By Alexander Pfeiffer

Not much time has passed, since Laurent Fabius brought down the green little gavel and announced that the Paris accord had been accepted by all 196 parties, and yet there are already more opinions about the conference and its outcome out there, than participants attended the very conference (roughly 50,000 over the two weeks). While the overwhelming majority of these opinions views the Paris agreement as an unexpected success and even praises it as an historical moment in human history and the COP(*1) as ‘the most important conference we will witness in our lives,’ there are some others who criticize not only the accord but also the mostly positive coverage of it in the aftermath. In the following I will briefly review the main arguments of critics and where the agreement has gaps but then provide my reasoning why I believe the agreement should still be seen as a success.

Criticism of the outcome of the COP

The most important point critics put forward is that the intended nationally determined contributions (INDCs), i.e. the commitments the individual countries put forward in the run-up to the conference, will not bring us anywhere near the desired 2°C warming goal (not to mention the even more ambitious 1.5°C goal). At their current ambition level the INDCs will leave us with approx. 2.7 to 3.0 degree Celsius global warming by the end of the century, well beyond what experts, such as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), consider ‘safe’ levels of climate change.(*2) Bernie Sanders, U.S. Democratic Candidate for President, summarized this critic saying “While this is a step forward it goes nowhere near far enough. The planet is in crisis. We need bold action in the very near future and this does not provide that.”

While this is a step forward it goes nowhere near far enough. The planet is in crisis. We need bold action in the very near future and this does not provide that.

Furthermore, some experts criticize that only some parts of the agreement are legally binding while others, e.g. the national pledges by the countries to reduce emissions, are not and hence not enforceable. Moreover, some of the language within the agreement is, purposely, held very soft and ambiguous and will most likely be subject to interpretation and heated debates during future COPs. The absence of clear timelines (e.g. for an emission peak year) and absolute targets for emission reductions, and in general some of the language in the agreement allows countries to maintain the status quo for years to come. One example is the ‘carbon neutrality’ language. While the majority of experts interprets the agreement’s objective in article 4, to “achieve a balance between anthropogenic emissions (…) and removals by sinks of greenhouse gases in the second half of this century,” as a clear statement for carbon neutrality, others criticize that this language lacks any clear and enforceable goals with regards to peak year or absolute emission reduction targets for the next decades.

Another example for this ambiguous language is the 1.5°C warming goal. In the agreement it says that warming should be limited to “well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels” and that “effort(s) should be pursued” to limit it to below 1.5°C. Critiques interpret this kind of language as too weak to really set a clear objective for global warming of below 1.5°C. This more ambitious target would protect many countries better than the 2°C target, especially many poorer countries like the coalition of small island states, which are most exposed to rising sea levels.

Finally, many critical experts put forward that, while developed countries agree on a legal obligation to provide climate finance to developing countries, the $100bn a year financing goal is not ambitious enough and not sufficient to provide poor countries with enough support to manage the transition towards a low-carbon economy. In addition, while the $100bn already existed for several years prior to Paris, recent reviews of the activity of the fund shows, that in the past only a small percentage of the pledged money has actually been employed. This is partially due to the fact that damages caused by climate change related events are not eligible to benefit from the fund. Moreover, the agreement explicitly excludes liability and compensation payments for loss and damage. Loss and damage is the UNFCCC(*3) nomenclature for damage from existing and future climate change such as rising sea levels and extreme weather events and was one of the most controversial debate topics during the conference.

Context of the COP

While all of the above points are true and certainly need to be addressed in years to come, critiques of the Paris accord often forget to mention the context in which this agreement has to be put and the incredible diplomatic effort it took to get almost 200 countries to agreeing on and signing a joint accord. Considering the diversity of national interests and different political situations in the participating countries (parties) it didn’t come as a surprise that some of the language in the final agreement had to be somewhat ‘wooly’ and that only parts of the agreement could be legally binding. The best example for this are the U.S. for which an only slightly more rigorous language in the final draft (e.g. ‘should’ instead of ‘shall’) would have meant, that Congress would have to confirm the agreement. With the current Republican majority in Congress the agreement would have almost certainly been rejected, which would have meant the complete failure of the Paris negotiations. The language and ambition level in the agreement hence reflects the upper boarder of what was possible to achieve in Paris under existing national political conditions. Or as Barbara Hendricks, German Minister for the Environment, put it:

For the first time all the countries of the world are together on the path to save the planet (…) we fought for a long time and today we’ve reached a solid agreement. It is a historic turning point.

Finance commitments

Furthermore, it is undisputed that the missing commitment to Loss & Damage comes as a great disappointment for the most vulnerable people affected by climate change. However, the clear commitment of wealthy countries to provide climate finance to Least Developed Countries (LDCs) and Developing Countries in the final agreement is remarkable in itself. Currently, wealthy countries have promised $100bn (£67bn) a year until 2020 and the agreement requires these nations to maintain this $100bn a year funding pledge beyond 2020, and to use that figure as a “floor” for further support agreed by 2025. Moreover, it encourages other countries to join in on a voluntary basis.

