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News / Comment

NEWS / COP21: Historic agreement reached, but the hard work begins now
Category: Government & Policy, International Development, Latest News

Image: Camera's await the announcement of the Paris Agreement: Credit: IISD
By Will Bugler

Cheers echoed around the halls of the La Bourget conference centre in Paris as the gavel came down to signal that an agreement had been reached. The news rippled out amongst tired delegates, many of whom had only managed a few hours sleep over the last days of the negotiations. The sound of applause - unfamiliar at most UN climate talks - provided a backdrop to whooping and the tired tears. In the coming days there will be much written about the imperfections of the deal, of which there are many. However the significance of the achievement in Paris should not be underestimated. For the first time in history, the world has a plan to deal with climate change.

The Paris Agreement, was signed up to by all 192 countries at talks, and sets the tone for ambitious action on climate change over the coming decades. Finding agreement among so many countries, and competing interests was a task 21 years in the making. The inevitable compromises are reflected in the text, which contains plenty of woolly language and little in the way of recriminations for those who choose to renege on their promises. 

At the end of two weeks of hard negotiations the COP21 president, Laurent Fabius, said that delegates “can go back to their countries with their heads held high”. His words were meant as simple praise, but they also speak volumes about the agreement that was reached. The vagaries in the final text allow each minister to sell it as a success back home. 

Image: Laurence Tubiana, COP 21/CMP 11 Presidency; UNFCCC Executive Secretary Christiana Figueres; UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon; COP 21/CMP 11 President Laurent Fabius, Foreign Minister, France; and President François Hollande, France, celebrate the adoption of the Paris Agreement: Credit: IISD

Despite the compromises, there are many more positives than negatives to take from the Paris Agreement. The text includes words that would have been unthinkable after the farce of the Copenhagen conference 6 years ago. For example, the agreement includes the ambition of keeping temperature increases to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial temperatures, the principal of ‘loss and damage’ for developing nations also is included as an article and progress was made on climate finance. These are not small achievements.

Asking for perfection from global-level political negotiations over something so complex as climate change is pie-in-the-sky. Paris represents a big step forward, and this text is something that can be built upon, refined and improved over the coming years. The agreement should be seen as the bang of the starter’s pistol, it’s now up to all of us to make sure that decisive action is taken.

The signals that the Paris Agreement send are clear. For businesses and investors there is a long-term commitment to tackle climate change and its impacts. Paul Polan, CEO of Unilever called the result “an unequivocal signal to the business and financial communities, and one that will drive real change in the real economy.”

Jim Kim, World Bank Group, President said said that this would also spark a wave of much needed investment from both public and private sources: “[the agreement] sends the much needed signal to trigger the massive sums of public and private sector investments needed to drive economies toward a carbon neutral world as advised by science.” he said. “While doing this, we will strive to ensure that there is the necessary finance to provide resilience for developing countries.”

Image: Delegates begin to disperse after the agreement was formally adopted: Credit: IISD


Climate adaptation and resilience - Verdict on key elements of the Paris Agreement:

Temperature limit: There was much wrangling over the course of two weeks over the temperature goal that the world would set itself. 2˚C above pre-industrial levels has been the target for many years, but vulnerable developing nations have always objected, saying that this does not represent a ‘safe’ limit for them. There was a surprising amount of receptiveness to reducing the target to 1.5˚C during the COP, with the oil producing states including Saudi Arabia, being the most vocal objectors. In the end the deal includes a temperature limit of “well below 2˚C” with efforts being made to limit it to 1.5˚C. This compromise falls short of total commitment to the lower level, but the fact that major emitters such as China, Europe and the US were on board with the lower goal means that it still represents a clear step forward.

Adaptation: The Agreement stipulates that there will be a ‘global goal’ on climate change adaptation which is to be “enhancing adaptive capacity, strengthening resilience and reducing vulnerability to climate change”. The goals themselves remain unspecific, although that is to be expected given the nature of the adaptation problem (large local and regional variations in bother the types of vulnerability and the most appropriate means of addressing them). However, it does bind countries to engage in adaptation planning processes and that adaptation plans need to be periodically updated and submitted.

Climate Finance: Developed countries are now legally obliged to provide climate finance to developing countries. However most of the specifics of this are not legally-biding. The Agreement also says that before 2025 countries should agree a new goal, with the current aspiration of US $100 billion per year as a floor. This area of the agreement could have been stronger, and have included a clearer timetable for target setting. Also the fact that countries do not have to set and meet short-term goals on climate finance delivery remains a problem.

Loss and Damage: The big news is that the concept did make it into the agreement. It even has its very own Article (alongside those dealing with adaptation and mitigation). This has put the idea that developing nations need help to deal with the inevitable losses and damages that climate change will cause firmly on the table. The negotiations didn’t move far beyond that at this point though and it is also explicit that ‘liability and compensation’ are excluded at the behest of developed countries. 


A copy of the Paris Agreement can be downloaded here.