Six years after the failure of the climate negotiations at Copenhagen, agreement has at last been reached in Paris. Can we call this success? Weighing up the outcome, the outcome is emphatically yes, but in some senses no, and in large part it depends – on how the agreement is received, and what happens next.
The success is clear and undeniable. After years of tortuous negotiations, it’s truly remarkable that one hundred and ninety-five countries have agreed a common framework for action on climate, and that each has agreed to take action. This alone makes the Paris deal historic and deeply significant. Remember that under its predecessor, the Kyoto Protocol, only a handful of developed countries were actually required to reduce emissions. This time, it’s everyone.
Not only that, but there is a universally-agreed ambitious end goal – to limit warming to well below two degrees centigrade, and to move to ‘zero net emissions’ (where emissions of greenhouse gases do not exceed the amount that can be absorbed by carbon sinks) by the second half of the century. And there is also a financial deal to help poorer countries make the transition to low-carbon, and adapt to climate change.
Taken together, this can only be seen as an immense diplomatic achievement. So in short, the deal is the best we’ve ever had, and far better than most had hoped for.
How, then, could anyone say that this deal is a failure? There are three main reasons, and all three should be taken seriously. The first is the significant gulf between the overall aim agreed – to limit warming to 1.5 or 2 degrees – and the pledges that countries have put forward, which adds up to around 2.7 degrees of warming. Even if everyone does what they’ve promised to do, it’s still not enough. This is acknowledged in the Paris text, and countries have promised to review and improve their pledges regularly. But delays are costly, because greenhouse gas emissions are cumulative. The more we emit now, the deeper the cuts need to be later. The gap between ambition and action cannot be allowed to grow.
The second shortcoming is the lack of attention paid to the relationship between climate change and wealth – both between and within countries. It is hard to see a meaningful response to climate change which doesn’t also address the vast disparities in both wealth and emissions, or the disproportionate impact of climate change on the developing world, yet this was brushed under the Parisian carpet.
The third reason to be cautious is the lack of clear obligations or requirements. Countries are required to bring forward plans, but there is no obligatory target for each country. The long-term aim is to hold temperature rises ‘well below 2C and endeavour to reach 1.5C’. This sort of vagueness pervades the text, which is hardly surprising given the diplomatic wranglings involved, but it leaves plenty of wriggle room for those who want it.
These negatives, though, only matter if we choose to make them matter. The agreement will be as good as people think it is. Because the biggest achievement of Paris is to build confidence – confidence that the scientific evidence on climate change is clear and settled, even if uncertainties remain; confidence that countries can and will work together to achieve a common aim; confidence that low-carbon investment will pay off; and confidence that we can create a prosperous and safe low-carbon society. Those who want to continue to question the science, or make a case for high-carbon investment, will find their support dwindling.
The Paris agreement strengthens the hand of all those working for a low-carbon future, whether in government, business or civil society. It provides a clear measure against which to judge action at home. This will not be comfortable for many governments, including the UK, who, despite a firm commitment to long-term carbon reduction, do not have a set of policies commensurate with these aims.
That’s why the answer has to be ‘it depends’. The success of Paris ultimately does not come down to the precise wordings of clauses. It is not about what it forces us to do, but what it allows us to do. If we, collectively, as nations, communities, businesses and individuals, see it as a turning point, that is exactly what it will be. We owe a debt of thanks to all those who worked so hard on the talks, and now it’s our turn to make it happen.
Rebecca Willis is the author of Paris 2015: Getting a global agreement on climate change