The Paris Agreement- what’s the deal?

Less than a week ago, environmental ministers from around the world arrived at a groundbreaking agreement on how to approach the issue of global climate change. The historic Paris Agreement, which includes almost 200 countries, signifies a turning point in the global attitude towards climate change, and represents a triumph of multilateral diplomacy.

“The Paris Agreement is adopted!” Photo: Earth Negotiations Bulletin

In the weeks leading up to COP21, organizations from around the world released analyses and predictions on what the potential outcome of the meeting would be. Now, the same organizations are scrambling to interpret the Paris Agreement, in order to highlight its merits and make sense of its shortcomings.

One such analysis released by E3G provided a useful framework for interpreting potential political outcomes of the COP21, and was the focus of a previous blog post of mine. In brief, E3G predicted that the outcome of COP21 would fit into one of three political scenarios:

  • “Le Zombie”, in which the agreement consists of a tactical deal that will not endure.
  • “Comme ci, comme ça”, which sees some guarantees on finance and a certain level of ambition, but will require support going forward to be successful.
  • “Va va voom”, the best-case scenario, in which an enduring ambitious climate regime is cemented in the agreement.

This week, E3G judged the Paris Agreement to be a “low va va voom” scenario, due to the fact that the agreement is at the “ambitious end of the scenarios identified”. It’s true – the Paris Agreement is ambitious, promising to deliver on greenhouse gas reductions, and hold nations to their promises of ratcheting up emissions targets.

However, it is also important to not overstate the ambitiousness of the Paris Agreement. While the agreement is politically significant and environmentally important, at the end of the day it represents a compromise between the interests of different parties. As a result, the agreement does not necessarily reflect the level of ambition that many countries desired, especially those that are already dealing with severe impacts of climate change.

Nonetheless, leaving room within the agreement to increase ambition in the future may have been a smart move. The transition towards a net zero world by mid-to-end of the century will be difficult, and nations will need to ease into their carbon diets. However, because the Paris Agreement will require the continued attention and support of countries going forward, I judge the agreement to be more in line with a “high comme ci, comma ça” scenario, rather than a “low va va voom.”

The good

The Paris Agreement is strong in that it anchors the INDCs as emission reduction commitments within the text, and legally binds parties to produce on-going emission reduction targets. The agreement contains a long-term goal to balance the sources and sinks of greenhouse gases by the second half of the century, with the aim of limiting global temperature increase to well below 2 degrees Celsius – ideally 1.5. This ambitious mitigation target will require net zero emissions by 2050-2060, and reaching 1.5 degrees will require even stronger cuts. Five-year cycles for increasing mitigation ambition are hard-wired into the agreement, starting with a review of current contributions by 2018, which will be resubmitted in 2020. This near-term check in is important as it will keep countries on track with their emissions reduction commitments and maintain momentum. Finally, and importantly, adaptation and loss and damage are at the center of the agreement, reflecting the core interests of the most vulnerable countries.

The…not so good

While the agreement includes a plan to increase immediate funding, the funding regime post 2025 remains unclear. Further, the funding discussion lacks specificity about how the donor pool will be expanded in the near future. Efforts to improve the funding mechanism will require attention from countries going forward, as this aspect of the agreement is central to its ability to support adaptation and other necessary global initiatives. In addition, as is expected with an agreement of this scale, specificity on transparency and accountability is lacking. Political intent to carry this agreement forward is present, however the mechanism that will hold countries accountable is not concrete within the current agreement, further emphasizing that the deal will require continued global involvement to remain afloat.

Final thoughts

Although an ideal agreement would have fit into the “va va voom” scenario, the current agreement is realistic for the current political moment. Its significance lies in the fact that it demonstrates cooperation between developed and developing, large and small, rich and poor nations. Much like a house will not stand without a solid foundation, efforts to manage a critical global problem like climate change will not be successful without first laying bricks to build trust and solidify common multilateral interests. The Paris Agreement represents the beginning of a long and difficult journey – hopefully we will look back at this moment as a tipping point in the global effort to ensure an equitable and essential carbon-free future.


Avoiding the “zombie” deal at Paris

The media hype surrounding the upcoming Paris meeting is at risk of positioning COP21 as the “be-all and end-all” of climate agreements. In a recent report, environmental think tank E3G addresses the danger with this line of thinking. The Paris agreement, they suggest, should not be treated as a one-off event, but instead should be viewed as an important political opportunity in the broader context of global climate change objectives.

“Paris is the agreement but importantly it is also the political moment. Paris should be empowering, it should open up the political space in the future.” –E3G

To emphasize the position of COP21 as a political moment, instead of an isolated agreement, E3G developed a list of three possible political scenarios that could be created by the agreement. These scenarios illustrate the precarious position of the negotiations as a tipping point for climate action. The value of this analysis is that it does not outline specific policy outcomes, but rather addresses the shape of potential outcomes, in an effort to identify political areas where ambition can be increased. To this end, the report includes a “checklist” of potential textual indicators that position the agreement within the different scenarios.

Political scenarios

“Le Zombie”

In this scenario, the least ambitious of the three, the Paris agreement takes on the form of a tactical deal, decided at the negotiator level. The deal is limited to countries that have already submitted INDCs, lacks precision, is unstable and at risk of future collapse. Textual indicators of this scenario include vague language anchoring INDCs in the text, with no indication that they will be implemented. The mitigation goal is limited to a “low carbon transformation” with an imprecise “end of century” timeline. Further, there is no link between adaptation and mitigation efforts or the ambition mechanism, and loss and damage is not addressed.

