On Saturday December 12, 2015, applause and cheers broke out throughout the conference hall at COP21 in Paris. It was celebration mixed with relief. The result is the first agreement requiring all nations, rich and poor, to pledge action on climate change, with the aim of restricting global warming to “well below 2C above pre-industrial levels”, and to strive to “limit it to 1.5C”.
The Paris Agreement represents a marked shift when juxtaposed against the last 21 years as the climate circus rolled on from place to place, conference to conference, with very little to show for itself. Each of these spectacles, Berlin Mandate, Kyoto Protocol, Marrakech Accord to name a few (notice the change in outcome name for political purposes) have been hailed by the climate champions and politicians as major breakthroughs. Their overall impact plus or minus, zilch.
I should probably admit that over the last number of years I believed the publically financed jamboree that is COP should be declared defunct and unfit for purpose, with emancipation a necessary pre-condition for progress on managing climate change. But the COP circus beat on, boats against the current. Or so it seemed.
Fast forward to December 2015. The Paris Agreement and the supporting decisions are a diplomatic triumph, an act of true global co-operation of historic significance. The diplomats have done their job and have set ambitious climate goals. The Paris agreement points the world in the right direction with sophistication and clarity, against a backdrop of 21 years of negotiations that achieved very little. A remarkable outcome. Our first question is, how did this happen?
The climate community and wider debate has matured. It has done away with a top-down deal and instead replaced it with a voluntary bottom-up deal. This bottom-up approach is made up of voluntary intended nationally determined contributions (INDCs in UN jargon) from all 195 signature countries. Unrealistic, top-down absolutism has been replaced with pragmatic, bottom-up flexibility. The importance of this should not be understated. It became clear to the UN climate envoy that a legally binding top down deal in which a global per-capita carbon budget was divided up between nation states was doomed to fail. The only framework that would be accepted was one which was essentially voluntary. This should not be misrepresented as the global community reducing overall ambition on climate change. It was simply the result of a growing understanding of methods in which ambitious climate goals might actually be met, rather than procrastinated about. After all, the Kyoto Protocol was binding, and when it suited them Canada, Russia and Japan simply walked away from it, with no penalties whatsoever. Binding is not the solution in this context. Action is the solution. Imperfect action, but action nonetheless.
This shift in acceptance of the necessary imperfection in the Paris Agreement has not been universal. Idealists and cult like climate change ultras still exist in activist groups, academic circles and around negotiating tables. These groups would seek to sacrifice action on the sanctum of perfection. Unfortunately for them the truth is, the developed world is never likely to penalise itself for its historical carbon emissions profligate as they so long for. Of course there is merit to the fact that it should (see link to a previous blog of mine) but unrealistic to think it will. Neither will the rich world allow the developing world a turn at the emissions helm and allow them to run the planet close to the edifice as the older nations struggle to compete and grow. What matters most is that developed and developing countries have agreed to be pragmatic.
This new pragmatism matters. It embraces a certain reality. A zero carbon, zero fossil fuel world, has more in common with the simulated reality in the movie The Matrix than it has with Planet Earth at the present time. Fossil fuels are the main source of CO2 emissions. Fossil fuels represent circa 80% of global energy consumption. They are at the absolute heart of our economies. However, 2015 is the first year that the world could dare to dream about a clean energy low carbon future. The cost of clean energy has been coming down rapidly. This falling cost of clean energy technologies gave policy-makers at Paris growing confidence that shifting to a low-carbon future is not an unaffordable pipe dream, but something that can, gradually, be delivered.
The Paris Agreement should also be seen as a product of the year 2015. In what was a momentous year for clean energy growth, oil prices took a huge nosedive hitting 11 year lows, with the hydrocarbon industry in disarray in some quarters. Advocates of clean energy however, must restrain their Schadenfreude at this sight. False solutions such as divestment need to be avoided. As far as divestment goes it is fine. But that is not very far. Paris did not nor should it ever have looked to deliver an extinction event for fossil fuels. To wish for this as some have is to underestimate the scale of the challenge ahead. Fossil fuels have done mankind a service, in broad accord with the political consensus of an earlier time. Paris should be seen as the first step in what will no doubt be a difficult divorce between the world economy and fossil fuels, a divorce that is well and truly underway.
Of course, there is still room for the cynics, the extremists who would seek to deride Paris as a sham agreement, to focus on the inherent imperfections of an agreement involving 195 different parties. At this point we must openly acknowledge the truth, grim as it is. The voluntary INDCs at the heart of the agreement do not yet add up to a 2C limit, much less a 1.5C limit. Furthermore, it is not obscene to suggest the Paris Agreement could end up a failure. Or it could partially succeed, with current commitments honoured and future ambitions diluted. Determined as some of the INDCs are, far more ambition will be needed in future to hit its goals. But anyone who thinks that this is a Achilles’ heal is thinking obtusely. The Paris Agreement contains a powerful ratchet mechanism, repeated every 5 years, for ever-increasing ambition. Forces now at work will act inexorably to push up not rein back ambition on climate. Ambition. Ambition. Ambition.
Global agreements are necessary for global problem-solving and collaboration around a shared goal. The urgent, long overdue challenge of implementation now begins. We would do well to look beyond any imperfection and acknowledge that the Paris Agreement is a turning point in the world’s fight against unmanaged climate change.