The Paris Agreement 2015: The hard work starts here?
28 January 2016 - Nick Marshall

“We’ve got a 1.5 degree target, and a 3.5 degree plan. So let’s get to work…”

The Paris Agreement made between 195 countries at the UNFCCC’s Conference of the Parties (COP) in December of last year has been described in many ways, ranging from a complete success to almost abject failure. But even the most diehard optimist must concede that it only represents a launch pad; the rocket is yet to be built. The above quotation from Bill McKibben of sums up the scale of the challenge and Christiana Figueres, the UNFCCC’s Executive Secretary, agreed:

“COP 21 was a success, but that was the easy part…”

So what do we have in reality? Well, it’s best described as a legally-binding international framework on which climate action can be built; it’s a means, not an end. This is no mean feat. The UNFCCC has learned from its past mistakes, most notably with the Kyoto Protocol, where top-down climate targets and timescales were imposed upon states, only for a number of high-profile nations to turn their back on the international process and put climate action back for years.

So, we now have a bottom-up approach; where each and every party must set its own set of targets and timescales with a intention of: “holding the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2C above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5C above pre-industrial levels, recognising that this would significantly reduce the risks and impacts of climate change”. The 1.5 degree target is a real triumph for the Paris Agreement. It almost snuck into the agreement and now is confirmed by the 195 signatory nations. And each and every one of those nations must present a plan to reduce their emissions that is consistent with this 1.5 degree target. Right now, in aggregate, the plans submitted get nowhere near the target, so this is where the focus now rests.

Another key element to the deal is the reinforcement of the pledge to mobilize USD 100 billion a year in public and private finance for developing nations by 2020, which was originally promised back at the contentious Copenhagen climate change negotiations in 2009, to deal with the impacts of climate change and to reduce their emissions. This level of finance is also committed every year until 2025. Countries making good on pledges to international financing mechanisms, such as the Green Climate Fund, will be central to achieving this goal.

Politically, the Paris Agreement also acknowledges the challenges that individual countries have faced in the past in approving legally-binding climate protocols. It is therefore designed in a pragmatic way, for example in allowing the US President to bring it into law without the requirement of Congressional ratification. Also, a mechanism to transparently monitor each country’s emissions, plus the overall progress towards the long-term goals, has been agreed for every 5 years, starting in 2018.

Markets, although not explicitly mentioned in the text, are included within the Agreement. It is anticipated that a new flexible mechanism, built using the practical experiences of implementing the Kyoto Protocol’s Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) and Joint Implementation (JI) projects, will be in place by 2020. This could signify the return of carbon trading in the form of “internationally transferred mitigation outcomes” or ITMOs, adding further to the jargon-heavy world of climate policy.

But perhaps one of the biggest successes of the Paris Agreement is in the momentum that it has created. Before, during and just after the COP; companies, governments, multilateral development organizations and others started to mobilize in the fight against climate change and commit to action. For example, according to the ODI:

  • Big banks have pledged to scale up their investments in renewable and clean energy, green bonds, low-emission transport and agriculture
  • Investors have signed up to quit carbon: the Portfolio Decarbonisation Coalition, which manages $600bn in assets, committed to divesting from high carbon investments
  • Governments pledged new climate finance in the run up to COP21 that will result in at least $18.8 billion per year by 2020

Added to this commitments made to innovation supporting clean energy from the likes of Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg and Richard Branson, it is clear that the Paris Agreement has had an impact beyond just the agreed text. Nonetheless, the hard work to decarbonize the global economy and avoid the most dangerous effects of man-made climate change definitely starts here…