The Paris Agreement, a landmark success or another lenient failure?

The 21st Conference of Parties (COP) was held at Le Bourget, Paris between the 30th November and 12th December 2015. It was convened with the aim of producing a new, legally-binding agreement that commits every country, from all stages of development, to reducing emissions in order to mitigate against the impending climatic catastrophe. At the 2009 COP 15 in Copenhagen, generally regarded as a failure, governments also convened with the aim to create a similarly legally-binding deal. However, it culminated with the USA and BASIC countries drafting a non-legally binding agreement, the Copenhagen Accord. This agreement incorporated countries responsible for 80% of the world’s pollution [1] and its failure to be legally-binding and applicable to all countries greatly increased the importance of the climate talks in Paris (COP 21). The four previous COPs and in particular the ‘Lima Call for climate action”, devised at COP 20 (Lima 2014) [2], laid the foundations for the Paris talks. There was a renewed sense of optimism that the talks would prove successful. At 18:26 on 12th December 2015 (the day after the Conference’s original finish date) this optimism was rewarded when Laurent Fabius, the French Foreign Minister brought his gavel down on COP 21, announcing that the Paris Agreement, a new climate deal, had been adopted.

The Paris Agreement comprises a selection of fundamental ideas and actions as outlined in brief below [3,4]:

  • To keep global temperatures “well below” 2.0oC above pre-industrial temperatures and “endeavour to limit” them to within 1.5o
    • The 1.5oC figure takes into account the shift in consensus regarding the amount of warming the earth can experience without significantly effecting earth system processes, from 2.0oC to 1.5o
  • To reach peak carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions as soon as possible.
  • To achieve global carbon neutrality between 2050 and 2100 by balancing human-caused carbon emissions and natural carbon sinks.
  • For developed nations to assist developing nations with their response to the impacts of climate change and the installation of renewable energy sources by providing “climate finance”.
  • The agreement will also “reflect equity and the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities”. In other words, it accepts that different countries can and will have a larger impact than others and as a result, targets set in different countries will have vastly different orders of magnitude.
  • Each party shall communicate a nationally determined contribution every 5 years.

These are the main underlying principles of the Paris Agreement, laid out in full in [5]. In principle, all countries will reduce their greenhouse gas emissions to cease temperature rise. Cumulatively, global CO2 emissions will peak as soon as possible and we will achieve carbon neutrality before the end of the century. To achieve this, governments of all but the smallest and poorest of the 195 parties involved will report on their emissions every 2 years and report on their renewed “contribution” to reducing greenhouse gas emission every 5 years [6]. In addition, the wealthiest and most developed parties will contribute $100 billion to climate change mitigation and renewable energy investment in the least developed countries from 2020 onwards. At first glance this all looks extremely positive but when analysed closer, is that still the case?

One of the greatest successes of the Paris agreement is that it is the first global climate change agreement that must be adhered to by all countries meaning it has the capability to, and will, affect global climate. This is vital as should average global temperatures exceed 2oC above pre-industrial levels, it would most likely have an irreversible effect on global climate. This in turn would cause the earth system to transgress its current Holocene-like state and move into a new epoch known as the Anthropocene, a state that we do not know has the capability to sustain human societies in the manner that the Holocene does today [7]. By curbing our greenhouse gas emissions, we reduce the chance of this transgression occurring and as a result, we greatly reduce the risk of significant anthropogenic interference in the climate, giving humanity a more sustainable future.

Perhaps more significant is the fact that the Paris agreement has pushed beyond the standard 2oC boundary that is normally stated in climate talks and policy and has recognised that 1.5oC may well be the boundary beyond which an increase in global temperatures (and the resulting climatic change) would have a devastating effect. This tougher and more sustainable target cited in the Paris agreement highlights the paradigm shift in perception regarding climate change. Governments are pushing to impose tougher targets and this is clear evidence that climate change is achieving the international recognition that the problem requires. It is no longer an issue that governments push to one side but one that has climbed government agendas, highlighted by the push for a 1.5 oC target, not the standard 2 oC.

This reduction in warming will stem from a huge reduction and eventually complete cease in emissions worldwide. These reductions will be carried out through individual countries national targets, set out by themselves. Of the 195 countries present (Taiwan was not counted as a country for the purposes of this conference), 187 arrived in Paris having already devised the manner with which they will reduce their emissions within an appropriate timescale. However, it is these targets that are arguably the greatest cause for concern within the Paris Agreement and this is due to two main reasons. Firstly, the targets currently pledged will not be sufficient to drive warming below the 2oC boundary and secondly, the pledges to cut emissions are not legally binding, which allows countries to stray from them at will. Regarding the first cause for concern, Figure 1 depicts predicted
global warming between 2015 and 2100 if a) countries do not act, b) countries continue Reductions in Warmingwith pre-Paris policies and c) countries act upon their Paris pledges. Whilst the Paris pledges will greatly reduce warming, as you can see, they will still allow an overall temperature rise of 2.7oC compared to pre-industrial levels, well into the danger zone that climate scientists think will cause irreversible and potentially catastrophic damage to the climate system.

