After two weeks of talks and negotiations in Paris, the combined effort of 196 countries working together towards a shared goal has culminated in written agreement. But how far will it go towards reaching the ultimate aim of cutting down emissions world-wide?
The last two weeks at COP21 in Paris have been characterised by good intentions that have, at times, got confused in a political climate. Aims have been made clear, and compromises made necessary, and an agreement has now been reached.
The agreement, however, has been met with as much cynicism andas excitement, not least because, even if it’s (voluntary) requirements are adhered to by all involved, the target of a global temperature increase of at most 2C (above pre-industrial levels) will still be exceeded.
A Milestone Agreement
Before we question the effectiveness of the agreement, it must be said that while some might say it doesn’t go far enough, it certainly represents a milestone; a genuinely tangible step in the right direction. And the importance of such a step, in a world often racked with disagreement over both the extent of the problem of global warming and the importance of coming up with a solution, must not be understated.
To even have an agreement at all is, by itself, something of an achievement. Present context aside, this is something that has historically been a big problem for any proposals or discussions relating to global climate change. Any UN resolution of this kind needs unanimous consensus in order for it to hold up and for a while this did not look like it would happen given resistance from countries like China, India and Saudi Arabia.
The keystone of the disagreement was something that has long been an issue for agreements aimed at limiting carbon emissions worldwide – the problem of the difference in capabilities and associated responsibilities of richer and poorer countries respectively.
Back in 2009, at the Copenhagen climate change conference (COP15), an agreement similar to that reached on Saturday in Paris was put on the table. It ultimately fell flat precisely because of arguments based on what was realistic to expect from developing countries.
Over the course of the two weeks of negotiations at COP21, we saw more statements to this effect.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi wrote in the Financial Times that, while his country would be doing what it could to promote green energy, there needed to be allowances made for the fact that, at present, the infrastructure does not exist to make it viable. And further that in order for such infrastructure to exist (including the provision of electricity to the millions of Indians who currently live without it) expansion of the nation’s coal production would be necessary.
India’s environment minister Prakash Javakedar spoke of the need for “developed countries to…massively scale up their financial support to developing countries” if the agreed targets are to be met.
Part of the written agreement involves the pledging of financial support to developing countries to help with just this issue, and indeed India (and every other developing country involved) is now on board.
Following the agreement’s announcement, Modi tweeted that: “Climate justice has won and we are all working towards a greener future.”
Mandatory Carbon Reviews
One of the most important clauses of the agreement legally compels every country involved to assess their carbon emissions every five years, with the aim of adjusting their policies accordingly. This was something resisted explicitly by China and Saudi Arabia, with the delegate for the latter claiming that his country is “too poor” to be able to conduct a full carbon review every half-decade, let alone to act upon it.
But this clause made it into the final agreement, and this is a huge step.
The nature of the policy changes that must be implemented upon each five-year review will depend of the level of emissions and the capabilities of the country in question, and so this allows for developing countries to act within their means reasonably – the only requirement is for some kind of incremental improvement to occur each time.
But one provision that is applicable to every country, regardless of means, is the policy of full transparency with regard to the actual reporting on emissions. This, again, is a very important step and is, on its own, one of COP21’s greatest achievements.
China, for example, has only published two full carbon reports to the UN since it was declared a developing country in 1992, the latest of which was published in 2012 using data from 2005.
Setting the Bar High
Speaking to the Independent, Professor Michael Jacobs (who was Gordon Brown’s special adviser for climate change) said of these two twin pillars of the Paris agreement that “Governments have created a system to put immense pressure on themselves to act, every five years, which is something they would normally never do.”
Further emphasising the gravity of this move, he said: “[governments] never set themselves ‘impossible’ tasks, but they have done that here. It’s extraordinary.”
But, while commentators and world leaders alike have praised the extraordinary efforts and historical importance of the Paris agreement, we must be clear that it represents a step in the right direction rather than a solution in and of itself. A large step certainly, a crucial one; but this is not time to rest on our laurels.
Prior to COP21, a threshold temperature increase of 2C (compared to pre-industrial levels) as the upper limit before we consider ourselves to be in a ‘danger zone’. During the talks, many countries were gunning for an optimistic target of 1.5C which, while few disagreed with in principle, was seen as unrealistic by most.
The various provisions included in the agreement will, if held up, lead to a projected temperate rise of 2.7C – not quite the 1.5C hope for by the more optimistic of the group, and quite far still off the designated ‘danger threshold’ of 2C.
To make things worse, it is not even certain that this projected reduction of 2.7C will be met since, while provisions like the five-year review are mandatory, the extent to which they will be followed is far from set in stone.
“The will and the ability”
It is easy to be critical of an agreement that won’t even necessarily meet its intended target, and easy to reductively describe it as a failure as a result. But that is to miss out a large part of the success of what happened in Paris. It would be entirely unreasonable (let alone naïve) to expect that at the end of the two weeks of COP21, every country would instantly agree to make a grand volte face on their respective environmental policies and to drastically reduce their emissions to reach the 1.5C target. A step in the right direction is still in the right direction, and incremental improvement is still improvement.
What should be taken away from this whole enterprise is the display of collective will to make at least some kind of effort in the face of a growing problem.
As Obama said in a post-agreement statement: “We’ve shown that the world has both the will and the ability to take on this challenge.”