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Paris Agreement: Landmark Victory or Greenwash

Hopes are high after a global agreement to curb global warming but critics are already suggesting the deal is too little, too late.

The world has finally agreed to cut greenhouse gas emissions from 2020. At the very least, the 195 countries committed to curb emissions to keep temperature rises below 2°C compared with pre-industrial times. Ideally, though, they’d like to cut enough to prevent even passing the 1.5°C mark.

The French, who hosted the COP21 talks in Paris, had promised an “atmosphere of confidence” and on paper they delivered (see boxout). The president, François Hollande, called the final Paris Agreement “the most beautiful and peaceful resolution”. David Cameron’s reaction was much less poetic and far more British. “I thought it was pretty good,” the prime minister told the liaison committee during an evidence session last month.

Hollande could be forgiven his Gallic histrionics in the circumstances (the deal was struck in the wake of terrorist attacks on the city). But what marked these talks out from the Copenhagen summit in 2010 was the more considered approach. Out went the kabuki theatre of COP15 in Denmark and in came a structured script.

Countries had (mostly) long since submitted their carbon-cutting plans,
for instance. Much was made of the Intended Nationally Determined Contributions, not least because they overcame the “I’ll show you mine if you show me yours” stand-offs that derailed previous discussions.

The contributions set the foundations for a viable agreement. “The current INDCs, combined with policies over the last few years, present a real increase in ambition levels and demonstrate an unprecedented commitment and engagement by member states in tackling this major global challenge,” said Achim Steiner, the executive director of the United Nations Environment Programme.

They won’t be enough, however. UNEP has calculated that by 2030 a gap of 12 gigatons of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) will have emerged, putting the world on track to a 3°C temperature rise (temperatures have already risen about 1°C since pre-industrial times). To put it another way, the commitments are about half the total required to reach a global emissions level of 42 gigatons of CO2e in 2030 – the level that offers a likely chance (more than 66%) of staying below 2°C by 2100.

“In order to close the gap it is essential that the Paris Agreement adopt a dynamic approach in which ambitions, the mobilisation of climate finance and other forms of co-operation can be adjusted upwards at regular intervals,” Steiner said in November.

Some of the sceptics have therefore been reassured by the inclusion of a ratcheting mechanism in the 32-page Paris Agreement that “urges those parties whose intended nationally determined contribution … contains a time frame up to 2025 to communicate by 2020 a new nationally determined contribution and to do so every five years thereafter”. There will also be a global stocktake of emissions every five years, with the first due in 2023.

As a result, observers broke for Christmas with reason for cheer and reason for fear. Writing in a blog for the Committee on Climate Change, Lord Deben and Lord Krebs (the CCC chair and sub-committee chair respectively), explained that the deal would never have been complete without this method of review against targets and a system to make the necessary adjustments.

However, “if indeed progress is slow, and global emissions do not fall as quickly as they need to, further challenges will lie ahead. To keep on track to the 2°C commitment, let alone 1.5°C, some nations will have to ratchet up their effort potentially over a relatively short period of time. The UK, for example, has previously said that the EU should increase its emissions cuts for 2030 from 40% to 50%, if other countries agree to do more.”

And we’re back to “you show me yours first”. Indeed, fuller analyses of the deal are already emerging. In a joint letter to the Independent last month,
a group of eminent climate scientists claimed that the countries have not proposed an urgent mechanism to ensure immediate cuts in emissions; rather they have sought to “kick the can down the road”.

“Given that we can’t agree on the climate models or the CO2 budget to keep temperatures rises to 2°C, then we are naive to think we will agree on a much tougher target in five years when, in all likelihood, the exponentially increasing atmospheric CO2 levels mean it will be too late,” they said.

That’s one way of bursting the bubble of optimism. Their concerns could be well-founded – reports suggest that some leaders have returned home from France only to declare that what has been agreed won’t have an impact on domestic policy. The prime minister hasn’t done this, but since May he has taken an axe to green initiatives.

Huw Irranca-Davies, who also chairs the environmental audit committee, put Cameron on the spot in the liaison committee last month when he highlighted the “concerted criticism” the government has faced in relation to the “short- termism and uncertainty” surrounding environmental policy.

Cameron said it was “utter nonsense” that “on the one hand Britain helped to pioneer this climate change agreement, and on the other hand that it is somehow backsliding on its green commitments”.

Time will tell whether he is backsliding or forward-thinking on climate commitments, but as the victims of the recent floods will testify there isn’t much of that left.

The Paris Agreement runs to 32 pages. In summary governments agreed:

  • A long-term goal of keeping the increase in global average temperature to well below 2C above pre-industrial levels;
  • to aim to limit the increase to 1.5C, since this would significantly reduce the risks and effects of climate change;
  • on the need for global emissions to peak as soon as possible, recognising that this will take longer for developing countries;
  • to undertake rapid reductions thereafter in accordance with the best available resource