Mike Robinson, Chief Executive, RSGS

The ‘Paris Agreement’ has been hailed by world leaders as a huge step forward in climate negotiations.  But many responses have been much more muted, if not positively hostile.  So what has been agreed?  And why the different perspectives?

One of the headline statements to which nations have signed up is in Article 2: “holding the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, recognizing that this would significantly reduce the risks and impacts of climate change.

Sounds good, and it is difficult not to applaud the ambition.  It’s just that the reductions to which nations have committed don’t begin until 2020, and on the current emissions trajectory we are likely to largely exceed the threshold for a 1.5 °C increase in global temperature within the next six to ten years.  Additionally, this high level of ambition is not borne out in the remainder of the Agreement.

It is great that 195 countries have signed up to the Paris Agreement.  That in itself feels like progress.  But one of the reasons is that each brought their own emissions reduction target to the table.  These individual national commitments (‘Intended Nationally Determined Contributions’ or INDCs) vary enormously and lay out each country’s intentions to reduce greenhouse gases between the years 2020 and 2030.  But they are only ‘intended’ contributions – how do you ensure ‘intentions’ become actions?  And even these intentions will easily exceed the stated 2°C ceiling (probably closer to a minimum of 3°C).

Dave Reay, Professor of Carbon Management at the University of Edinburgh, pointed out that “the overt inclusion of a 1.5°C target is good to see, but it puts the big shortfall in collective emissions reductions into even starker relief.”  It’s scientifically valid, it’s ambitious, but is it anything more than good intentions?

Despite the recognised need for urgency in dealing with climate change, the Agreement calls for no commitments prior to 2020 – it simply “urges” countries to try to do more.  There is to be an agreed ‘review’ of these voluntary commitments (and each Government’s performance against their own targets) every five years, the first of which is planned in 2023.  The idea is that this will ensure countries rapidly ‘ratchet up’ their ambitions, but according to the New Scientist, “the gulf between what is being done and what is required is huge, and nothing in the deal compels countries to make much greater efforts.”  Once again, it is likely the world will already be well and truly on the way to exceed 2°C by then.

The Paris Agreement acknowledges this.  It states that emissions should peak as soon as possible, and that “much greater emission reduction efforts will be required than those associated with the INDCs.”  But when exactly is ‘as soon as possible’?  And the Agreement simply encourages nations to review and voluntarily increase the ambition of their current commitments.  If the INDCs are not strong enough (and they are clearly not) what mechanism is in place to ensure they become so?

In Paris, both developed and developing nations brought forward emissions reduction intentions, a stumbling block previously as some developing nations felt that those who have historically used most fossil fuels should shoulder the bulk of the responsibility.  However, whilst the richer nations have persuaded the poorer developing nations to take action, they have also largely body-swerved issues of responsibility, which has upset many of the poorer nations, again drawing criticism.

The other crucial area of consideration was funding.  The Paris Agreement “set a goal of jointly providing $100 billion annually by 2020 for mitigation and adaptation, while significantly increasing adaptation finance from current levels and to further provide appropriate technology and capacity-building support.  This is a lot of money.  But is it enough?  Almost nobody believes it is.  For starters it is barely one-fifth of the money that the International Energy Agency report is spent on fossil fuel subsidies globally ($544 billion in 2012), so it doesn’t even level the playing field.  It is also about one-eighth of what was being called for, and even then much of it has not been identified.  There is though, within the Agreement, an intention to review and increase it.

I want to view the Paris Agreement as a positive step, if for no other reason than almost every nation has signed a commitment to acknowledge the problem and to aim to address it.  However, it does feel weak.  It has taken the best part of three decades to get to this point, and what we really see in the Paris Agreement is a voluntary agreement with a lot of good intentions.  And we all know where good intentions lead if they are not followed through.

For me, Professor Kevin Anderson of the UK Tyndall Centre summed it up beautifully in the New Scientist: “The bureaucrats have a better grasp of what is politically possible, and the protesters of what is physically necessary.  What do you want to bet on, science or politics?