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.

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“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.