The Paris Agreement: A new beginning (for old battles)

The Paris Agreement signals a new beginning for international cooperation to tackle climate change. This is rightly the cause for celebration. It’s a triumph for all those who have worked so hard for so long, and for multilateral diplomacy. It is a meaningful framework which can and must be built upon.

The timing was key: major powers needed a deal though for different reasons. The EU needed to prove it is still a relevant, strong voice for ambition on tackling climate change. Obama saw Paris as a legacy issue and an opportunity to reposition American leadership on climate change. Xi Jinping, praising global cooperation, needed to prove China is a responsible player on the world stage (though of course his driving concern was stopping his country choking on its own waste gases). Indian premier Modi claimed the agreement in the name of Climate justice for the developing world.

In an increasingly multipolar world the Paris Agreement represents a rare moment of multilateral cooperation. This is worth recognising. Nevertheless, it is important to be clear on what the Agreement represents and its limitations. The Paris Agreement demonstrates a shared purpose and political will. It has changed the dynamic (witness the headlines signalling the end of the fossil fuel era) but it will not in itself address climate change: all countries – for the first time – will have to come up with individual action plans and report on progress made. The Paris Agreement will therefore give a new focus and weight to domestic battles old and new.

COP21 Eiffel

Downward pressure

In Laurent Fabius’ own words “the [Paris Agreement] is the best possible balance. Powerful yet delicate. Each country can go home with head held high, having achieved something important.” The Paris Agreement is a compromise but it contains hugely important elements. It sets a goal of limiting warming to well below 2 degrees and to “pursue efforts to keep warming below 1.5 degrees above pre industrial levels.” It sets a long term goal of reaching net zero emissions by the end of the century. Securing 1.5 degree language and a long term goal in the Paris Agreement is a victory for the most vulnerable countries. It will refocus minds, models and investment decisions.

Not everything went the environmentalists’ way. There are no top down absolute targets; no binding commitments; no international enforcement mechanisms, and whole sectors are missing (aviation and maritime). A comprehensive approach is not possible in today’s political system.  But there are causes for optimism. Countries are required to meet every five years to take stock of their national commitments and make additional, more ambitious pledges. This is a valuable mechanism for challenging countries to consider what’s happening domestically verses what’s required internationally. More often than not domestic actions tend to be ahead of international commitments. For example in 2014 EU emissions reached minus 23% compared to 1990 levels. Not bad considering the EU’s 2020 target is 20%. Progress will be incremental and with no sunset clause it is clear the Paris Agreement is all about the long game.

Signalling the transition

A major success for Paris was sending the right signals outside of governments. It did so by making a very clear reference to broader society’s contribution – “welcoming the efforts of all non-Party stakeholders to address and respond to climate change, including those of civil society, the private sector, financial institutions, cities and other subnational authorities” – and inviting non-party actors to scale up their own efforts. This is a useful rallying cry that will no doubt inspire action. Businesses – many of which have been calling for policy coherence – will no doubt respond.

It’s worth noting the generous provisions – set out in its own article – to market mechanisms in a vague reference to “internationally transferred mitigation outcome.” What exactly this means is unclear but no doubt many will hurry to clarify. Policy makers should ensure robust domestic emissions caps are in place before they rush to allow for flexible mechanisms.

Breaking down barriers

By design and political necessity, national actions will define the Paris Agreement. The problem is that countries are under pressure from competing interests and short-term economic and political priorities. How much can the Paris Agreement set the tone for other institutions influencing or funding a countries’ low carbon development? It tries to set a gold standard by “invit[ing]… international, regional and national financial institutions to provide information… on how their development and climate finance incorporate climate-proofing and climate resilience measures.” It is unclear how the Paris Agreement can break out of the UNFCCC silo. A recent report by Bank Information Centre shows how multilateral development bank (MDB) do not adequately assess or address climate change risks associated with their investments. One positive came when the World Bank announced that the Paris Agreement changes their vision of development. It will be vital that new channels such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) are compliant with the decisions made in Paris.

Bringing the battle home

The Paris Agreement has reset the climate change agenda. It is made up of many powerful elements that must now be taken home and used to put pressure on domestic policy makers. It must be held up internationally to set the direction for financial flows to those countries to develop new, future-proof and climate friendly economies. The agreement in Paris should bring together the many existing battle fronts – old and new – against climate change. The real hard work now begins.

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