Amid the widespread welcome for the Paris Agreement, what is striking is the lack of consensus on just how significant it all is. James Hansen, former head of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York and regarded as one of the world’s most eminent climate scientists, went so far as to call it ‘a fraud, a fake, worthless words’ while Cara Augustenborg, chair of Friends of the Earth Ireland, said in Paris that ‘the gap between ambition and action in the deal is too big.’ So should we welcome or denounce this long-awaited global treaty?
The Agreement itself is just 11 pages long and contains 29 articles. The accompanying text on the adoption of the Paris Agreement and the decisions to implement it is longer at 19 pages and contains more detail on matters in the text of the treaty. What the critics focus on is the weakness of the wording on targets and the means to deliver. For example, the key goal is stated 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.
As the New Internationalist put it in an analysis of the text, the emission reduction pledges already made by over 180 countries ‘go nowhere near far enough to achieve’ these goals. Furthermore, ‘the provision of scaled up financial resources’ by developed countries to developing countries mentioned in the text is regarded as being too vague, even though the accompanying text does specify ‘a floor of $100bn per year’ as the goal by 2020.
The critics also highlight the lack of a firm commitment to decarbonize the global economy. Instead the Paris Agreement states that countries ‘aim to reach global peaking of greenhouse gas emissions as soon as possible’, recognising that this will take longer for developing countries, and ‘to undertake rapid reductions thereafter in accordance with best available science’. Even the timeline is left vague with the text mentioning achieving ‘a balance between anthropogenic emissions by sources and removals by sinks of greenhouse gases in the second half of this century’.
In pointing to the vagueness of the commitments made, the critics are correct. But the expectation that a treaty could be negotiated between 196 countries which would contain far more precise targets and timelines was always unrealistic. And we already saw in Copenhagen in 2009 what can happen when careful diplomacy fails to find a middle ground that can keep all countries on board. More importantly, however, the focus of the critics on the weakness of the text overlooks what is the great breakthrough of Paris, namely that a process has begun that might just lead us toward a low-carbon society.
For there are some firm pledges here that are immensely important. Among them is the commitment to a ‘global stocktake’ in 2023 and every five years after that. The purpose to inform countries ‘in updating and enhancing, in a nationally determined manner, their actions and support’ to meet the targets specified in this agreement. Even before 2023 there is going to be a ‘facilitative dialogue’ held in 2018 ‘to take stock of the collective efforts’ of countries to meet the goals. Furthermore, the IPCC is ‘to provide a special report in 2018 on the impacts of global warming of 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels’.
The accompanying text to the treaty opens with an expression of ‘serious concern’ about ‘the significant gap’ between the aggregate effect of countries’ emissions’ reduction pledges and keeping temperature rises well below 2°C. Therefore, the treaty builds in mechanisms not only to review targets but to ratchet them up every five years. In what is perhaps the most important commitment in the whole treaty, it is pledged that each country’s successive emissions’ reduction target ‘will represent a progression beyond’ what it had previously pledged.
Paris is therefore more like a beginning than an end. It lays out a process that recognises the need for ever more ambitious targets and actions, not just in terms of reducing emissions but also in a host of other areas and progressively enhancing what it calls ‘long-term low greenhouse gas emission development strategies’ which countries are being asked to submit to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) Secretariat by 2020 so that they can be published. The treaty contains a lot of aspiration towards the development and sharing of appropriate technologies, towards enhancing countries’ capacity to develop low-GHG development pathways, and towards building resilience. While these may seem vague and aspirational, they are commitments contained in the treaty and have the potential to galvanise action in a progressive way.
Finally, the commitment to transparency, to ensuring countries don’t ‘double count’ their emissions to claim higher reductions than they are actually achieving, and the establishment of a ‘public registry’ where all countries’ pledges are open to public scrutiny, allows civil society to hold countries to accountability. For, as the accompanying text makes clear, civil society, local communities and indigenous peoples all have a major role to play in helping achieve the ambitious goals set. Our political leaders have stepped up to the mark in Paris but the role of civil society is crucial in ensuring the ambitious goal now set in an international treaty can be met.