Whilst this is true, there are aspects of the Paris agreement that were devised to prevent this issue and in the long term, lead to all countries improving their emissions targets until they subtend the 2oC and preferably, the 1.5oC target. The agreement states that firstly, governments of member parties must review and if possible, update their target cuts every five years, starting in 2020 when the agreement takes effect [8]. In addition, each government is asked to review these targets over the course of the next four years, not to necessarily impose deeper and more extensive cuts but to see if it is possible to improve their emissions reductions by using new, less costly and more effective renewable energy sources. In this case, they would be able to produce more energy in an environmentally sustainable manner for the same financial expenditure. The ‘Global Apollo Programme’ [9] is perhaps the foremost manner in which this could happen. The programme, endorsed by influential figures including Sir David Attenborough and Professor Brian Cox, suggests that with just a $15bn per annum investment into renewable energy research the cost of electricity generation from these sources would become lower than fossil fuels within a decade. At which point, the main incentive for using fossil fuels, they are cheaper than renewables and therefore maximise profit, would be nullified. In recent decades, we have seen a dramatic drop in the price of solar energy (see figure 2) however, the Global Apollo programme wants to further decrease these prices and make renewable energy (e.g. Plummeting Cost of Solar PVsolar) cheaper than its fossil fuel equivalent. With the financial gain gone, we would see a dramatic decline in fossil fuel usage and countries could realise greatly reduced emissions targets. It is the periodic revisions of climate targets that allow and encourage governments to incorporate this potential new, clean energy into their mitigation schemes in order to reduce emissions to the required level.

These national targets however, are the major cause for concern for many, as whilst the need for individual countries to report on their targets is legally binding, the need to obey the targets is not. As we have seen above, the targets are not sufficient to reduce warming to below 2oC and there is nothing in the Paris Agreement to legally ensure that governments adhere to their targets and do not reduce or alter them to detrimental effect. Under the Paris Agreement, governments’ individual actions are voluntary and are subject to change with no legal penalty. For example, in his Autumn Statement, George Osborne cut the UK’s £1 billion ring-fenced capital budget for Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) [10]. It was hoped that the Paris climate talks would lead to a legally-enforced system in which countries could not deviate from carefully laid out rigorous climate change prevention tactics in a similar manner to George Osborne. This, however is not the case and governments will continue to be able to cut climate mitigation methods when funds are required elsewhere. In essence, the success of the climate deal lies with the will of the leaders of 195 countries involved.

Another cause for concern is the language used within the agreement. The agreement requires that individual countries’ targets aim to keep global temperature rise “well below” 2oC warmer than pre-industrial levels and “endeavour to limit” them to 1.5oC [4]. These terms “well below” and “endeavour to limit” are entirely subjective and arbitrary terms and I feel that they provide countries with a potential loophole to escape their commitment to maintaining a sustainable climatic state.

One of the main features in the Paris Agreement is the acknowledgement that developed countries are obligated to help fund both climate mitigation and responses to disastrous climatic events in developing countries. The idea of differentiated responsibility was a huge factor in the negotiations and developed and developing nations put forward their differing viewpoints on numerous occasions over the course of the two weeks.

The first of these views, cited by many developed countries, such as the USA, states that climate change will affect us all, regardless of what country we reside in therefore, it is the responsibility of each and every nation to contribute substantially to the resolution of the problem. This idea is a far cry from that voiced by many developing nations, in particular India, who were extremely forthright with their stance throughout the conference. Indian President Narendra Modi stated that “Climate change is not of our making. It is the result of global warming that came from an industrial age powered by fossil fuel” [11]. This belief that developed nations are at fault for climate change led him, and many other leaders of developing countries, to argue that “It should be the responsibility of developed countries to step in” [12] and that “the principles of equity and common but differentiated responsibilities must remain the bedrock of our collective enterprise across all areas – mitigation, adaptation and means for implementation. Anything else would be morally wrong…” [13]. In essence what Modi is saying is that, the climate change problem was and still is being predominantly caused by developed nations and therefore, they should play the pivotal role in protecting against it. Lower income countries feel that a move to more expensive renewables would hinder their development and this is why India, one of these countries, has pledged to continue increasing its CO2 emissions for the benefit of its 300 million people living on less than $1 per day, many with no electricity. It should be noted that China, a country with a more emergent economy, positioned themselves between the two extremities. Whilst China’s president, Xi Jinping, did say that “tackling climate change is a shared mission for all mankind” [14], he did also state that all countries have “common but differentiated responsibilities” [14] and that “addressing climate change should not impair countries’ ability to develop” [15].

