Introduction to COP21 and the Agreement
Depending on who you ask, the agreement that came out of the conference was either a watershed deal that heralded in the end of the age of fossil fuels or a weak, corporate-driven compromise that consigns marginalized populations, and all of us, to climate chaos. It’s hard at this point to be sure which is closer to the truth. It is both an incredible step forward in the recognition of the climate crisis and a beginning of global efforts to address it, and not remotely enough to stop significant warming in the near term future, which will have real, heartbreaking effects on millions of people. Writing in the Guardian the next day, columnist George Monbiot said, “By comparison to what it could have been, it’s a miracle. By comparison to what it should have been, it’s a disaster.” We at the Switzer Foundation, and many of our Fellows and partners, are holding both of those truths.
Still, the process did have some big milestones. The final Paris Agreement states that, “climate change represents an urgent and potentially irreversible threat to human societies and the planet and thus requires the widest possible cooperation by all countries,” and notes that “deep reductions” in emissions will be required. Responding to the demands of many less developed countries, it sets forth a framework for “differentiated responsibilities” for climate actions, recognizing that developed countries should take the lead in reducing greenhouse gas emissions, while also providing for actions by developing countries.
As Beth Sawin of Climate Interactive notes, systems steer toward goals, so the inclusion of the 1.5°C goal in the Paris Agreement is important. “The goal doesn't itself change the world,” she says, “but the goal can keep us focused, and motivate us, and 1.5°C is a sufficiently significant goal that it can rule out many false and partial solutions. It also helps to highlight the gap between proposed emissions reductions and the reductions needed to actually get to 1.5°C.”
The agreement introduces a strong global commitment to climate adaptation, formalizing the principle of loss and damage due to climate change and acknowledging a critical need to protect those most vulnerable. It provides for transparent monitoring, review, and revision of individual country commitments every five years. The hope is that countries will “ratchet up” their commitments every five years, resulting in ever decreasing global greenhouse gas emissions. The reality is, however, that while the agreement establishes an important framework, the real outcome will depend on how countries interpret and implement the agreement in their own policies, and it will likely require immense and consistent civil society engagement to ensure that public attention and political will continue to drive countries toward ever greater climate action.
Some parts of the agreement are legally binding. Binding language includes the process through which each nation will submit, and review every five years, its plans to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and a pledge by wealthier nations to provide $100 billion by 2020 to help poorer countries transition to alternative energy. The agreement requires a new level of transparency between governments, which must now not only report national greenhouse gas emissions but also detail the source of those emissions and allow the UN to conduct technical reviews of their plans.
It is important to note, though, that there are no legal consequences if country commitments are not met, and that, even if the individual country climate plans as they exist now are fully and perfectly implemented, they will be insufficient to limit global temperature rise to 1.5°C or even 2°C. Current estimates of complete implementation of the Paris commitments predict a 2.7°C-3.5°C rise.*In addition, promised funding for adaptation and resilience is unlikely to be sufficient to address the need, and the agreement does not describe which countries will contribute how much, when, where, or for what. The agreement also explicitly includes language that protects wealthier countries from any obligation to developing countries for “liability or compensation” associated with ‘damages’ due to climate change.
While it is clear that, in order to limit the world to 2°C of warming, three-quarters of fossil fuel reserves need to stay in the ground, the words fossil fuel, oil, natural gas, and coal are absent from the Paris Agreement. It also falls short on recognizing critical issues central to any sustainable climate progress. Most issues important to civil society and countries facing immediate climate impacts, like human rights, connections between climate change and poverty and health, the rights of indigenous peoples, women, migrants, and others, and the importance of climate justice and equity, were moved from the operating text to the preamble. While they are in the agreement, and that is non-trivial, this shift makes them general value statements rather than binding considerations.
The negotiations in Paris, which brought more than 40,000 people to the city, highlighted the ways in which the climate movement is growing and expanding, in both demands and participants, in a way that, while creating challenges around alignment, is also building important impetus toward a new world. We are just beginning to recognize climate change as an overarching problem, and starting to link jobs, health, nature, the rights of future generations, the responsibilities of current generations—the fact that we survive together or not at all, as some have noted—in a way that feels increasingly like common sense. While it's still not nearly enough, it does feel like we might have hit a tipping point in Paris. It will remain up to activists—and their partners in government, academia, and business—to create the pressure on governments around the world to meet their climate commitments and to lead countries, states, cities, corporations, and other institutions and individuals, to reduce emissions as quickly as possible. This is not a surprise. From the outset, climate activists planned for the “road through Paris.” These negotiations set a new global threshold for climate rhetoric and policy, and provided a key opportunity to build movement momentum toward the coming fossil free economy.
* Climate Interactive is the higher number (and, I think, the best analysis): https://www.climateinteractive.org/tools/scoreboard/. Climate Action Tracker is the lower number: http://climateactiontracker.org/news/253/Climate-pledges-will-bring-2.7C-of-warming-potential-for-more-action.html