Success at COP21: A Crucial Springboard

I nearly titled this article the “COP21 Wrap-up” before catching myself from falling into the potential post-Paris sinkhole we could easily tumble into. After all, it’s not a finalisation at all but rather the beginning of a new course of action. Seeing this agreement as the finish line would represent a grave mistake. We’d be digging ourselves into a hole if we milked the celebrations and successes of Paris for too long, forgetting that we’re still a long way from making it a reality.

However, a congratulations and glass of champagne were very much in order at the weekend. Over the past couple of days I’ve seen a number of commentaries on both sides of the spectrum: some stomping on the outcome, others hailing it as a planet-saving deal. I lie somewhere in the middle.

Let’s not underestimate how challenging and monumental the task is in getting 195 countries to all agree on anything, let alone an issue which creates such large divides due to its intrinsic link to development, economic growth and differentiation. Managing to get all countries to adopt and sign on to the agreement is a success in itself. It’s never been done before. At the same time, it’s important to be constructively critical of the outcome—that’s the only way we make progress. The deal is certainly not perfect: there a number of major imbalances and ambiguities which need to be rapidly addressed if we’re ever going to turn it into practice. It does, however, send a strong signal that a path towards a lower-carbon economy is where we collectively want to go. How we now respond to this impetus is critical.


So what’s my take on the some of the major plusses and minuses in the final agreement? I was most closely following the emissions mitigation side of the negotiations—not because the other elements are not crucial, but because our ambition and success in mitigation directly feeds into all of the other elements. How much adaptation, climate finance, and loss and damage will be needed in the coming decades will be directly dictated by how far we’re willing to go in our collective mitigation efforts.

The deal finally agreed on a long-term target of limiting warming to “well below 2C above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5C”. Personally I don’t think this distinction in temperature target merited the amount of focus it was given. As has been highlighted (and I discussed in an earlier post)—our current pathway, and our pledged reduction pathways are still a long way off either of these targets. In fact, the EU (who was one of the loudest shouters for a 1.5C target admitted that it hadn’t yet looked into the policies or action that would be needed to achieve this). I hate to be a party-pooper in this regard, but we’re not going to keep warming below 1.5C. Even if we somehow managed to achieve a very rapid global decarbonisation, there is still sufficient inertia locked into the climate system to carry us close to that threshold. Many experts have suggested that the only chance of doing so would be through negative emission geoengineering technologies, a particularly contentious area of discussion. That being said, I do think we can achieve our 2C target (or very close to it) if we’re smart and committed to doing so.

There are a couple of vital decisions in the agreement that will help us get there. Two vital ones are the so-called “ratchet mechanism” and global stocktake. As has been said, our current national pledges are projected to result in a warming of roughly 3C—significantly beyond our global target. We evidently need a major scale-up in commitment beyond these initial INDC promises. The agreement has defined that there will be a five-year global and national emissions stocktake to assess our progress. This requirement for transparency was initially a major sticking point in the negotiations with many developing nations arguing the need for such scrutiny was unnecessary and indicated a lack of trust. It indicates no such thing: we need to have an accurate sense of what we’ve achieved, where we are and where we’re headed. The same scrutiny is attached to everyone—there’s no singling out here.

Based on these periodic assessments, the “ratchet mechanism” acts as a driver to encourage nations to scale-up their commitments to levels more in-line with the level of action needed to stand a chance of reaching our target. The key word here is encourage [the actual wording in the agreement is that these revised pledges “should” be more ambitious than their initial commitments]. This is the major deficiency in the current mechanism: it’s done on a voluntary basis. Moving forward, if we’re to make such a tactic effective, we need to develop a more standardised, fair framework for scaling-up these commitments. If we fail to do so, I fear the well-intentioned mechanism will be silently swept under the rug.

The other important element in terms of mitigation was the decision to “reach global peaking of greenhouse gas emissions as soon as possible […] and achieve a balance between anthropogenic emissions by sources and removals by sinks of greenhouse gases in the second half of this century”. The wording of this long-term target is crucial (and slightly soft in its lack of definition of the timeline for achieving this). The capacity of our natural (land and ocean) sinks is still a highly uncertain area of research—we don’t yet have concrete indicators of how much carbon our sinks are capable of sequestering, how stable/consistent these are, and how they might evolve with future emission trajectories. If we’re make this a key focus of our future policy decisions, our understanding in this area needs to rapidly develop in the coming years. In fact, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) have been given the task of assessing such balanced 1.5C and 2C pathways by 2018 to inform future policy decisions. I don’t have the space here, but will try to do some further analysis on this area in a future post.

The Paris result represents a key turning point in changing the way we do things. We’ve generated an important momentum that we now need to harness and maintain. Let’s not waste it. Yes, constructive criticism will be imperative to make sure we progress on the right track—we are doomed to failure in our target if we fail to do so. I rarely hold back from challenging conventional opinions if I feel it’s necessary. That being said, I’ve been slightly disappointed in the harsh dismissals from a few distinguished figures in the debate. Now is a time to build up on the base that was set in Paris, not a time for tearing it down. The result is open enough for positive value and contributions to be added. For those committed to the challenge ahead (which should surely be all of us), it’s time to start building the blocks to turn those promises into action.



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