Paris Agreement on Climate Change: An Initial Assessment

December 2015

Photo: CC BY 2.0

An Initial Assessment written by Professor Duncan French

The recently adopted Paris Agreement on Climate Change was adopted by consensus by every country in the world, though apparently at least one country, Nicaragua, was gravely unhappy with the final text. The Paris Agreement is the next step in the ongoing process to find a meaningful, fair and effective global response to climate change. It first began with the agreement of the UN Framework Convention in Climate Change in 1992, through the adoption in 1997 of the Kyoto Protocol, which remains the only legally binding text to set specific emission reduction obligations (at least on developed countries), the catastrophe of the Copenhagen summit in 2009 and now to Paris in 2015.

The Paris Agreement is the result of many years of negotiations; and at its heart involved three key issues; first, whether, and how far, should all countries and not just developed countries seek to mitigate their greenhouse gas emissions? In the Kyoto Protocol, there was a clear, and almost binary, division between the North and the South with only developed countries having legally binding obligations. This proved an insurmountable obstacle for the United States, and other countries including Canada soon eventually realised this was a legal text too far. The Paris Agreement moves away both from this binary division that only certain States are compelled to act. All States are now required to publish and most already have individually nationally determined contributions, which will guide their climate change policies and measures over the next decade or so. Unlike the Kyoto Protocol, there are no individual targets for States within the text itself, but rather a broader commitment to 'pursue domestic mitigation measures with the aim of achieving the objective of such contributions'. Nevertheless, with a five-yearly review of such contributions, and an expectation of progression at each review, there is in-built momentum to prevent backsliding.

Secondly, the negotiations had to deal with the 'big picture' as well as the individual contributions; what should the aim of the Paris Agreement be. Some had spoken of a carbon-free world; for others this was unachievable and unrealistic. There had been much talk about seeking to limit overall temperature increase to under 2* above pre-industrial levels. Particularly small island developing countries insisted on something much more challenging. The Paris Agreement ultimately was more ambitious than many had expected. It did two things. First, it stated as its aim was '[h]olding 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. Secondly, States have committed to the global peaking of greenhouse gas emissions 'as soon as possible' and thereafter to achieve a 'balance' between the emissions given out and their absorption by sinks, such as forests. Some refer to this second target as climate neutrality or emissions balancing. It was this ambition, above almost everything else, which won the plaudits at the end of the conference.

Thirdly, the issue, as it has always been, is one of finance. How far, and how much, should developed countries contribute to support developing countries' efforts to mitigate and adapt. Much work has been undertaken over the years, and there were already commitments on the table of a floor of US$100bn per annum to support mitigation, to be reviewed before 2025. But much of the language on finance remains soft, and outside the main text. Moreover, when it came to discuss loss and damage( shorthand for damage that can't be prevented), the US and allies ensured a reference was included that the Paris Agreement does not provide a basis for legal responsibility or financial liability. The financing of climate change has not been resolved.

So, on balance, what should one make of the Paris Agreement? It is undoubtedly historic and deserves much of the hyperbole surrounding it. The French Presidency of the conference has achieved a remarkable feat of keeping the negotiations on track and with an atmosphere of consensus. That itself is a remarkable achievement. But ensuring States ratify the Agreement and, more importantly, continue to give it political will and implement it over the next few decades is a more challenging test. There are numerous grey areas, and for countries such as Saudi Arabia (and other oil-producing countries) and indeed, on many issues, countries such as the UK and the US, there is plenty to wrangle over in the future (ensuring energy security with promoting renewable energy being one of a myriad of examples). Nevertheless, the Paris Agreement may not result in a carbon-free world, but it signals something incredibly powerful. States when pushed, and in the glare these days of publicity and social media, can still be expected to work towards planetary solidarity, we now need to hold them to it.