The outcome of these conflicts of interest is that the Paris Agreement maintains that developed countries must supply developing countries with finance for climate mitigation and response. No precise figure was mentioned in the agreement but since developed countries have pledged to donate $100 billion per annum from 2020, as first set out in the Cancun agreement of 2010 [16], it is believed that this will be the amount. This sum will only be provided by developed countries however, the agreement does include a note that “encourages emerging economies (such as China) to pitch in on a voluntary basis” [8] although, the lack of legal enforcement here means that there is a strong possibility this will not occur and the funds provided to developing countries will remain at the minimum $100 billion per annum.

Perhaps the largest concern regarding the financial side of the agreement is that $100 billion will not be sufficient to deal with the ever growing magnitude and frequency of damaging, abnormal, climatic events. For example, the Pakistan floods of 2010, are in part attributable to climate change as they were partially the result of increased Atlantic Ocean temperatures [17]. The costs of the flood damage are estimated to have reached up to $40 billion [18] and that does not account for the costs of the reduction in agricultural and economic activity. If damages and losses from one climate disaster can equate to almost half the budget then this suggests that the funding supplied by the developed nations is insufficient to deal with the developing world’s needs. It is suggested however, within the agreement that this $100 billion minimum will be re-evaluated within the next decade and if the worsening climatic situation necessitates, the budget can be increased accordingly by 2025. This system of review is a recurring theme throughout the agreement. The majority of the problems outlined above all have a method of review on a short time scale, showing that the agreement is flexible and will evolve to meet the changing needs of the global climatic system.

Whilst there are concerns and potential issues with the agreement as outlined above, there is one concern that could be disastrous to the entire deal. In order for the Paris agreement to take effect, it must be ratified by 55 countries whom when combined, must be responsible for 55% of total global greenhouse gas emissions. Whilst it is highly likely that considerably more than 55 countries responsible for significantly more than 55% of emissions will ratify the agreement, if it were not to happen, then the agreement would fail and dangerous climatic warming and change would occur.

So referring to the original question set out, is the Paris Agreement a landmark success or a lenient failure. To start, the idea that the agreement is a failure can be quickly dispelled. Whilst there are areas of the agreement that are clearly a cause for concern, as discussed previously, and areas such as the lack of legality regarding the targets set out can be considered lenient, simply the fact that every nation across the globe combined and adopted a single agreement committing them all to the fight against climate change means it is not a failure. So, is it a landmark success? The international encompassing nature of the deal means the agreement is a genuine, positive step forward and undoubtedly, the majority of the deal can be considered a success, as the pledges put forward will have a major, positive climatic effect. However, due to the issues engrained within it, I do not think it can be considered a landmark success. Whilst the Paris climate talks will be viewed as a landmark moment in the fight against climate change, the fundamental issues within it prevent it being the major landmark success that many had hoped for.

Contributed by Joseph Everest, Geography Editor

[1]          http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/8426835.stm

[2]          http://www.cop21paris.org/about/cop21

[3]          http://time.com/4146764/paris-agreement-climate-cop-21/

[4]          http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-35073297

[5]          http://unfccc.int/resource/docs/2015/cop21/eng/l09r01.pdf

[6]          http://www.nature.com/news/nations-approve-historic-global-climate-accord-1.19021

[7]          https://www.sciencemag.org/content/347/6223/1259855.abstract

[8]          http://www.cnbc.com/2015/12/13/paris-climate-agreement-all-you-need-to-know.html

[9]          http://www.globalapolloprogram.org/about/

[10]        http://www.edie.net/news/6/DECC-axes–1bn-Carbon-Capture—Storage-fund-CCS/

[11]        http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2015/nov/30/obama-calls-paris-climate-talks-an-act-defiance-wake-recent-attacks

[12]        http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2015/dec/02/india-takes-leading-role-for-global-south-nations-in-climate-talks

[13]        http://www.ibtimes.co.uk/cop21-full-speech-by-narendra-modi-opening-climate-change-conference-paris-1531257

[14]        http://www.smh.com.au/environment/un-climate-conference/paris-un-climate-conference-2015-the-arguments-against-climate-action-have-been-broken-says-barack-obama-20151130-glbxlg.html

[15]        http://www.theguardian.com/environment/blog/live/2015/nov/30/paris-climate-summit-world-leaders-meet-for-opening-day-live

[16]        http://www.nature.com/news/green-climate-fund-faces-slew-of-criticism-1.18815

[17]        http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/is-the-flooding-in-pakist/

[18]        http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-south-asia-11104310

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