Why the Paris deal on climate change still matters
The landmark Paris deal came after many years of painstaking negotiations and was agreed by more than 190 countries, providing a welcome shot in the arm for attempts to tackle global warming. Crucially, a new post-Kyoto framework was also put in place. The more ambitious than expected deal agreed to see greenhouse gas emissions peak “as soon as possible,” and achieve a balance between sources and sinks of greenhouse gases in the second half of this century, with progress reviewed every five years.
The agreement retains significant international support, as shown by the dozens of world political leaders and a host of other key players, including Bill Gates, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Michael Bloomberg, at the One Planet event.
In the two years since it was agreed, detractors of the Paris deal — from different parts of the political spectrum — have already sought to diminish its significance. However, the agreement deserves to be defended robustly for, as then-US President Barack Obama asserted in 2015, it “represents the best chance we have to save the one planet that we have got.”
Those who argue that Paris is not ambitious enough need to remember that the long-running UN-brokered talks nearly collapsed several times over the years, and that this was one of the most complex set of international negotiations ever; the 1997 Kyoto Protocol involved a deal for the EU states and 37 developed countries, but Paris also involved developing countries and thus a much wider range of difficult issues. Indeed, part of the deal’s importance is that it represents the first genuinely global treaty to tackle climate change.
While the agreement is far from perfect, it has nonetheless kept the process alive, the potential importance of which cannot be overestimated. Moreover, the once-every-five-years review framework means countries could, in the future, toughen their response to climate change, especially if the political and public will to tackle the problem increases with time — as will hopefully be the case.
So, rather than viewing the Paris agreement as the end of the process, it must be seen as a very important stepping stone on a longer journey that countries must now make. This is only possible because the talks did not collapse and we now have a post-Kyoto framework in place.
Other critics of the deal, including skeptics of climate change such as Trump, have also lambasted the agreement, albeit for different reasons. Despite the now-overwhelming scientific evidence about the risks of global warming, Trump and many others argue that it is at worst a grand hoax, and at best an unwelcome distraction from other key issues.
While there is always uncertainty with science, these critics are misguided. Even if, remarkably, it turns out that the vast majority of scientists in the world are wrong about global warming, what the Paris deal will help achieve is moving more swiftly to remove our dependence on fossil fuels, making the world a cleaner, less polluted and more sustainable place. Moreover, many countries will also develop a broader range of energies, especially renewables, which can enhance energy sovereignty at a time of potentially growing geopolitical turbulence.
The consequence of a failure to act now, as global warming skeptics seem to advocate, would be the growing likelihood of devastating environmental damage to the planet.
Alternatively, the consequences of a failure to act now, as climate skeptics seem to advocate, would be the growing likelihood of devastating environmental damage to the planet. As the overwhelming evidence suggests, this is folly on a global scale.
So, despite what critics assert, the Paris deal was a positive step forward that topped off a very significant year in 2015, which some have called a once–in-a-generation opportunity to build a new international framework to address the challenges of global warming and sustainable development more broadly. Paris followed not only a UN summit in New York, which agreed the new 2030 development goals, but also a Financing for Development conference in Addis Ababa, and the agreement of a new Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction in Sendai, Japan. Collectively, these agreements could yet provide a foundation stone for global sustainable development for billions across the world.
Regarding Paris specifically, what is now important is that the political window of opportunity provided by the treaty is now followed up, and this was part of Macron’s ambition this week. Two years on from its agreement, implementation will be most effective through national laws and regulations as the “commitments” put forward in Paris will be more credible — and durable beyond the next set of national elections — if they are backed up by national legislation and regulation.
These domestic legal frameworks are crucial building blocks to measure, report, verify and manage greenhouse gas emissions. And the ambition must be that they are ratcheted up in the coming years so that the intent in Paris is realized to pursue efforts to try to limit global temperature rises to 1.5C, and “well below” 2C above pre-industrial levels, the level scientists say we must not breach if we are to avoid the worst risks of global warming.
This is a massively ambitious agenda that will require comprehensive and swift actions from governments and business if it is to have any prospect of being achieved. While this is uncertain, the fact remains that the 2015 Paris deal created a window for it to happen, and what is now needed is leadership from the public and private sectors to ensure effective implementation, and holding them to account so that the treaty truly delivers.
• Andrew Hammond is an Associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics and Political Science.
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