COP21 Final Blog – Day 13

The morning after 13 days- 3 all nighters…

And the Paris Agreement is accepted. The COP21 decision is agreed. What does it all mean?

I have been working on climate for the last 29 years. In that time I have seen lip service from most politicians, courage from a few politicians, venality from some corporations (Exxon come to mind), leadership from others. I have witnessed opportunity after opportunity squandered for political expediency. Agreements signed and then ignored. Overall we have procrastinated and lost decades when we could have averted the climate crisis nearly entirely.

Now we are in it. With loss of life and devastating droughts and heat waves, extreme weather events, sea level rise and loss of Arctic ice and permafrost. No longer are we arguing about a future problem. We have already changed the climate, so the debate of 2015 is “can we avoid the very worst of the climate crisis? Can we ensure the survival of human civilization? Can we save millions of species?” To do so requires transitioning off fossil fuels.

You will undoubtedly hear some denounce the Paris Agreement for what it does not do. It does not respond with sufficient urgency. It does not use the levers available to governments to craft a treaty that is enforceable with trade sanctions to add some teeth. Those criticisms are fair. As trade lawyer Steven Shrybman said more than a decade ago “If governments cared as much about climate as they do about protecting intellectual property rights, we would have laws that require carbon reduction in every country on earth.”

Nevertheless, the Paris Agreement is an historic and potentially life-saving agreement. It does more than many of us expected when the conference opened on November 30. It will be legally binding. It sets a long term temperature goal of no more than 1.5 degrees as far safer than the (also hard to achieve) goal of no more than 2 degrees. In doing so, it may save the lives of millions. It may lead to the survival of many small nations close to sea level. It may give our grandchildren a far more stable climate and thus a more prosperous and healthy society. It clearly means the world has accepted that most known reserves of fossil fuels must stay in the ground.

It is absolutely true that Canada announcing support for 1.5 degrees mid-way through the conference made a huge difference in keeping that target in the treaty. I heard that from friends and contacts around the world.

To avoid 1.5 requires immediate action. Unfortunately, the treaty is only to take effect in 2020 (after it is ratified by 55 countries, collectively representing 55% of world GHG emissions). We have built into the treaty mandatory global 5 year reviews – what is called the “ratcheting up mechanism.”

The mechanism to force all governments to assess the adequacy of their own plans only kicks in in 2023. That gap from 2015 to 2023 could well foreclose any option to hold temperature to less than 1.5 or even 2 degrees.

So in addition to the Paris Agreement we also passed the Decision of COP21. It includes some actions before 2020. The language there is far from perfect but gives us a chance to increase targets before 2020. In 2018, there will be a “facilitative dialogue” within the UN to assess the adequacy of targets and to prepare for new ones for 2020. The decision document is actually longer than the treaty itself and includes many actions to be undertaken within the ongoing UNFCCC COP process. Among them, the IPCC is requested to produce a report to COP spelling out what level of GHG emissions will lead us to holding global average temperatures to no more than 1.5 degrees C above those before the Industrial Revolution.

Canadians can be rightly proud of what our government did in Paris. While I did not support our position on every single issue, I cannot be more proud of what we did on most issues, nor can I thank our newly minted (and now totally exhausted) Minister of Environment and Climate Change, Catherine McKenna, enough for her work.

What matters now is what we do next. Canada’s climate target remains the one left behind by the previous government. We have no time to waste in re-vamping and improving our target. We should be prepared to improve it again in 2020. But let’s ensure we get started. The Liberal platform committed to, within 90 days of COP21, consultations with all provincial and territorial governments. In his speech at COP21, Trudeau expanded that to engaging with municipal governments and First Nations as well. That is all excellent. Ideally this sets in motion a quick-start to identifying a more ambitious target with actions spelled out in the spring 2016 budget.

Earth Day 2016 has been chosen in the decision document as the day for formal signatures to the Paris Agreement. Ban Ki-moon has been requested to organize a signing ceremony in New York at UN headquarters. Let’s all take a moment to send a thank you note to Prime Minister Trudeau and Environment and Climate Change Minister Catherine McKenna and urge that Canada’s new target be ready to be tabled at the UN on April 22, 2016 when Canada shows up to encourage all other countries to improve their own targets.

Paris threw us a lifeline. Don’t let it slip between our fingers.


For deeper detail, I am adding the brilliant blog of my friend and colleague, Dr. Kennedy Graham, Green Party MP from New Zealand.

So the Paris Agreement is being adopted ‘in front of me’ as I write, in a room adjacent to the Plenary Hall. It has just been translated into the six official UN languages and the various groups have met. Now the Plenary has just adopted it.

The world breathes a sigh of relief. Copenhagen has been exorcised. French diplomatic skill has prevailed; the ‘spirit of Paris’ reigns.

There was considerable high rhetoric from the conference leadership and for good reason. It is an historic moment.

Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, as president of the Conference, urges delegates: “The end is in sight; let us finish the job.” The UN Secretary-General, Ban ki-Moon, hails the Agreement as ‘flexible, robust, meaningful and effective’. French President Francois Hollande calls it ‘ambitious yet realistic’ and, in what may become the popular characterisation of the event, he says: “What brings us together is the planet itself.”

