Tuesday, June 28th, 2022 02:38:38

COP21: A Historic Deal?

Updated: January 1, 2016 5:09 pm

The combination of 2°C, 1.5°C and the aim to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to zero is a strong signal from the global community that will shift the benchmark against which countries and investors are expected to assess their development strategies and business plans

On 12 December 2015, 195 countries made history when they agreed the first truly global international climate change agreement, marking a major milestone in a political process that has spanned decades. The language of the text regarding the purpose of the convention and the long term goal, has been a subject of particular importance for the Parties and observers in recent years, and was a major focus point of the negotiations in Paris.

Most governments and observers called for increasing the ambition of the long term goal from that of limiting global temperature increase by the end of the century to a maximum of 2°C compared to pre-industrial times, to a more ambitious goal of 1.5°C, in recognition of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC’s) Fifth Assessment Report. The report finds that the impacts of a 2°C temperature increase entail grave consequences in many parts of the world, including the likely disappearance of many small island states.

Many governments and observers also called for the insertion of language that specified a goal for zero, or net-zero, global greenhouse gas emissions within this century. Significantly, the final text includes reference to both of these key elements. The Paris Agreement recognises the 1.5°C goal without formalising this as the main objective of the Convention. The text changed from limiting temperature increase to a maximum of 2°C, to: “(h)olding 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” (Article 2.1(a)). The Paris Agreement also became the first international climate agreement to refer to the need for net-zero emissions by stating: “(…) to achieve a balance between anthropogenic emissions by sources and removals by sinks of greenhouse gases in the second half of this century” (Article 4.1).

The combination of 2°C, 1.5°C and the aim to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to zero is a strong signal from the global community that will shift the benchmark against which countries and investors are expected to assess their development strategies and business plans. The reference to net zero emissions affirms the global political will to completely phase-out fossil fuel use in the long term, providing further impetus to the call for fossil fuel divestment. This means that any investor will have to think twice about whether investments in fossil fuels today or in the near future are viable.

The Paris Agreement puts into place some essential elements to ratchet up national ambition. The new agreement includes virtually all elements that had been discussed earlier in other COPs to facilitate an increase in ambition, without being prescriptive for countries:

  • Governments will need to update their actions every five years and each successive update has to be at least as strong as the current one. They can start already with submitting an updated contribution when submitting the instrument of ratification of the agreement.
  • A country can adjust its contribution to enhance the ambition level at any time.
  • Individual suggestions for improvement for each country will be provided during a review of countries actions.

Another important achievement of the Paris Agreement is to have set in place a process for tracking progress, both globally towards the long term goal of the convention, and nationally towards achievement of national contributions. This is particularly relevant, as the current bottom-up process with nationally determined actions turns out not to be sufficient for the agreed global goal. A global stocktake has been agreed to regularly monitor the progress towards the long-term goals every 5 years starting from 2018.

Agreement on the joint mobilisation of US $100 billion for mitigation and adaptation extended through to 2025

The provision of support—how much, by whom, and for what—has been one of the main bones of contention in the negotiations for a global climate deal. The Paris Agreement reaffirms the leading role of developed countries to mobilise finance particularly highlighting the importance of public funds and the need to balance support for mitigation and adaptation (Article 9), meaning an increase in adaptation finance in particular for the most vulnerable countries in the short term.

Whilst a concrete number has not been included in the legally binding part of the Agreement, reference is made to the joint goal to mobilise US$100 billion annually by 2020 and the need to scale up support to allow for a low carbon, climate resilient transition. The US$100 billion goal is to be extended through to 2025 before which date a new collective finance goal is to be defined taking the US$100 billion as a minimum level.

Importantly, the Agreement includes provisions to allow for greater transparency in the provision of support and to improve the predictability of finance in the longer term. In particular, the latter has been a clear demand by many developing countries. The agreed global stocktake will include a review of support provided. Developed countries are also required to report both on indicative, projected public climate finance as well as support provided on a biannual basis. The accounting guidelines have yet to be agreed by the future COP.

 Essence of the deal


On December 12, 2015, 195 countries reached a history-making agreement to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions in order to avert the direst effects of climate change. The groundbreaking pact requires that nearly every country, large and small, developed or developing, take action.