“Comme ci, Comme ça”

This middle-of-the-road scenario provides some guarantees on financial and adaptation support, and the agreement arises from collaboration between parties. However, the outcome will not garner enough momentum to survive on its own, and therefore will need continual support going forward. Indicators of this scenario in the text include intent to implement INDCs, an ambition mechanism that references but does not directly involve finance and adaptation, and the development of an adaptation cycle to assess progress every five years.

“Va Va Voom”

The most ambitious political scenario, the “va va voom” deal is driven by leaders across developing and developed nations. In this agreement, all major components of the deal are addressed and enough detail is included to maintain 2oC as a realistic goal. The agreement provides clear guidance for both current and post 2020 action, ensuring an enduring regime. Indicators of this scenario in the text include clear and specific language anchoring INDCs in the text, and an ambition mechanism that is linked to finance and adaptation. Further, this scenario sees loss and damage addressed in the core agreement.

Potential for an enduring agreement

These three scenarios are described in an effort to bring attention to the political “space” that remains open within the agreement – space that can ultimately be used to maximize ambition and secure an enduring agreement. Fortunately, there is potential for Paris to capitalize on this space, due to the presence of multiple opportunities that make the global political environment conducive to an ambitious agreement.

E3G suggests that COP21 should take advantage of existing political and economic “tailwinds”, such as political momentum to address climate change driven by NGOs and the public, as well as momentum on divestment and the unstable nature of oil and gas prices. Parties should also aim to inscribe the voluntary emissions reductions set out in the INDCs into the Paris text, in order to keep the reductions ambitious but honest. Current INDC positions get close to the 2oC goal, but do not quite close the mitigation gap, so ensuring that countries take immediate and long-term action to see these goals through, as well as voluntarily increase ambition, is essential.

The Paris agreement has the potential to rebalance mitigation and adaptation, which is essential given that the current emissions path will not reach the 2oC goal. In fact, even if this goal is met, the impacts of climate change will still be felt worldwide. Therefore, the agreement must equally address the necessity of mitigating emissions, as well as dealing with inevitable climate impacts both currently, and looking into the future.

Finally, the Paris agreement comes at a time of strong multilateral politics worldwide, which provides an opportunity to capitalize on collaboration. The fact that there are large emitters working together, as illustrated by the US-China bilateral agreement, illustrates that there is a global interest in securing an agreement. This environment provides a unique opportunity for the Paris agreement to set out a collaborative, ambitious, and enduring climate deal.


Common sense and the climate negotiations

Common sense practices employed in policy and economics are often disregarded when it comes to the issue of climate change. Adhering to the precautionary principle, for example, is an approach used in taking policy action where there is a risk of harm to the public of inaction, despite an absence of scientific consensus. A definition derived from the 1998 Wingspread Conference sums it up:

When an activity raises threats of harm to human health or the environment, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause and effect relationships are not fully established scientifically.

This approach is unfortunately not fully realized within climate change policy decision-making. Although there is consensus in the scientific community regarding the reality of climate change, uncertainty remains about the specific nature and danger associated with these changes. Nonetheless, there is no question that the risk worsens with increasing inaction. Phrases regularly batted about during climate change conversations –“tipping point”, “catastrophe”, “existential threat” – are worrying, and rightly so. Climate change, if unchecked, will wreck havoc on the natural world and its inhabitants (that includes you, humans!).

The use of precaution is a common sense approach to dealing with unknown, potentially dangerous problems.

|priˈkô sh ən|noun: “a measure taken in advance to prevent something dangerous, unpleasant, or inconvenient from happening”

In the case of climate change, precautionary approaches take the form of reducing and/or mitigating emissions of greenhouse gases, as well as adapting to current and future impacts of climate change.

On the bright side, there is a global, centralized institution in place to specifically support these activities! Unfortunately, so far this support has not resulted in very much action.

Image from Center for Environment, Development & Technology, Malaysia

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Managing natural disaster risk, naturally

The occurrence of a coastal natural disaster, such as a hurricane or typhoon, evokes a feeling of environmental instability. However, as the name suggests, these events are in fact part of natural environmental cycles – up to a point. Climate change, poorly planned coastal development and environmental degradation have increased the frequency of many natural disasters and continue to exacerbate their devastating impacts. As recognition of these worrying trends has increased, there has been a growing acknowledgement of the capacity of natural ecosystems to aid in managing this risk.

Ecosystem-based adaptation (EbA) describes the process of managing and protecting ecosystems to aid in climate adaptation and reduce natural disaster risk. There is a growing recognition, both nationally and within the UNFCCC process, of the services provided by healthy ecosystems and the importance of maintaining them. As a result, recent efforts (by the IUCN and others) have focused on gathering a database of EbA projects around the globe, in order to develop a framework that connects these projects to other adaptation initiatives within the UNFCCC.

EbA has a large role to play in natural disaster risk management for two main reasons: First, healthy ecosystems buffer against the deleterious effects of natural disasters and reduce the associated risk. Second, ecosystem-based approaches to natural disaster mitigation are simply cost-effective.

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