These are not overstatements. The outcome is historic. The international community is, substantively for the first time, acting as a global community facing a global problem. All 196 parties are accepting a legally-binding obligation to undertake effective action to avert dangerous climate change. The ’92 Framework Convention set up the global objective and structure. The 2015 protocol (otherwise known as the Paris Agreement) is requiring nationally-determined contributions (NDCs) from everybody to deliver on the global objective. It is a big success.

Now the hard part begins. The hard part is because the 196 parties are, currently, under-delivering on the global effort. And, more critically, it has yet to be shown that the mechanism for remedying that is structurally sound.

Here are the critical pieces of the text, with commentary in italics.

The purpose of the Agreement is to ‘strengthen the global response to the threat of climate change’ This will be done by holding the global average temperature increase to ‘well below 2°C’ above pre-industrial levels and ‘pursue efforts to limit it to 1.5°C’ (Article 2).

Comment: Aiming for ‘well below 2°C’ is a major advance. But while the reference to 1.5°C is politically good, there are scientific uncertainties about this. Some scientific opinion is that we are already locked into 1.5°C; other opinion is that we have a very narrow window of opportunity to remain under it. Given the current rate of increase in global emissions, it is almost certain that we shall breach the 1.5, in which case it will be a matter of returning to that level through net negative global emissions in the course of this century.

Let us be under no illusions as to the magnitude of the task. Current annual emissions are about 50 Gt.

According to UNEP, current INDCs will result in 55 Gt. in 2030, a 10% increase.
For the 2.0°C threshold, emissions that year need to be 42 Gt, a 16% cut decrease.
For the 1.5°C threshold, they must be 39 Gt, a 22% decrease.
“We aim to reach global peaking of greenhouse gas emissions ‘as soon as possible’ (Article 4).

Comment: The IPCC indicates that we need to reach global peaking of emissions before 2020 to stay under 2°C. This is not going to happen.

We aim to achieve ‘a balance between anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions by source and removals by sinks’ (essentially, this is the definition of zero net global emissions). This will be done ‘in the second half of this century’ (Article 4).

Comment: Scientific opinion is that we need to reach zero net global emissions between 2060 and 2080 to stay under 2°C. Specifying the ‘second half of this century’ is too vague, and playing roulette with the planet.

In the accompanying decision (FCCC/CP/2015/L.9, para 17), the Conference notes ‘with concern’ that the estimated global emissions resulting from the current INDCs are not on target: they “do not fall within the least-cost 2°C scenarios but rather lead to a projected level of 55 Gt in 2030”. Much greater emission reduction efforts will be required than the current INDCs.

Comment: The final text is a major advance; much stronger that the 10 Dec. text.

For the first time it specifies a global emissions figure for 2030 (55 Gt.). This is a rare and welcome departure from the norm, in which the diplomatic tendency is to fudge the facts and figures. Note the magnitude of the challenge, as described above.

Secondly, the previous text simply suggested that ‘much greater reductions’ are to be undertaken post-2025. The final text (para 17) requires such reductions (no time-frame) to a level to be identified by the 2018 IPCC report (para 21) and for the targets to be assessed in a ‘facilitative dialogue’ in 2018 (one year earlier than the previous text).

Then there is the Global Stocktake, in which the Parties will ‘periodically take stock of the implementation of this Agreement’ (Article 14 of the Agreement). The first such stocktake is in 2023.

Comment: This is fine as long as it is a broad political review of the Agreement, and not the first calculation of the adequacy of the INDCs.

Overall comment:

It is an extraordinary achievement. It is as good as, or better than, might have been hoped. Even in the final 24 hours, what was emerging as a good text has been strengthened into something that is potentially effective. The political will is there, perhaps for the first time.

Everything depends, however, on the timing of the efforts to ‘increase the ambition’ of all our national contributions. Two things:

It is significant that the ‘Intended Nationally-Determined Contributions (INDCs) have no status. What will have status is the Nationally-Determined Contributions that are to be communicated by the time of a country’s ratification. This means for example that in the case of New Zealand, whose current INDC is only 11% (off 1990), it is open to NZ to improve on its target before ratification in, say in late 2016.

Much depends on the meaning of the ‘facilitative dialogue’ in 2018. If that is the start of a genuine exchange over the upgrading of all parties’ INDCs from 2018 on, then there is hope for effective action. If not, if there is no real action to increase the ‘ambition’ and all we do is review our targets every five years, then we waft into the 2020s with no real national, and therefore global, resolve. And we shall have left it too late.

Let’s leave this extraordinary event with a rough factoid or two to get the perspective of the magnitude of our global task:

Remember that, on current emissions, the Global Carbon Budget is utilised around 2035. Stocktaking on inadequate national targets in the 2020s won’t do it.

Global emission increases of 5 Gt results in warming of about 0.3°C. Annual global emissions are increasing at about 0.6 Gt each year. We therefore cannot afford to delay. We now have the structure to get the job done.

So, a great success here in Paris; and now the hard part begins.