Here are some of the best and most reliable resources to help you understand the Paris accord and its implications.

The COP21 official site asserts that the rise in global temperature must be kept under 2˚C compared to pre-industrial levels to avoid the most catastrophic effects of climate change, and, establishes for the first time the aim to keep the temperature below 1.5˚ to protect island countries, which are most vulnerable to the risks of sea level rise.

The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change site explained that the climate agreement encompasses mitigation, the effort to reduce emissions quickly enough to reach the temperature goal; a transparent and global stock-taking system to monitor progress; adaptation, to help countries deal with the impacts of climate change; loss and damage, to aid countries recovering from the impacts of climate change; and financial and technical support to help nations build sustainable resiliency.

To curb the temperature rise, countries submitted “nationally determined contributions” that indicate how much they will reduce their emissions and what actions they will take to do so, but these are not legally binding. The climate pledges that have been made thus far will not cut emissions enough to keep below the 2˚ target, so beginning in 2018, countries must submit new plans every five years that increase their emissions reductions, as explained by CNN. There is, however, no mechanism to punish any country that violates its commitment.

The New York Times examined some salient points of the agreement. The aspiration to stay below 1.5˚ C as part of the 2˚ limit makes this temperature increasetarget more ambitious than those in the past. Forests must be preserved with incentives continued to reduce deforestation and forest degradation that increase emissions. A transparent system will be established to evaluate implementation of the countries’ nationally determined contributions; and countries must come up withincreasingly ambitious reduction targets every five years. The parties are encouraged to reach a peak of greenhouse gas emissions as soon as possible. The agreement also recognizes loss and damage resulting from climate change impacts. And while the agreement does not set forth a specific dollar amount, the developed countries are encouraged to provide and marshal financing from various sources to help developing countries.

09-01-2016Developed countries agreed to continue their commitment to provide $100 billion a year from 2020 until 2025, after which financing will increase. However the $100 billion figure does not appear in the legally binding part of the agreement.

International Energy Agency asserts that ulfilling all the climate pledges would entail investments of $13.5 trillion in energy efficiency and low-carbon technologies between 2015 and 2030. If $3 trillion more were invested, the temperature increase could be held to 2˚ C. While $16.5 trillion sounds like a huge sum, the world is projected to spend $68 trillion anyway by 2040 on energy systems. The climate agreement ensures that the investments will go towards low-carbon technologies.

The World’s Resources Institute’s analysis of the accord said that it presents a new model of international cooperation where developed and developing countries are united and engaged in a common goal. The agreement also signals the recognition that acting to stem climate change can provide tremendous opportunities and benefits.

The accord will be open for signature at the United Nations headquarters in New York City from April 22, 2016 to April 21, 2017, with a high-level signature ceremony on April 22, 2016. It will be in force once it has been ratified by 55 countries, representing at least 55 percent of emissions.

Some elements of the Paris Agreement will be legally binding, some not

The Paris Agreement has legal force and is considered to be an international treaty under the Vienna Convention. The legal form of the Agreement is of great importance with regards to the signal it provides on the degree of political will behind it. On the other hand, there are no international enforcement mechanisms in place which would allow any form of penalisation for non-compliance.

While some elements within the Paris Agreement are legally binding, others are not. The long term goals and the national reporting requirements are legally binding. National mitigation targets submitted as INDCs for the post-2020 period, on the other hand, ended up as not legally binding: countries “are to undertake” these contributions (Article 3), a departure from the much stronger language “shall undertake”.

Such adjustments were necessary to avoid potential risks of non-ratification of the agreement, in particular by the US, given the difficult current political dynamics. In any case, the nature of the Agreement as an international treaty provides a strong framework and mandate for domestic policymakers to drive its implementation. The removal of specific details from the legally binding part of the Agreement may make it seem less stringent, however, is unlikely to have great impact on the likelihood of serious and ambitious climate action being undertaken at the national level.

The Paris Agreement will drive increased pre-2020 mitigation action

Although the date of entry into force in 2020 may suggest delayed action, the Agreement will also have a mitigation effect before 2020. The agreement marks the first time that countries formally propose national pledges that cover a timeframe beyond 2020, but the implications of these targets for policy making and investments are immediate. Countries will not wait until 2020 to begin to deviate from their current trajectories in order to meet their goals for 2025 and 2030, just as the private sector will not wait until 2020 to invest in the development and installation of low carbon technologies upon which the national pledges are based.

