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Historic Agreement ‘Brings Us Together’: Now for the Hard Part - Kennedy Graham COP21 blog 6

Dr Kennedy Graham, MP, New Zealand

So the Paris Agreement is being adopted ‘in front of me’ as I write, in a room adjacent to the Plenary Hall.  It has just been translated into the six official UN languages and the various groups have met.  Now the Plenary has just adopted it.

The world breathes a sigh of relief.  Copenhagen has been exorcised.  French diplomatic skill has prevailed; the ‘spirit of Paris’ reigns.

There was considerable high rhetoric from the conference leadership and for good reason.  It is an historic moment.  

Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, as president of the Conference, urges delegates: “The end is in sight; let us finish the job.”  The UN Secretary-General, Ban ki-Moon, hails the Agreement as ‘flexible, robust, meaningful and effective’.   French President Francois Hollande calls it ‘ambitious yet realistic’ and, in what may become the popular characterisation of the event, he says: “What brings us together is the planet itself.”  

These are not overstatements.  The outcome is historic. The international community is, substantively for the first time, acting as a global community facing a global problem.  All 196 parties are accepting a legally-binding obligation to undertake effective action to avert dangerous climate change.  The ’92 Framework Convention set up the global objective and structure.  The 2015 protocol (otherwise known as the Paris Agreement) is requiring nationally-determined contributions (NDCs) from everybody to deliver on the global objective.  It is a big success.  

Now the hard part begins.  The hard part is because the 196 parties are, currently, under-delivering on the global effort.  And, more critically, it has yet to be shown that the mechanism for remedying that is structurally sound.  

Here are the critical pieces of the text, with commentary in italics.

The purpose of the Agreement is to ‘strengthen the global response to the threat of climate change’ This will be done by holding the global average temperature increase to ‘well below 2°C’ above pre-industrial levels and ‘pursue efforts to limit it to 1.5°C’ (Article 2).

Comment:  Aiming for ‘well below 2°C’ is a major advance.  But while the reference to 1.5°C is politically good, there are scientific uncertainties about this.  Some scientific opinion is that we are already locked into 1.5°C; other opinion is that we have a very narrow window of opportunity to remain under it. Given the current rate of increase in global emissions, it is almost certain that we shall breach the 1.5, in which case it will be a matter of returning to that level through net negative global emissions in the course of this century.

Let us be under no illusions as to the magnitude of the task.  Current annual emissions are about 50 Gt.

  • According to UNEP, current INDCs will result in 55 Gt. in 2030, a 10% increase.
  • For the 2.0°C threshold, emissions that year need to be 42 Gt, a 16% cut decrease.  
  • For the 1.5°C threshold, they must be 39 Gt, a 22% decrease.  

“We aim to reach global peaking of greenhouse gas emissions ‘as soon as possible’ (Article 4).  

Comment: The IPCC indicates that we need to reach global peaking of emissions before 2020 to stay under 2°C.  This is not going to happen.  

We aim to achieve ‘a balance between anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions by source and removals by sinks’ (essentially, this is the definition of zero net global emissions).  This will be done ‘in the second half of this century’ (Article 4).

Comment: Scientific opinion is that we need to reach zero net global emissions between 2060 and 2080 to stay under 2°C.  Specifying the ‘second half of this century’ is too vague, and playing roulette with the planet.  

In the accompanying decision (FCCC/CP/2015/L.9, para 17), the Conference notes ‘with concern’ that the estimated global emissions resulting from the current INDCs are not on target: they “do not fall within the least-cost 2°C scenarios but rather lead to a projected level of 55 Gt in 2030”.  Much greater emission reduction efforts will be required than the current INDCs.

Comment: The final text is a major advance; much stronger that the 10 Dec. text.

  • For the first time it specifies a global emissions figure for 2030 (55 Gt.). This is a rare and welcome departure from the norm, in which the diplomatic tendency is to fudge the facts and figures. Note the magnitude of the challenge, as described above.   
  • Secondly, the previous text simply suggested that ‘much greater reductions’ are to be undertaken post-2025.  The final text (para 17) requires such reductions (no time-frame) to a level to be identified by the 2018 IPCC report (para 21) and for the targets to be assessed in a ‘facilitative dialogue’ in 2018 (one year earlier than the previous text).    

Then there is the Global Stocktake, in which the Parties will ‘periodically take stock of the implementation of this Agreement’ (Article 14 of the Agreement). The first such stocktake is in 2023.

Comment: This is fine as long as it is a broad political review of the Agreement, and not the first calculation of the adequacy of the INDCs.  

Overall comment:

It is an extraordinary achievement.  It is as good as, or better than, might have been hoped.  Even in the final 24 hours, what was emerging as a good text has been strengthened into something that is potentially effective.  The political will is there, perhaps for the first time.

Everything depends, however, on the timing of the efforts to ‘increase the ambition’ of all our national contributions.  Two things:

  • It is significant that the ‘Intended Nationally-Determined Contributions (INDCs) have no status.  What will have status is the Nationally-Determined Contributions that are to be communicated by the time of a country’s ratification.  This means for example that in the case of New Zealand, whose current INDC is only 11% (off 1990), it is open to NZ to improve on its target before ratification in, say in late 2016.
     
  • Much depends on the meaning of the ‘facilitative dialogue’ in 2018.  If that is the start of a genuine exchange over the upgrading of all parties’ INDCs from 2018 on, then there is hope for effective action.  If not, if there is no real action to increase the ‘ambition’ and all we do is review our targets every five years, then we waft into the 2020s with no real national, and therefore global, resolve.  And we shall have left it too late.   

Let’s leave this extraordinary event with a rough factoid or two to get the perspective of the magnitude of our global task:

  • Remember that, on current emissions, the Global Carbon Budget is utilised around 2035.  Stocktaking on inadequate national targets in the 2020s won’t do it.
     
  • Global emission increases of 5 Gt results in warming of about 0.3°C.  Annual global emissions are increasing at about 0.6 Gt each year.   We therefore cannot afford to delay.  We now have the structure to get the job done.   

So, a great success here in Paris; and now the hard part begins.

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