In the immediate aftermath of the Paris Agreement, the reactions from commentators fell pretty neatly into two camps. On one side we had the sleep deprived, caffeine-addled diplomats who unsurprisingly hailed it as pretty much the best thing ever. On the other we had the activists in the streets outside the conference who, exhausted and angry, declared it an utter, abject failure. Almost two months have passed since the Paris Agreement and now that the hangovers and hyperbole have faded away it seems like a good time to have another look at the deal.
When I first read the Paris Agreement I was not one of those celebrating. In fact, all I wanted to do was shout about our government’s patent self interest, short-sightedness and failure to give enough of a damn about the poor, the distant and the unborn to actually agree to do anything at all. Two months on I still want to shout at the government, but I’ve come around to the idea that the deal has some nuggets of gold hidden amongst the legal slight of hand.
We have now agreed on a text that is grand in ambition, legally flimsy and scandalously lacking in detail. Overall what’s most striking about it is how much it is open to interpretation, both by commentators and by parties to the agreement. If you want to view it as a historic agreement that heralds the end of the fossil fuel era, well that’s in the text. If you want to hold it up as an example of global inaction on climate change, oddly enough that’s in there too. It just depends what you focus on and how you view it.
So what’s good, what’s bad, and what’s downright ugly in the Paris Agreement?
The temperature target.
Perhaps the clearest victory of the agreement is that we have a new temperature target. The target is now to limit global temperature rise to “well below 2 °C” and “to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 °C”. Given the UN’s track record on targets I wouldn’t blame anyone for completely disregarding whether the Paris agreement aims at keeping global temperatures below 1.5 °C, 2 °C or 100 °C. But the change is a significant one. It was bitterly fought for by those nations that will likely cease to exist if temperatures reach 2°C, and its inclusion shows that the UNFCCC still, just about, has a foothold on the reality of climate change. The fact that most states in the world have signed up to this pretty ambitious target, in theory also gives activists and campaigners a major tool for holding their governments to account.
Ambition is free and ambition is for the future.
Even though the new temperature target shows increased ambition from governments, it’s worth noting that being ambitious in the long term is free now, and in the eyes of many governments, doesn’t require them to take any action in the immediate future. When it comes to short term plans most countries are far less ambitious, and it is truly a shocking inadequacy that the Paris Agreement doesn’t legally require any country, even the richest, to cut emissions in the short term. In this respect it actually asks less of many states than the Kyoto protocol which included binding emissions reduction targets for certain developed countries. Indeed one of the most rage inducing sentences in an agreement full of many such sentences is that countries should simply aim to peak global green house gas emissions “as soon as possible”. The lack of any concrete date or guidance makes the statement, which could have been world-changing, almost entirely pointless. In legal terms “aiming” to do something “as soon as possible” pretty much means “when you get round to it mate, no rush”. For an agreement that we’ve been working towards for more than 20 years this is shockingly lax.
The long term goal.
Although the detail again leaves much to be desired, the fact that we have a long term goal – effectively an expiry date for the fossil fuel industry – is pretty huge. This was a something campaigners have been fighting for a long time. In the text it states that Parties should reach carbon neutrality “in the second half of this century”. Whilst this isn’t anywhere close to the 2050 global decarbonisation target that many climate scientists recommend, it is still a major step forward and lends significant weight to the narrative that the age of fossil fuels is over. It’s now up to campaigners to ensure that “in the second half of this century” isn’t taken to mean December of 2099.
The ratchet mechanism.
The UN again showed its talent for giving things confusing and culturally specific names in Paris with the inclusion of the so called “ratchet mechanism”. This section of the agreement requires that all countries come together every five years, evaluate if we’re on track to meet the long term temperature target, and each come up with individual plans to tackle climate change in their countries. In UN jargon, these are called Nationally Determined Contributions or NDCs. Importantly, each new plan needs to be more ambitious than the previous 5 year plan, therefore gradually “ratcheting” up ambition on tackling climate change. In theory the 5 year cycle of presenting your country’s climate plan to the UNFCCC will create considerable political pressure for states to match up to the efforts of their neighbors and countries will spur each other on to increasingly dizzying heights of action on climate change in a glorious “race to the top”. In theory. Unfortunately each NDC is completely non-binding, meaning a country has no obligation to actually meet their own target. Add to this that there is no reason a country has to give itself an ambitious or even meaningful target and the agreement starts to look a little shaky. For the moment the UNFCCC seems to be betting everything on the idea that a kind of international peer pressure is a more effective means of persuasion than international law. Although I’m dubious I very much hope they’re right. Creating a political atmosphere where action on climate change is a vital part of being a serious player on the international stage is now all-important and it’s up to politicians, activists and diplomats to make sure this happens.
In a bit of a bind.
So why are there no binding emissions reductions targets for individual countries? One key reason is that many influential countries were prioritising getting an agreement that applied to all countries as equally as possible. It appears that wealthier states lobbied for an agreement that applied to everyone, but had no binding targets, rather than an agreement that just had binding targets for wealthier states and non-binding targets for the rest of the world. In addition after the shambles of Kyoto many now feel that legally compelling states to cut their emissions is simply not the best way to get the job done. After all, the nature of the Kyoto protocol (legally binding certain states to cut emissions and not others) led to the USA not joining at all and others, notably Canada, simply leaving the agreement rather than complying with its targets. Add to this the seemingly impossible task of Obama passing a protocol through Congress and the lack of legal obligation is understandable.
So why am I complaining?
In my view, the Paris Agreement has responded to the considerable challenge of how to get over 190 states to collectively tackle climate change by simply not asking them to do anything difficult at all. The agreement seems to just ignore the existence of key issues that have proved divisive in the past. Topics that are central to how the world deals with climate change, like how we decide which countries need to move away from fossil fuels when and how we divide up the world’s last reserves of burnable carbon, are not mentioned in the agreement in any meaningful sense. This is not a solution and these issues will become no less vital just because they were ignored in Paris. Even though it’s worth celebrating the fact that we have a great temperature target and have made progress on the long term goal of phasing out fossil fuels, it’s more important to note that when it comes to anything that might require current governments to make difficult decisions within their political lifetime, the agreement is deafeningly silent.
Many commentators have hailed the Paris Agreement as a success because they feel it achieved as much as is politically possible at this current point in time. For me, this perspective misses the context of the agreement. Paris wasn’t simply the product of diplomats turning up for two weeks in 2015, it was the culmination of an intensive negotiating process that has been going on for more than 20 years. A process that has been aiming to shape what is considered politically possible on climate change all this time. The fact that in Paris it was considered politically unrealistic to actually address issues vital to tackling climate change – such as differentiation, dividing up the carbon budget and compensation for climate impacts – means, for me, that the Paris agreement is profoundly inadequate.
Besides, melting ice caps care surprisingly little about what’s politically realistic