of the poorest and most vulnerable countries, in combination with the 5-year mitigation cycle. The agreement acknowledges the strong link to mitigation action as the main solution to reduce the need to adapt to climate change. Several fundamental rights are also explicitly mentioned in order to ensure adaptation actions are shaped to the specificities of each countries, to be gender-responsive and to take into consideration vulnerable and indigenous communities.

One of the greatest success of the agreement is the full recognition of the 3rd pillar of the new climate regime, namely Loss and Damage (L&D). When mitigation fails to prevent climate change and when its impacts are greater and irreversible so that adaptation is not an option, the consequences faced by many are categorised as L&D. With a separate article in the agreement, this aspect of reality is fully recognised and will be permanently dealt with the Warsaw International Mechanism (WIM). This mechanism was created in late 2013 with a deadline for its first activity report end of 2016. Depending on how L&D would be incorporated in the Paris Agreement, the future of the WIM was uncertain. Now it is fully anchored in the agreement as the permanent body in charge of developing solutions over the next years. Several rich countries have agreed to contribute to and expand risk insurance schemes, but better is for most of the actions to aim at preventing L&D. This will require non-financial responses to non-economic losses, such as the loss of land or even of nations disappearing and populations being left landless and stateless.

Finally the agreement has a section on financial, technical and capacity-building support and cooperation which includes a 2-year cycle to verify if pledges and commitments are fulfilled. As financial support is often directed to mitigation projects, the agreement corrects this asymmetry by ensuring support being provided in a balanced manner between mitigation and adaptation. Moreover adaptation finance should be public and grant-based, and the contribution of rich countries should be scaled-up over time.

For all these reasons, we can affirm this agreement will bring change and solutions to the climate crisis for several decades.

However we can be worried because:

Even if this agreement is the first universal collective international response to a global threat which has no borders, all countries did not manage to seal a deal which will efficiently limit global warming below the threshold of 2°C above which climate change will be catastrophic. The mitigation plans put on the table by nearly all governments this year, the so-called Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs), are falling far short from what needs to be done and put the world on even a 3°C trajectory. In this scenario, during the second half of this century there will be nearly no pacific islands. There will be major coastal erosion in Europe, in particular the UK and the Netherlands, two countries with a very high carbon footprint and an economic model based on over-consumption of natural resources. Those creating this problem need to be aware that their countries’ children will be at risk.

So if the mitigation plans are not good enough, is there a good mechanism to increase these plans in the near future and on a regular basis to be as accurate as possible with the efforts needed? Not really, and one of the biggest risks of this agreement is that we assume there is. There are too many loopholes when it comes to operationalisation, too much room for interpretation of how these efforts must be conducted and shared.

First of all having a long term temperature goal (below 2°C or even 1.5°C), a net-zero emissions objective for the second half of this century and a recommendation to peak global emissions “as soon as possible” do not give enough guidance to plan reduction efforts. There is no inclusive target, such as a % target of renewable in the energy mix, a missed opportunity when we now know that 80% of the current fossil fuel reserves must stay in the ground to limit climate change sufficiently. Countries preferred this loose target over a full decarbonisation one or even a % of global greenhouse gas reduction by 2050.

Secondly, during the past months, negotiators were telling publicly that the INDCs were conservative and therefore easy to increase. This was mainly due to the lack of time for preparing them and the first time for a majority of countries to do this exercise. The new mechanism adopted in Paris establishes a dynamic review of these plans every 5 years starting in 2023, which is in 8 years! There will be only a “dialogue” organised in 2018 inviting all countries to scale-up their initial plan, but this might be too late as at current level of emissions, the 1.5°C global average temperature increase will be reached around 2020. Even though there are legal provisions regarding no backsliding of future national mitigation plans and a set of rules to follow when submitting them, they are only indicative and are not part of a legally-binding mechanism with an international court of justice and other legal measures. This ratcheting-up mechanism is too voluntary, thus creating too much uncertainty and letting space for race-to-the-bottom dynamics as soon as one country with enough power will decide not to comply.

Moreover the agreement ignores completely an important source of greenhouse gas, those from aviation and shipping, representing about 10% of current global emissions and foreseen to be about 20% of total emissions within the next decade. In a desperate but uncoordinated manner the EU tried throughout 2015 to bring this issue back to the table of negotiations but failed to convince most countries to integrate them.