What next?

Despite the major step forwards that the agreement represents, it is only one of many steps on a long road. The Agreement provides the mandate and framework for concerted action, the challenge now is to implement the agreed deep transition towards a low carbon and climate resilient future at all levels. The implications of such an agreement are profound. Long-term temperature changes are largely driven by the cumulative emissions of carbon dioxide; to stabilize temperatures requires decreasing these emissions to zero. The current list of commitments by countries is nowhere near sufficient—if fully implemented, they would lead to about 3 degrees of warming; and even the built-in mechanism of 5-year reviews, intended to set increasingly ambitious targets, still leaves major challenges associated with limiting temperature increases to these levels.


Under what has been sketched out in Paris, it is clear that we will have to go even further, to negative emissions — that is, using technologies to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and store it somewhere else. Such technologies are already discussed: All 344 possible emissions scenarios from the most recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) assumes that negative emissions technologies (NETs) will be successfully deployed in order to give a 50:50 chance of remaining below 2 degrees. For 1.5 degrees, negative emissions are a must. That is to say, the Paris agreement is banking on us not only rapidly reducing emissions to zero, but also on humans’ capacity to subsequently remove carbon dioxide and other greenhouses gases from the atmosphere. To keep to 1.5 degrees requires attaining zero emissions over the next 30 years, and then negative emissions. That requires tackling climate change on all fronts. With just 10 percent of the world’s people responsible for 50 percent of emissions immediate radical reductions are certainly possible. To achieve them, however, requires not only rapid changes in energy production, but also confronting the complex social and political challenges that have made grappling with climate change so difficult. In other words, there is no one technological solution that can make this vastly easier.


History of COPs

The term ‘COP’ stands for Conference of Parties. ‘Parties’ is a reference to the (now) 196 signatories of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, or UNFCCC, as it is called. The Framework Convention came into force in 1994, two years after its text was finalised at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in Brazil. Every year since 1994, the ‘parties’ to the UNFCCC have met at different venues at the end of the year to discuss a global agreement to cut emissions of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, the main reason why average global temperatures have been rising. The Paris meeting will be the 21st in that series, hence the name ‘COP-21’. It was COP-3, in Kyoto, Japan, that gave rise to the Kyoto Protocol, that placed international obligations on the set of rich and industrialised countries to cut their greenhouse gas emissions by assigned amounts. The Kyoto Protocol, which came into effect only in 2005, has since run into trouble, with some countries, which were obliged to take emission cuts, having walked out of it. Though the Protocol continues on paper for the time being, the current negotiations at the COPs are about bringing in an agreement that will demand some kind of action from all countries, not just the rich and industrialised. The actions expected from the countries are supposed to be in accordance with their capabilities. An earlier attempt to forge such an agreement was made at COP-15 in Copenhagen in Denmark in 2009, but it failed spectacularly. After two years of further negotiations, the countries had decided that a global agreement on climate change must be delivered at the COP-21 in Paris in 2015.

Another potential problem with the agreement is that it doesn’t directly tackle one of the biggest sources of man-made carbon emissions: coal. While the United States, the world’s second-largest burner, is taking steps to reduce its reliance on this fuel source, China and India, the biggest and third-biggest coal users, are still building coal-fired power stations at a rapid clip. According to some estimates, more than a thousand more of them could be constructed during the next decade or so. In all likelihood, the Paris accord won’t prevent this from happening. Right now, according to the World Bank estimates, the United States emits about seventeen tons of carbon dioxide per capita, and India emits 1.7 metric tons per capita. As India and other developing countries continue to industrialize and use more energy, that huge gap will in emissions undoubtedly narrow. But the world’s sustainable “carbon budget”—the amount that can be burned without sparking a much more dramatic rise in temperatures—is shrinking all the time.


Whether Paris deal is a historic deal or not is a very pertinent question. Experts may vary on this issue, but we must remember what United States Secretary of State John Kerry said on the deal. He likened the international effort to tackle the climate change to the movement, during the 1960s, to halt the spread of nuclear weapons, which culminated in the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty—a successful agreement that is still in force.

By Nilabh Krishna


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