The decarbonization objective

Some observers criticize missing timelines and the language around the decarbonization goal. However, it shouldn’t be forgotten that this is the first time an accord includes a longer-term plan for peaking greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions “…as soon as possible,” and for achieving a balance between the output of anthropogenic GHGs and absorption by natural sinks (i.e. forests and oceans) “…by the second half of this century.” While the timeline might be questionable the goal of a complete decarbonization of our society is consistent with latest scientific findings, e.g. by Myles Allen et al. of the University of Oxford.(*4) To limit global warming at any level we must reduce carbon emissions to net-zero by the time the respective carbon budget(*5) for that specific level of global warming is consumed.

Ambition level and ratchet mechanisms

As critiques argue, quite correctly, current national mitigation plans (INDCs) will significantly overshoot any budget which gives us a realistic chance to limit warming to 2.0 or even 1.5°C, and are more likely to lead to global warming of 2.7 to 3.0°C. However, the agreement for the first time contains a review mechanism in which countries will undertake a global stock-taking every 5 years to review the progress they made in reaching their national contribution targets. Furthermore, every 5 years these targets will be reviewed in the context of the latest scientific findings and adapted (only an increase of ambition is possible). Hence, while current ambition levels are clearly not sufficient they still are a great improvement to previous attempts and the agreed ratchet mechanisms will make it much easier to increase the ambition level in the future. Or, as Kumi Naidoo, Executive Director of Greenpeace International put it: “This deal alone won’t dig us out the hole we’re in, but it makes the sides less steep.”

Conclusion

To answer the question asked in the title of this piece – personally I believe the outcome of Paris should be seen as a success by everyone who went on the streets in the years leading up to this event, for the many different NGOs, scientists, diplomats, and politicians who made this outcome possible by communicating public will, providing the necessary scientific facts, and negotiating the drafts and parts of the agreement, not only in Paris but also on many meetings and conferences before. Within what was possible for such a conference the outcome is certainly at the upper end of the scale of expected results. It doesn’t provide a mechanism, which will automatically bring us to 1.5 or even 2.0 degree Celsius but that was never on the table. It will rather make it more likely that ambition levels are being increased during future COPs and that eventually these ambition levels will be sufficient to limit and stop global warming.

However, there is one major drop of bitterness in this overall very sweet accord: under current circumstances achieving 1.5°C already seems like a lost battle. Latest research from the Institute for New Economic Thinking (INET) at the Oxford Martin School shows, that even though the carbon budget for 1.5°C is not yet depleted we have already built the infrastructure which will bring us there, and even further.(*6) Emissions of existing coal- and gas-power stations and assets from other emitting sectors will, if utilized until the end of their useful lives, emit enough GHGs to consume not only the 1.5°C budget but also large parts of the 2°C budget. In fact, the research shows that, under these assumptions, every new installation from 2017 on needs to be net-zero carbon if we want a fair chance to achieve ‘only’ 2°C.

While this might sound discouraging it also bears a positive message: We haven’t just spent the entire budget for neither 1.5°C nor 2°C, yet. We still stand a chance to stay within these budgets if we act fast and decisive, bringing down emissions from new installations to net-zero and stranding old existing ones before the end of their useful lifespan. Paris finally gives a clear direction for companies and investors. The accord is certainly not sufficient if judged by climate science, and it is clearly not strong enough for poor countries, but it is a clear signal. Paris is just the starting gun for the marathon race towards a low- and zero-carbon future but it means that governments will now go further and faster to solve climate change than ever before, or as IMF Chief Christine Lagarde put it:

Governments must now put words into actions, in particular by implementing policies that make effective progress on the mitigation pledges they have made.

The transition to a low-carbon economy is now unstoppable and will mean the end of the fossil fuel age. Such signal will give investors the confidence and clear directions they were missing over the last years and unlock much private finance and effort for solving this global challenge, important pre-conditions to also unlock the full potential of the $100bn a year climate funding. This is crucial for a successful decarbonization of the entire world economy before we hit ‘dangerous’ levels of climate change.




(*1) COP = Conference of the Parties.

(*2) E.g. the fifth Assessment Report by the IPCC (2014).

(*3) UNFCCC = United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.

(*4) Allen et al. (2009): Allen, M. et al. “Warming caused by cumulative carbon emissions towards the trillionth tonne.” Nature 458.7242 (2009): 1163-1166.

(*5) Carbon budgets refer to the amount of carbon we can cumulatively emit into the atmosphere without overshooting a certain warming target (e.g. 1.5 or 2.0 degree Celsius) with a given probability (33%, 50%, or 60%).

(*6) Pfeiffer et al. (2016, forthcoming): “The ‘2°C capital stock’ for electricity generation: Committed cumulative carbon emissions from the power sector and the transition to a green economy”.