A historic agreement in Paris

A historic agreement on climate change in Paris must drive ambition for climate action post-2015, says IIED director Andrew Norton.

COP21 president Laurent Fabius (second right) and UNFCCC executive secretary Christiana Figueres (second left) celebrate the Paris Agreement (Photo: UNclimatechange, Creative Commons via Flickr)

Laurent Fabius, the president of the Paris climate talks (COP21), told delegates on Saturday morning this was "probably a historic moment". We can now delete the "probably".  

While it is true that in terms of concrete commitments the Paris Agreement is only a start, if we had not had that start the world would be at a dead end now. The text agreed in Paris was a necessary step to drive urgent global action.

To appreciate the scale of the breakthrough made these last two weeks you have to take a step back and consider the nature of the enterprise – and what happened last time the world tried to do this.

International law is a clunky instrument to address a problem of global collective action. Historically it has made breakthroughs at times of clear hegemonic order, such as after the Second World War, the context that gave rise to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Not like today's world at all.

For the would-be global legislator climate change is the ultimate challenge. Atmospheric space for a given country's greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions has been perceived as intrinsically linked to the rights of countries to prosper and accumulate wealth and power in the world.  

The Kyoto Protocol limited actions to curb emissions to rich countries. By the time of the Copenhagen UN Framework Convention on Climate Change conference (COP15) in 2009, emissions from large developing countries were growing and a universal approach was needed. But trying to negotiate the delicate balance implied by the term "common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities" for tackling climate change proved too much then.  

"Differentiation" is a balance that bears on every part of the Paris Agreement – flows of finance and technology as well as the calibration of responsibility to reduce emissions.

The mind boggling complexity of the task of bringing our multi-polar world around one table made a robust, ambitious, legally-binding agreement at Paris seem a very doubtful proposition even a year ago. The foundation stone was the preparation of national climate action plans (known as Intended Nationally Determined Contributions, or INDCs). 

This was a completely new method for building a global agreement – and not without problems. But it worked.

Reasons for hope

The Paris Agreement is a moment of real hope because:

  • It includes 1.5 degrees as a target. The Paris Agreement includes the commitment to hold the increase in global average temperature to "well below 2 degrees C above pre-industrial levels, and pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 degrees" 
  • It includes an 'ambition mechanism' in the shape of five-yearly stocktakes when national plans to limit emissions should be reformed and strengthened. This was fundamental to a plausible outcome because the current INDCs emission reduction commitments are not enough (perhaps a quarter of what is needed by 2030 for even a two degree 2100 scenario). Countries are encouraged to strengthen their national plans and the 'decision' text (separate from the agreement that does not come into force until 2020) contains provisions to strengthen national plans over the next four years
  • It is legally binding with an accompanying compliance mechanism, and
  • It recognises that climate change causes irreparable damage to communities and households – particularly the poorest and most vulnerable. Addressing 'loss and damage' is explicitly recognised as a dimension of climate action. This looked impossible until the last days of the COP.

Of course there are multiple caveats. The language about stabilising GHGs in the atmosphere is weak. The provisions for climate finance should have been stronger. Some major categories of emissions such as aviation and shipping are not addressed.

But there are a set of inter-linked factors here that can work. One phrase, much-repeated in the corridors of the COP, was that the agreement sends a "strong signal to the markets".

The heavy lifting we need in the next decade or so is the decarbonisation of power systems. This requires private finance at massive scale – as well as public investment. But there are moments in history when the rules by which markets work are shaped by public will (take the abolition of child labour as one example).  

That public will requires social action, policy action and a legal form. We have those elements now. The interests of the fossil fuel lobbies are of course powerful change blockers. But the space for them to play that role should now shrink dramatically.  

But this is only a start. Urgent action will be needed to meet the challenge on many fronts.

IIED's role and the Least Developed Countries Group

We got to this point through a huge global effort – of leaders, diplomats, officials, civil society and citizens. I am particularly proud of the part IIED has played in that.

A striking feature of the build-up of momentum in the run-in to Paris was the critical role played by coalitions of the poorest and most vulnerable states in pushing for an ambitious deal.  

The Least Developed Countries negotiating group has led the charge on this – along with their allies in the Small Island Developing States. The special circumstances of both these groups is recognised in the Paris Agreement.

The work that IIED has done down the years to support the LDC negotiators has had a real impact on important parts of the Paris Agreement, funded by the Department for International Development (DfID) through Climate and Development Knowledge Network (CDKN).

And I want to recognise both the great work of our core team that supported the LDCs in the run-up to Paris – Achala Abeysinghe, Brianna Craft, Janna Tenzing and Marika Weinhardt – and the extraordinary contribution over the last couple of decades of our senior fellow Saleemul Huq, who started our work with the LDCs.

The Paris Agreement represents a new kind of international legal instrument – one that looks to safeguard the rights of future generations by promoting social justice and collective action now.  

The hard work starts now – to phase out fossil fuel subsidies, ramp up investment in renewable energy, develop breakthrough technologies in renewable energy and storage, and protect the rights of the poorest and most vulnerable as the impacts of climate change continue to bite.

Andrew Norton is the director of IIED.