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UCL Institute for Sustainable Resources Blog


Discussing global sustainability issues


The Paris Agreement – A Fresh Start?

By ucftpdr, on 15 December 2015

(c) IstockPhoto

(c) IstockPhoto

On the 12th December 2015, after (just over) two weeks of intensive negotiations between nearly 200 nations, COP21 of the UNFCCC adopted the Paris Agreement – a new global commitment to address climate change. All parties were keen to avoid a repeat of the disastrous effort to secure such a global agreement in Copenhagen in 2009, where deep divisions and entrenched positions between counties and negotiating blocs prevented any substantive progress towards a common global agreement.

So, does the Paris Agreement represent a fresh start for efforts to tackle climate change? Will it be successful? These are important questions, to which extensive analysis and column inches will be devoted over the coming weeks, months and years. To begin answering this, it is useful to highlight some of the key items included in the final agreement.

Increased ambition of the overarching objective

Article 2(a) states that one of the aims of Agreement is to ‘[Hold] the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels, recognizing that this would significantly reduce the risks and impacts of climate change’.

Although many low-lying island and other states were pushing for more stringent wording, with 1.5°C as the required target rather than aspirational, this apparent increase in ambition will come as a surprise to many given the immense difficultly already present in pursuing the well-known 2°C target. Article 4 translates this into a global goal of reaching net-zero emissions in the second half of the century (although the specific wording in the Agreement leaves room for interpretation). However, these targets are only meaningful if individual countries seek and are able to implement policies that cumulatively achieve this objective. Although, If the 1.5°C aspirational target is to be achieved, very deep, very rapid cuts to emissions would likely be required, which may not be possible in democratic societies[i].

‘(Intended) Nationally Determined Contributions’ ((I)NDCs)

As of the 7th December (half way through the COP), INDCs (proposed national contributions to global emission reductions) representing 185 countries and 94% of global emissions had been submitted to the UNFCCC[ii]. This was an innovative approach, using peer-pressure and competition to encourage countries to submit ambitious pledges in advance of the COP, rather than seeking to impose top-down country targets as previously sought (and as in the Kyoto Protocol), and which many (particularly developing countries) strongly resisted.

All countries will be legally required to submit NDCs (with the ‘Intended’ prefix dropped) of increasing ambition every five years (beginning in 2019), reflective of each country’s ‘common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities, in the light of different national circumstances’, or the rather hefty acronym, ‘CBDRRCILNDC’ (an extension from ‘common but differentiated responsibilities’ recognised in previous UNFCCC parlance). Article 4 continues to state that developed countries ‘should’ take the lead by undertaking economy-wide absolute emission reduction targets, whilst developing countries are ‘encouraged’ to move over time towards economy-wide emission reduction or limitation targets.

Although it is a significant step forward to require countries at all stages of development to submit NDCs in the first place (although, there are no penalties if this provision is not met), this language simply encourages rather than requires countries (developed or developing) to be ambitious either with their proposed emission cuts, either now or over time. The INDCs submitted prior to the COP, if fully implemented, would likely limit temperature rises to 2.7°C[iii]. Further effort is therefore required to meet the 2°C target. As such, whether this approach can deliver the global emissions reductions required to meet the objective above is highly uncertain – although the initial signals, and the requirement for successive NDCs to be at least as ambitious as the previous submission, are promising.

An ‘enhanced transparency framework’

Article 13 required each country to ‘regularly’ provide a national inventory report of anthropogenic emissions and abatement action to a common platform for monitoring, reporting and verification (MRV). Whilst this initially indicates that entrenched opposition to such a system amongst developing countries has been swept aside, the Article provides for ‘flexibility in the implementation of the provisions of this Article to those developing country Parties that need it in the light of their capacities. The [related] modalities, procedures and guidelines…shall reflect such flexibility’. It remains to be seen what implications such provisions will have in practice.

A ‘floor’ of $100 billion in climate finance annually

Developed countries are ‘strongly urged’ to scale up long-term financing for mitigation and adaptation in developing counties to the $100 billion per year by 2020 – the goal agreed in Copenhagen in 2009 – with a new goal of at least this value to be agreed by 2025. However, it remains unclear what exactly should be classified as climate finance, and what the split between public and private sources should be. The Green Climate Fund (GCF), intended as the principal vehicle for climate finance when it was established at COP16 in Cancun, Mexico, in 2010, had received $10 billion in pledges by the end of November 2015, but only around $1 billion had actually been deposited[iv]. Although further pledges were received during the COP, the total value remains well below the target[v]. Developed countries are also strongly urged to develop a ‘concrete roadmap’ to achieve the $100 billion goal, but it again remains unclear whether the 2020 ambition, or any target set for 2025 onwards, will be actually be achieved.

Other key provisions

The Paris Agreement contains various other provisions of different levels of perceived importance. This includes Article 8, devoted to ‘Loss and Damage’, which includes reference to a mechanism to assist countries vulnerable to financial losses as a result of climate change and related events (such as extreme weather). This is an important provision for developing countries, although it is explicitly stated in the Agreement that ‘liability and compensation’ for such damages are excluded (an important provision for developed countries, as primary contributors to climate change through historic emissions). Another example is Article 6, which provides for ‘Internationally Transferred Mitigation Outcomes’ (ITMOs) – essentially facilitating the linking of policy mechanisms across the world. Some commentators, such as Robert Stavins, suggest that such provisions are ‘exceptionally important for the successful exploitation of the foundation provided by the Paris Agreement’[vi]

In summary, whilst it appears lessons from the previous twenty years of climate negotiations have been learned and put into practice, much more work is yet to be done to operationalise the Agreement, and to ensure sometimes vague language translates into appropriate action. Whether or not the Paris Agreement is a success will depend very much on perspective, and what happens in response to it over the coming years and decades. However, it seems rather clear that it is a significant step forward.

Paul Drummond is a Research Associate at the UCL Institute for Sustainable Resources


[i] http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/earth/energy/12047087/UN-climate-change-deal-to-limit-global-warming-to-1.5C-despite-warnings-people-will-never-vote-for-costly-policies.html

[ii] http://climateactiontracker.org/indcs.html

[iii] http://climateactiontracker.org/assets/publications/CAT_global_temperature_update_October_2015.pdf

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

[v] http://www.odi.org/opinion/10196-infographic-climate-finance-pledges-cop21-paris

[vi] http://www.robertstavinsblog.org/

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