An End to the Fossil Fuel Era: Why the Paris Agreement, Despite its Flaws, Matters
On the evening of December 13, 2015, delegates gathered at an airport complex on the outskirts of Paris, France made history. With consensus from 195 countries, the world’s first-ever universal agreement on climate change became a reality. This Paris Agreement has been nearly six years in the making, though the goal of an agreement to combat climate change harks back even further to the Earth Summit of 1992. There, nations signed on to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, an international treaty to consider what to do about global warming. The first Conference of the Parties (COP 1) took place in Berlin, Germany in 1995. In 2009, COP15, in Copenhagen, Denmark, saw hopes for a universal agreement crushed as developing and developed nations clashed over their common but differentiated responsibilities to limit greenhouse gas emissions. While all nations have a common responsibility to protect the environment, developed nations possess both the financial and technological resources to more actively reduce greenhouse gas emissions and have played a much larger role in historic environmental degradation than developing nations. The developing world understandably feels like it’s being asked to develop and cut emissions at the same time, instead of being given the same chance developed nations had to pollute their way to economic prosperity. However, many developing nations are also more vulnerable to the effects of climate change, and simply want those countries with means to share their wealth, resources, and technologies to help the rest of humanity cope with a problem they didn’t necessarily cause. Thus, the past six years have been spent attempting to build consensus between the developed and developing world necessary to successfully negotiate a universal agreement in Paris.
In the 32-page document, seven concrete measures can be deduced among paragraphs of diplomatic rhetoric. On the whole, the Paris Agreement is much more ambitious than expected. However, certain aspects of the agreement are weak and some issues have been bypassed entirely. Many activists have labeled the agreement a failure for these reasons. Certainly, a stronger deal and a deal a couple of decades ago would have been best, but the planet will have to take what it can get at this point. Ultimately, the Paris Agreement is symbolic of a movement toward a future free from fossil fuels. It is up to the nations that signed on and activists across the globe, to make the agreement stick and to push for even more ambitious action as we move forward.
The Paris Agreement is generally more ambitious than expected and has strong language on quite a few key climate change issues.
The agreement adopts a more ambitious temperature goal than previous ones, by mentioning 1.5˚C in addition to the previous goal of 2˚C. This temperature goal is the foundation of the entire document as it creates a new target for the amount by which we will reduce emissions. Specifically, the document states, “Holding 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.” The Paris Agreement places a more ambitious threshold on temperature increase due to climate change that we are willing to accept and thus how much we must reduce emissions to meet that goal.
Additionally, the Paris Agreement recognizes the large impact deforestation has on climate change and pushes for afforestation and protection of our remaining forests as an important solution. The document encourages Parties to implement “activities relating to reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation” and consider the “role of conservation, sustainable management of forests and enhancement of forest carbon stocks in developing countries.” This is important, as it emphasizes both how our treatment of forests contributes to climate change and how they can be used to reverse the trend.
Negotiators in Paris also created a single system of evaluation for the emissions reduction contributions of participating nations. The document states, “In order to build mutual trust and confidence and to promote effective implementation, an enhanced transparency framework for action and support, with built-in flexibility which takes into account Parties’ different capacities and builds upon collective experience is hereby established.” This measure significantly addresses issues of transparency which have evaded previous attempts.
The most significant legally-binding aspect of the Paris Agreement is a requirement to reevaluate the emissions reduction targets of each country every five years. These five-year targets will help ensure that the agreement can evolve as necessary and that the parties are held accountable in perpetuity. Evaluating progress at such short time intervals will push all countries to continually show improvement in their emissions reductions and future targets.
However, multiple sections of the Paris Agreement only begin to address critical issues related to climate change. Either the language in these sections is weak and ambiguous, or the solutions offered do not go far enough to address the issues at hand.
While the Paris Agreement does include a provision encouraging developed countries to provide financial resources to developing countries to mitigate and adapt to climate change, it fails to set a numerical goal for this assistance. The goal of at least $100 billion a year is only mentioned in the preamble, the section of the document that is not legally binding. The document itself merely states, “developed country Parties should continue to take the lead in mobilizing climate finance.” With no number set, it will be hard to hold developed countries accountable for their leadership in financial assistance.
The Paris Agreement does set a legally binding peak to global greenhouse gas emissions. However, the timing of this peak is ambiguous. The document states that, “Parties aim to reach global peaking of greenhouse gas emissions as soon as possible.” Similar to the language on financial assistance, this imperative merely reminds states that they should, eventually, aim to have a peak in global emissions. It does not provide a timeline and thus applies no pressure to the Parties to accomplish this goal anytime soon.
Finally, smaller island nations successfully pushed for a more ambitious temperature goal at COP21. However, they were less successful in securing a provision for loss and damage due to the effects of climate change which included liability. The document states, “Parties recognize the importance of averting, minimizing and addressing loss and damage associated with the adverse effects of climate change, including extreme weather events and slow onset events, and the role of sustainable development in reducing the risk of loss and damage.” While the Paris Agreement is the first document of its kind to even include loss and damage, without liability it will be difficult for those nations most vulnerable to climate change to secure reparations to aid in adaptation or even migration.
Many of the concerns regarding the Paris Agreement have to do with whether or not it will be legally binding. The answer is complicated. As with any United Nations resolution, provisions in the preamble of the document are by definition not legally binding, as they merely “recognize” and “acknowledge” certain ideas. As for the body of the document, some aspects are legally binding while others are voluntary. Due to the complex nature of these negotiations and the variety of nations involved, it is unsurprising that voluntary measures were necessary in some cases. In general, the reporting requirements of the deal, such as evaluation at five year intervals, are legally binding. However, specific emissions targets for each country are voluntary. The foundation of the Paris Agreement and potentially the largest contributing factor to its success is the system of INDCs (Intended Nationally Determined Contributions). By definition, INDCs are voluntary, though by signing on to the Paris Agreement countries are submitting their INDCs to tight scrutiny. As each country has unique problems and potential solutions to climate change, the INDC system is a promising way to encourage global action while allowing for necessary flexibility.
Technically, countries will not officially sign the Paris Agreement until a ceremony held in April 2016. The Agreement will officially take effect once enough countries have signed on to reflect 55 percent of global emissions. Even with the global agreement in effect, the true impact will be determined by the success of each individual country in implementing their INDCs. In the United States, we face our own political struggle with implementing our INDC, including a Presidential election. Many other nations will face similar domestic struggles, especially when balancing emissions reduction with economic development. For example, India, as the third largest emitter in the world, faces the challenge of making cuts while figuring out how to supply electricity to the nearly 25 percent of their population which still lives without it.
The real work begins now. Much of the success of the Paris Agreement is dependent upon the ability of countries to implement their INDCs. Additionally, gaps remain in the document which must be addressed. Thus, it is up to activists to mobilize and continue to pressure our political leaders to pursue the actions they have pledged and to continue to pursue more ambitious and inclusive goals in the future. COP21 proved that activists and individual voices have power and we should continue to strengthen the climate justice movement. The fight to end climate change and protect vulnerable people and natural systems does not end in Paris. Now, it’s up to us, as activists and members of civil society, to continue to pressure our governments to live up to the Paris Agreement and make even more ambitious goals at the next Conference of the Parties. COP21 was the most transparent and accessible negotiation yet (check out my piece about this here)—let’s keep working to make sure the progress doesn’t stop there.