A climate agreement adopted on December 12: what should we make of it?

Some elements of analysis of the Paris Agreement

By Vanessa Laubin, Renaud Bettin and Antoine Martin-Chave

During the last plenary session late on the Saturday, we could feel that mixture of feverishness, fatigue and emotion leading most of the diplomats present to speak of a “historic” moment, mainly due to the strength of French diplomacy. We also had the feeling that everyone was fooling themselves to some extent. Hearing the head of the Venezuelan delegation sing the praises of Laurent Fabius was quite sufficient to convince us of that, since her team had spared no effort over the previous 15 days in trying to put a spoke in the wheels of the multilateral process.

Since then, there has been a flurry of declarations and analyses, most of them very positive, others more critical. At GERES, while we are delighted at the momentum gathered by the Agreement after two weeks of intense negotiations during COP21, we have some concerns to share and cautionary notes to sound.

Let’s try to get a clearer picture!

“This is a historic agreement”: yes, it’s a first.

On 12 December 2015, Laurent Fabius pulled off a diplomatic tour de force: bringing all the 195 Parties on board for an agreement adopted by all countries, whatever their level of development, to “keep climate warming well below +2°C (in relation to 1880)”, and indeed to continue efforts to limit it to +1,5°C, as recommended by the IPCC scientists. This agreement is aimed at framing climate action for the coming century, which makes it welcome and its very existence is greatly to its credit.

On the other hand, although it was adopted, there is no guarantee that the 195 Parties will sign the agreement. For it actually to come into force, 55 Parties, accounting for 55% of greenhouse gas emissions, must sign it by 21 April 2017. If the major emitters (including the United States, India, China or Russia) do not do so, the “historic” impact will remain at purely diplomatic level.

“This is a universal agreement”: yes it is.

It was put together with input from all the States, even the smallest.

Some of the latter mentioned the transparency of the discussions and their satisfaction at being able to make their voices heard. This wide-ranging participation represents progress in relation to the earlier Kyoto Protocol, which was put together by 38 countries setting rules for themselves, with other States considered simply out of the running. New global climate governance therefore seems to be emerging with this Paris Agreement, seen as ambitious and universal in scope.

“This is a legally binding agreement”: yes and no.

It is binding, in the sense that it is a treaty and so must be “performed in good faith” by the Parties, as international law puts it. Nevertheless, the language used in the agreement entails practically no obligation, so everything rests on the goodwill of the States. And, above all, it will be possible to leave the Agreement at any time. Without any penalty… Given that there is no World Environment Organization, let alone an International Climate Court to enforce a judgment, there wouldn’t have been much point in any event. We should remember that the Kyoto Protocol, in force between 1997 and 2007, did include a penalty system for cases where countries did not fulfil their commitments, but the sanctions were never applied. With this in mind, the Paris Agreement includes a transparency mechanism providing for public disclosure of each party’s efforts, which might prove more effective than the sanctions provided under Kyoto.

“This agreement sends a signal”: yes, that’s true.

It does send a strong signal in favour of action, whether by States, investors, the private sector or local authorities, gradually bringing about the development of decarbonized economies less dependent on fossil fuels. On the other hand, worryingly, the Agreement does not offer any guidance on how to achieve this result. Prior to COP21, in 2015, 155 States tabled their voluntary commitments (known as INDCs) to limit their greenhouse gas emissions. Although these contributions cover almost 90% of global emissions, taken together they put us on track for a global climate scenario of +3.5°C. That’s a long way from the +1.5°C defined in the text (let’s remember in passing that global warming has already reached around +0.9°C). Taking action before 2020, the date of entry into force of the Agreement, is therefore of paramount importance. This time absolutely must be used to set the INDC sights higher and yet the Agreement proposes no more than an update in 2018 and an initial review in 2023. We need to go faster! Moreover, to talk of reaching peak emissions “as soon as possible” and then rapidly reducing them to achieve a kind of “emissions neutrality in the second half of the century” (when the carbon sinks – i.e. the forests, soils and oceans – will supposedly be absorbing as much carbon as there are emissions) is to leave unanswered the question of the indispensable lowering of the atmospheric concentration of greenhouse gases. The +1.5°C target therefore looks somewhat illusory. But with whole areas and lives at stake, this is not just a numbers game.

In GERES view, the 2°C target will not be met unless emissions fall drastically at source by 2050. We see carbon offsetting as a useful tool, provided that genuine efforts to reduce emissions are first of all made by businesses and private individuals. The same approach needs to be promoted at global level.

“100 billion dollars per year”: let’s see…

If the push for +2°C is to be successful, the resources for adaptation and transition towards a sustainable model must materialize: a floor of 100 billion dollars per year has been set for allocations to developing countries, but only as of 2020, with no possibility of revising this amount upwards until 2025. So far 80 billion dollars have been scraped together, with financial tools that are not necessarily appropriate. But these funds are not identifiable and predictable enough for the most vulnerable countries. In other words, the contributions planned by governments currently put us on track for +3.5°C, but if the 100 billion per year is not invested as it should be, the outcome could be worse. And if financial resources for the vulnerable countries do not come on stream, achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals is in jeopardy.

“This agreement is the result of a broad consensus”: yes, and that’s its weakness.

The preamble does mention important points: gender equality, inter-generational linkage, the rights of indigenous peoples, the role of forests and the notion of Mother Earth, etc. And yet the legal implications are very limited and many subjects dear to the hearts of NGOs have been ignored or weakened in order to reach a compromise acceptable to 195 Parties. These include respect for human rights, food security, climate justice, secure funding equal to the challenge facing the most vulnerable countries … Only a few dissenting voices brought up these limitations during the last plenary session (Nicaragua and Ecuador in particular), attempting to counterbalance the general feeling of self-satisfaction.

GERES therefore considers this agreement as an incentive rather than a successful conclusion.

To set bringing about an energy and ecological transition as a global objective sends a strong signal, which could lead to many more initiatives, the emergence of solutions and the reorientation of investments. That means there is still a lot to do after this COP21. The Paris Agreement has echoed the dynamic process begun across the world, but has not yet put in place the necessary tools to widen the movement. Beyond the political agreements, which are far from addressing all the issues, we are convinced that the key to the transition lies in action at the level of regions, cities, businesses and the financial sector and individual practice. We are therefore entering a decisive phase in which the champions of the energy transition and climate solidarity must all declare their hand, without waiting for their neighbour to make the first move.

Let’s hope that between now and 2020 the COP22, 23, 24 and 25 will help us to make this framework more robust. It will also be important to ensure that the most vulnerable countries are genuinely supported in meeting their needs for adaptation in the face of the consequences of climate change. For if we are slowly entering the low-carbon era, we are already several years into an era when the impacts of climate disruption are making themselves felt more violently.

It is therefore high time we made up for lost time.


To read: Official text of the Paris Agreement

To discover: The photo album of these two intense weeks for our teams!

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