Expert Speak Terra Nova
Published on Dec 17, 2015
COP21: The end of the beginning

The 21st Conference of Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change has come and gone and thankfully we have an agreement. After their failure to agree anything in Copenhagen in 2009, diplomats were under pressure this time around to deliver a global climate deal. In that, they have been successful. The constraints of getting 196 different countries with different needs, capabilities and responsibilities to agree to a single document meant that the Paris Agreement would always be a consensus around the minimum. The final outcome, however, managed to combine moderate ambition with diplomatic consensus. In particular, there are three reasons for cheer.

One is that countries committed to "...pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C above pre industrial levels..." Before COP21, only Low Lying Island States particularly vulnerable to climate impacts had been vociferously demanding a 1.5° goal. It is encouraging that the Paris agreement got all countries to agree on target that is more ambitious than the previously acknowledged 2° goal.

Secondly, given that current country pledges through their Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) only added up to reducing global warming to 2.7°C, it was crucial that a mechanism was put in place to ensure that countries ratcheted up their ambitions over time. That was the only way we would have a chance to avoid dangerous levels of climate change. This has now been agreed upon in Paris with a legally binding requirement that countries review their contributions every 5 years and that each successive contribution should be a progression on the previous one. This is also important so that developing countries which slowly transition into developed nations do not continue to hide behind their exceptionalism and instead take a more active and leading role over time, in constraining emissions and supporting poorer nations in their climate action.

Lastly, the Paris Agreement established an enhanced transparency framework. The framework will track progress made by parties towards achieving their targets under the NDCs and also ensure transparency in both support provided and received by member states. This helps immensely in clarifying the aggregate financial, technology and capacity building support from developed to developing nations. While the transparency framework and the agreement as a whole has no punitive power (that is a political nonstarter), it was crucial that an agreement in Paris that will inevitably rely on peer pressure implementation, has the requisite information and clarification mechanisms in place to provide accurate and unbiased detail on who is doing what.

Of course, these successes aside, the Paris Agreement is no panacea for the problem of climate change. A diplomatic success cannot be spun as an environmental one. The task facing countries under the UNFCCC was to balance what is politically viable with what is technically required. To that extent, they have largely delivered. The Paris Agreement only marks the end of the first steps of creating a framework for climate action. As the Kyoto Protocol will remind us, a successful deal does not guarantee a successful outcome. There is no guarantee that the present agreement and the NDCs of member states will results in cutting carbon dioxide emissions to the level that is necessary to prevent dangerous climate change. In fact, if anything, analysis of the pledges shows us that it is the opposite that is true.

Yet, the Paris Agreement marks a starting point for how we want to approach the problem of climate change. It has got all countries on board, signing up for climate action, including the world’s four biggest emitters: China, US, EU and India. The spirit of voluntary contributions means that countries have submitted plans for what they are going to do and the agreement mandates that they will have to better that ambition every five years.

For the immediate future, civil society and environmental groups need to keep the pressure on. Successful outcomes from the Paris Agreement will only be achieved if both governments and business are committed to transitioning to a low carbon economy and undertaking ambitious, coordinated action on decarbonizing our energy systems. For that to happen, citizens of countries in both the developing and developed world have to continue to pay attention to the policies and actions taken by their governments. The simple but hard truth is that the global economy is still massively reliant on fossil fuels. Delivering the carbon cuts that will limit average temperature rise to 1.5°C will require a significant shift in how our economies function. Failure to enact ambitious domestic reforms, however, will risk countries themselves becoming fossils at the next climate conference. The real work starts now.

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