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The Paris Agreement – second time lucky?

By ucqbpsm, on 14 December 2015

Paris - CC0 Public Domain - Unsplash

So the deal is done. And a very curious deal it is too.

As I said in the first part of this blog, the Paris Agreement is our second attempt at implementing the UNFCCC. The idea was to move away from the top-down mandatory, rich country approach of the Kyoto Protocol to a more bottom-up, voluntary approach with all countries involved.  To their enormous credit, the negotiators have succeeded.

But how can we be sure that it’s actually going to work?  To answer this question, we need to analyse the text, and as far as climate mitigation goes, there are 5 key elements:

  • A goal: The Agreement “…aims to strengthen the global response…by holding the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2oC…and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5oC”.
  • A long term pathway: Countries “…aim to reach global peaking of greenhouse gas emissions as soon as possible…so as to achieve a balance between anthropogenic emissions by sources and removals by sinks of greenhouse gases in the second half of this century”.
  • Policies and measures: “Each Party shall prepare, communicate and maintain successive nationally determined contributions…” and “shall pursue domestic mitigation measures…”.
  • A ratcheting mechanism: Each country’s “…successive nationally determined contribution will represent a progression beyond the Party’s then current nationally determined contribution and reflect its highest possible ambition…”.
  • A review and audit process: “…to promote effective implementation…an enhanced transparency framework for action…is hereby established…” and, in 2023, a 5 yearly “global stocktake shall inform Parties in updating and enhancing…their actions…”.

As you would expect from the largest negotiation body ever assembled, everything is here that a good treaty needs. But – quite deliberately to keep the US on board – some key elements are not legally binding. The 2oC temperature goal is an aim, as is emissions peaking. Some important elements are in the preamble and not the actual Agreement where some say that they might not have legal force.

But the language underpinning what actually has to be done in national mitigation programmes – the “nationally determined contributions” – are mandatory. So is the review and audit process. It’s a little hazy, but the target of “balancing” sources and sinks also appears to be mandatory, even if it doesn’t have to happen until 2100. And the Agreement is tightly bound to the scientific process in several places. The IPCC is going to be busy.

As with all new approaches, only time will tell. But the reception has been good so far. The 2oC target is much tougher than expected and the 1.5oC aspiration, whilst a touch optimistic, brought many vulnerable countries on board. The “balance” clause was a real surprise, and is extremely interesting, reminiscent of the “critical loads” mechanism that was used to solve acid rain in the 1990s.

But, as a policy specialist, what makes me optimistic is that, here in the real world, voluntary agreements can be much more effective than simple regulations at delivering results. For businesses, peer pressure – from competitors, investors and customers – can be extremely strong. Just ask VW. The Paris Agreement might be voluntary, but everyone is watching now.


Photo credit: Paris – CCO Public Domain – Unsplash

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