(2016.05) Maintaining the Momentum after the Paris Agreement: The Distance We’ve Come and the Distance Yet to Go

William Hull | PhD candidate at the Graduate School of Global Politics (GSGP) at Freie Universität Berlin | Berlin-based think tank adelphi | 10th May 2016

Efforts to address climate change have a long and, at times, tedious history. The adoption of the Paris Agreement on 12th December 2015 by 195 countries under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) signalled an historic achievement in negotiations that have spanned more than 20 years. To understand the significance of the agreement, it is important to clarify the nature of the challenge and why our existing structures have proven ineffective in coping with such an issue.

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Climate change: the heart of the matter

Climate change has presented testing and multifaceted challenges to our contemporary economic, political and social structures. In essence, climate change is profoundly different to other environmental issues, sitting more comfortably alongside other great global challenges facing humanity, such as the proliferation of nuclear weapons, the rise of international terrorism and the spread of pandemics. As scientific research continues to reveal, the causes of climate change are numerous, the timeframe remains uncertain, the upfront costs to shift pathways onto a climate-friendly trajectory are real and, ethically speaking, the primary victims are frequently those most economically and socially disadvantaged, as well as those most physically distant from the main sources of carbon emissions.

What we do know, however, is that the Earth’s atmosphere, including the air we breathe, is a vast common-pool resource: used by all, exploited by some and regulated by no one. It is a condition best depicted by tragedy of the commons, an economic theory conceived by economist William Forster Lloyd and made famous by ecologist Garrett Hardin. As the atmosphere of Earth is a shared-resource system, an individual actor (be it a person, business or nation state) acting independently and rationally, and according to his or her own personal interests, can deplete the common resource to the detriment of all within the system. In other words, if a single actor can reap large economic benefits, but only suffer a fraction of the costs, the temptation to over-exploit the shared-resource system is real. Additionally, in terms of climate change mitigation, countries that choose to avoid the reduction or prevention of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions for short-term economic benefit can profit from the mitigation actions of others. This particular economic and political phenomenon is known as the free rider problem.

For these reasons, among others, it has taken over 20 years of meticulous negotiations (since the first Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992) to hammer out a deal that incorporates the voices of both developing and developed nations, local and global communities, and the public and private sectors. On Friday 22nd April 2016, 175 governments officially signed the agreement and at least 34 countries, accountable for 49% of GHG emissions, formally joined at a signing ceremony at the United Nations. The Paris Agreement officially comes into force once 55 countries accountable for at least 55% of emissions officially sign.  By this measure, the agreement is a landmark success in committing 195 nations to maintaining global temperatures below 2°C and a stark contrast to the chaotic scenes which played out six years before at the Copenhagen Summit in 2009.

The changing nature of climate diplomacy since Rio and Copenhagen

Times have changed since Rio and Copenhagen. In general terms, the style of cooperation has undergone significant transformation. The Rio Summit in 1992, although rightly initiating a framework for climate diplomacy, fizzled out in the interim period as diplomats and climate activists steered the negotiations towards political deadlock. The 1997 Kyoto Protocol, although well-intentioned, took eight years to ratify and, arguably, had very little real impact on reducing global emissions.

Since 2009, an additional factor has been the re-engagement of traditional great powers with climate diplomacy. In the run-up to negotiations in Paris last year, China, a nation originally adverse to an international system of carbon targets, and increasingly rattled by domestic environmental protest provoked by airpocalypse events in its major urban hubs, realigned its climate agenda with its 12th Five-Year Plan in 2011. This has been further bolstered by the release of the 13th Five-Year Plan earlier this year. Intriguingly, China has foreseen a peak in national emissions by 2030 and, with a bit of luck, might yield these results much faster than many dreamed possible.

Across the Pacific, President Obama, hands now unbound from years of gruelling healthcare reforms and a reluctant Congress, has been keen to secure his green presidential legacy and position the US at the forefront of the emerging low-carbon economy. This renewed ambition between the US and China, the world’s largest CO2 emitters, was further cemented in the run-up to negotiations in Paris with a new bilateral agreement on climate change at the end of 2014. The agreement was hugely significant, although admittedly not overly ambitious, in forging the way towards a deal in Paris – a factor seemingly inconceivable at the 2009 Copenhagen Summit.

Why did climate negotiations at Paris work?

Taking these points into consideration, the adoption of the Paris Agreement is undoubtedly an historic first step. Negotiations at Paris yielded success for the simple reason that flexibility was built-in through a bottom-up approach to climate diplomacy – even though shifting global opinions, increased public pressure and growing demands of business leaders for clarity played equally important roles. In previous years, at the negotiation level, climate diplomacy had pursued a top-down approach. In this vein, attempts were made to establish a common goal before dividing it among participating nations. In contrast, negotiations in Paris allowed nations to submit their own personalised commitments or, technically speaking, Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs). These contributions serve, ultimately, as a foundation for much deeper cooperation and scaled up ambition over the coming years. In this scenario, each individual nation will be expected to raise ambition and present new pledges in five-year intervals. This process will be supported by an additional overall assessment of how nations are doing as a collective. This more flexible pledge-and-review system has transformed climate diplomacy from a system of gridlock to one of common ambition and purpose.

Although the Paris Agreement lays the foundations for each individual country to take stock and deliver on their own individual commitments, there are still unanswered questions. Evidently, what was achieved at Paris and in the subsequent months should be perceived as merely a starting point for the ambition required to prevent massive human-induced destabilization of the overall climate system.

The next steps after Paris

In terms of negotiations, there will be numerous next steps to address. Verification is a crucial issue and it still remains unclear what information individual countries will have to submit with respect to their GHG emissions. This information is vital in order to ascertain whether or not governments are adhering to their pledged commitments. On our current trajectory, considering the INDC pledges to date, the temperatures will still not be secured below the 2°C threshold by the year 2100. The lingering question that remains is whether the agreement, lauded by so many, will, in reality, spur nations into committing to ever more ambitious commitments. This is a point that will become much clearer in the ensuing years, starting with the next review period scheduled for 2018 and the renewal of commitments expected in 2020. Aside from verification, the actual implementation of the pledged INDCs should by no means be overlooked as a simple formality.

Financing is an additional point of contention. A fundamental part of the Paris Agreement was the understanding that developed nations will provide regulated long-term climate finance for developing nations. A sum of at least $100 billion per year has been promised from both public and private sources in order to assist developing nations with mitigating and adapting to climate change by the year 2020. Unfortunately, as this only appears in the preamble of the agreement, it is not legally binding. In any event, this is only a fraction of the cost actually required to mitigate the dangers posed by a warmer planet. By 2025 a much larger figure will need to be decided. Evidently, questions relating to implementation, verification, and financing cannot be answered easily, especially in a process that involves so many parties.

Climate change remains one of the most testing challenges of our time. Whether humanity can act through new patterns of organisation on a common threat with common action on a planetary scale remains to be seen.

The momentum is seemingly there. Will it remain?