Paris Climate Agreement

updated September 2016

After the chronic misunderstandings in Copenhagen in 2009, UN climate negotiators were forced to extend the timetable for a new climate treaty to replace the Kyoto Protocol. The deadline was rescheduled for the Paris climate conference in 2015, six years later than originally intended.

From the early stages of the process, it was clear that the new agreement would differ fundamentally from its predecessor. The Kyoto Protocol observes principles laid down in the over-arching UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. It acknowledges a global target for emissions reductions based on the recommendations of scientists, dividing it up on an equitable basis between the richer countries. The negotiated outcome was legally binding.

This approach has totally unravelled. In its place has emerged a “pledge and review” system in which every country will offer its Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs).  These are independent targets for cutting emissions up to 2030, according to each country’s circumstances and inclination, regardless of equity considerations. Even the poorest countries are required to participate by articulating their plans for performing better than “business as usual.”

Despite years of fraught and unpromising negotiations, the modified approach has been rewarded through the conclusion of the Paris Climate Agreement in 2015.

However, divorcing pledges from science has had the predictable result in that they are inadequate to deliver the Agreement’s headline goal of “holding the increase in the global average temperature well below 2 degrees”. An analysis of INDCs by the World Resources Institute projects a global average temperature increase of 2.7-3.7 degrees.

The two largest emitters, US and China, have determined their INDCs through bilateral negotiation, guided by a goal of equalising their respective emissions on a per capita basis.

Whilst the two countries have been applauded for their support for the UN process, the detailed figures tell a different story. Their target of merging at over 10 tonnes of equivalent carbon dioxide per capita in 2030 is untenable in relation to scientists’ recommendation of a long term global goal of around 2 tonnes per capita.

Advocates of the pledge and review system point to the significance of regular reviews, at which the laggards in performance might be shamed into improvement by those countries setting the pace in reducing emissions.

The world’s poorest countries will be disappointed that the Paris Climate Agreement fails to provide a clear roadmap for the provision of adequate climate finance. But the threatened principles of common but differentiated responsibilities have survived, as have commitments to tackle adaptation and loss and damage.

The most positive feature of the Agreement is the resolve “to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 °C …. recognizing that this would significantly reduce the risks and impacts of climate change.” The UN has commissioned a 2018 report to identify potential emission pathways to meet the lower target. However, many scientists doubt whether this lower goal remains possible.

The wording of the Paris Climate Agreement implies that it was not expected to come into force until 2020. An extraordinary campaign championed by the Obama administration has cajoled sufficient country ratifications to meet the conditions for entry into force, possibly within a year of the Paris Conference. The implications are unclear, not least in respect of overlap with the 2nd commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol which is scheduled to continue until 2020.

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UN Framework Convention on Climate Change
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Loss and Damage
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