What can be also very worrying and present a real environmental danger is the inclusion of elements and vague concepts such as sinks to absorb the carbon in the atmosphere, leaving the door open to geo-engineering and other technology approaches. This belief in unlimited technological progress drives us in the opposite direction this agreement is meant to take us, especially when carbon capture storage projects are either not working or on the way to be stopped due to inefficiency. It creates the illusion that we can continue polluting as one day we will find solutions, and delays any concrete actions. This is doubly ill-advised when declining costs for renewable energy means it costs less to switch to renewable and decentralised energy production.

Those who have and are contributing to anthropogenic climate change have also won the integration in the agreement of a new market based tool, the Sustainable Development Mechanism. In a society dominated by big corporations, this seems to be the preferred solution of our political leaders. The history of market based solutions to deal with environmental problems show that they are less efficient compared to the regulatory approaches which clearly define a target to respect. Consider for example the European Carbon Market which has so far failed. However the agreement also emphasises strongly non-market based approaches, revealing a compromise and hopefully leaving an opportunity to prove once again what is really delivering.

Unfortunately the agreement does not respond to the toughest issue of these negotiations: the differentiation of efforts among all countries. In 1992 when the Convention on Climate Change was adopted in Rio, countries were divided in two categories: the historical emitters and the rest of the world. This distinction was based on the principle of “common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capacities”. Today the Paris Agreement adds to this principle the concept of “in the light of national circumstances” in order to accommodate emerging economies and differentiates vaguely countries between “developed” and “developing”. In other words, this means that historical emitters are still those needed to take the biggest part of the burden, and let emerging economies continue emitting until they feel having done enough. This carbon development right is understandable as many basic infrastructures needing to be built (e.g. roads, buildings) will imply emissions. But how to share equitably the carbon budget left. This agreement therefore does not ensure a fair share of the burden and will leave the most powerful countries as referees.

Apart from the mitigation pillar of the agreement, the other pillars, Adaptation and Loss & Damage, also includes weaknesses, and especially L&D. One of the main demands of small island and least developed countries was to recognise the need to develop solutions concerning displacement, cross-border migration and planned relocation responding to climate change and rising sea levels. There is no longer any reference to this in the agreement, except an indirect mention to external UN bodies dealing with specific aspects of L&D, thus referring to the UN ad-hoc working group on climate-induced migration. The US managed also to bring in the accompanying decisions of the agreement an exclusion clause on future liability linked to L&D, although the G77 and China had already moved towards a compromise by removing any mention to compensation. According to the US government negotiators it was one of the essential conditions for the Obama administration to ensure this agreement will not be rejected by a right-wing Congress. This was questionable as there is no precedent in international law for such a move. Imagine if you were a foot passenger being hit by a car and not being able to demand reparation from the driver, this is how unfair this clause looks.

Finally one of the biggest disappointment, although expected, was the section on Finance. Historical emitters succeeded not to include the yearly USD 100 billion target of climate support to be provided from 2020 onwards, arguing that economic reality will likely change in the next decade. Therefore this quantitative target decided in 2009 is relegated in the accompanying decisions, making the financial commitment weak. Furthermore there is no real obligations for countries to fulfil their commitment, neither a roadmap to ensure that these commitments will be honoured. We can thus expect that climate financial support will be an ongoing battle with historical emitters trying to shy away from their commitment or to replace public aid with hazardous financial operations. On the other hand, emerging economies which are currently polluting a lot will also be encouraged to contribute to this global support but without rules or guidance on how and when they should participate. The battle will be recurrent and is likely to be ugly.

So what?

The Paris Agreement brings a major historic change. This is because of its universality, applying to all nations. It is also because the Agreement clearly indicates to all stakeholders that the world is moving to a paradigm which incorporates the reality of addressing climate change. This is already reflected in the stock markets – The days following the acceptance of this agreement, movements on stock markets already showed a shift away from fossil fuels and towards renewables. Despite being weak and including many loopholes, this agreement is the best outcome we could expect from all governments on this planet. It is far from being perfect and enough to tackle climate change but it’s a good step forward.

Will this deal last for many decades and will it keep our climate safe for our survival? On one hand it is needed to last at least until 2050 as all countries must continue committing to transform their economies to low carbon development and ramp-up their mitigation plans every 5 years until full decarbonisation of societies is achieved. This can only happen with collective indirect coercive pressure and this is why the UN climate talks will continue.

On the other hand, there is a high probability that when this agreement will enter into force in 2020 we will have passed the level of emissions that will keep us under 1.5°C, and that geopolitical climate reality will be shaped by the most powerful countries. But this international process is not the only solution. We must not let our governments deal alone with this global challenge and we all must act at every levels to ensure a real ecological and socially just transition everywhere, in every sectors!