What does the Paris climate agreement offer?

The just concluded Conference of Parties meeting in Paris resulted in an agreement universally accepted by all parties and that is one reason to celebrate considering that previous agreements such as Kyoto Protocol were met by resistance and failure to agree by one or more parties. For developing countries, the pact will see more clean leaps launched especially in clean energy and smart climate initiatives, in addition to many other mitigation and adaptation measures against climate change. But is it sufficient in delivering its promise of cutting down emissions to avert a possible global crisis that would result if global temperature would rise above 2 degrees Celsius?  Many see it as a meaningful step towards reaching that agenda in the long run, but early reports show that even if the voluntary emission cuts by individual countries are to be fully implemented, the targets will not be met. Thus further efforts within and out of the Paris agreement such as fast tracking and reviewing commitment to emission cuts are needed. 

The meeting, in no doubt, addressed the most pressing issues that relate to cutting down emissions including deforestation, renewable energy generation and climate financing to developing countries. In addition to boosting emission reductions such a way that leads to lowering increase of global temperatures to below 2 degrees by 2100, makes it possible, for the first time, to track, report and review commitments towards emission reduction targets every 5 years. 

Experts say the agreement will help build adaptive capacities, boost the sharing of learning experiences in support of adaptation across developing countries, increase the role of private sector in climate financing, improve renewable energy generation, open climate smart development pathways, and incentive the role of forests as sinks, and boost the role of sustainable forest management. It will also lead to food security according to Piers Forster, Professor of Climate Change, University of Leeds. 

"The ambitious long-term target will prevent sea-rise and help food security and corals in particular," said Forster. "So unexpected was this agreement that we know very little about plausible socioeconomic pathways that might get us there. But in some ways the answer is simple, we need everything and we need it now – a true world revolution. We need renewable energy, nuclear power, fracking, zero-carbon transport, energy efficiency, housing changes."

The optimism and positive spirit signaled at the COP 21 where all countries indicated the need to collaborate in combating climate change is something notable according to Marjanneke J. Vijge, a PhD candidate with the Environmental Policy Group, especially because this was absent in previous agreements. The agreement will help to build the political will and energy needed to aggressively  cut down emissions and achieve the targeted reduction in temperature increase according to IEA Executive Director Fatih Birol.  ​

“The fact that over 150 countries – representing 90% of global economic activity and nearly 90% of global energy-related greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions – have submitted pledges to reduce emissions is, in itself, remarkable,” said Birol. “These pledges, together with the increasing engagement of the energy industry, are helping to build the necessary political momentum around the globe to seal a successful climate agreement in Paris”

The treaty strikes a balance between developed and developing nations in a "no winner no loser" manner - developed nations will not only provide financing (a floor of 100 billion until 2020 as was previously agreed), technology and capacity building to developing countries, but will also communicate how much they provide from public sources. Developing nations that will offer contributions will do it on a voluntary basis. On the other hand, developing nations are not except from putting into place mechanisms to lower emissions, report the progress and review those commitments. 

“The developed countries intend to continue their existing collective mobilization goal through 2015.” States Article 9 of the agreement. “COP shall set a new collective quantified goal from a floor of USD 100 billion per year, taking into account the needs and priorities of developing countries.”  

A host of financial pledges were made and came from governments and private sector, with U.S leading the way by doubling the pledge to $800 million a year for adaptation.  Both United States and China are leading the way to show the world that reduction of emissions is an issue that requires attention: China is to restrain growth of emissions with peak expected to reach in 2030 or earlier while United States targets a 26% - 28% reduction in emissions. 

In regard to energy generation, removal of coal generation is one of the most important issues for the world today with regard to cutting down emissions. The adoption of COP21 agreement will see to it that renewables constitute 78% of new power generation investment to 2030 in major economies.

Climate Action Alternative; image courtesy of United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change

What critics say 

The International Energy Agency released a report in October showing that the world could slow the growth of carbon emissions by 2030 if countries met the goals outlined in their submitted Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDC) for COP21. But there is a problem; the path set “would be consistent with an average global temperature increase of around 2.7 degrees Celsius by 2100, falling short of the agreed goal to keep the rise below 2 degrees." Thus there is need for countries to do more and see the reached agreement only as a “base” to build higher ambitions for climate action according to IEA Executive Director Fatih Birol.  

However, that could change once the reviews after five years are put in place. Some experts say the Paris agreement should have targeted the supply side and not the demand side  with regard to reducing carbon emissions. That notion is shared by George Monbiot, author and blogger on climate change who has criticized the agreement on the same basis​. 

There are other issues such as how developing countries will continue supporting developments by increasing power generation given that renewable energy is costly, amidst pressure to cut down power generation from coal. Take the case of India, which has said although  it hopes to cut emissions by 33 to 35% by 2030 and increase renewable energy generation seven times by 2022, it will double coal energy output by 2020 and rely on it for decades since it has abundant coal reserves.   The issue of cheap power generation is critical to lowering carbon emissions as James Hasen, a former NASA scientist says pointing to COP 21 agreement.

“There is no action, just promises,” Hasen told The Guardian. “As long as fossil fuels appear to be the cheapest fuels out there, they will be continued to be burned.”  

Many coal power plants continue to be built across Africa, with China planning 92 projects in 27 countries to produce a total of 107 Gigawatts of energy when completed. Back to climate financing where commitment from developed countries did not change at all from the one made back in 2010. For successes of COP21, countries such as France will undertake more renewable energy projects in various developing countries to join previously launched initiatives such as the Power Africa by United States.

With regard to climate financing, US 100 billion per year commitment made by developed nations are yet to be met. Although the funds will help blend in interests of developing countries, they are insufficient in pushing renewables agenda according to Bill Mcbben, the founder 350.org, a global grass roots climate campaign, and an Environmental Studies lecturer at  Middlebury College.  The fact that developing countries did not succeed in making commitments by developed nations as binding is a reason to not celebrate according to critics who say that this, combined with the fact that no increments to commitments were made, introduces cynicism about the developed nation’s intentions to deliver on any climate financial obligations. Stronger developing countries will also provide voluntary financing. Developing nations had identified climate financing as one of the most important issues for the meeting.    

Finally, whether the whole COP21 agreement is completely binding or not is yet to be seen in the future. While Article 21 states that the agreement takes effect after 55% of nations responsible for 55% of global emissions ratifies it, article 28 dilutes the responsibility by developed worlds towards such commitments.  

"At any time after three years from the date on which this Agreement has entered into force for a Party, that Party may withdraw from this Agreement by giving written notification to the Depositary,” says the agreement.   

Watch video on agreement below

Countries to expect a number of implementation challenges

Each country is now allowed to voluntarily set its own carbon emission reduction targets. Behind those many promises are hefty financing burdens and actual commitment to take real actions. 

Although the voluntary nature of agreements is not always a bad thing given the power of willingness expressed by many countries, at the basis of voluntary nature of agreement lies the doubt whether they will be implemented at all. The real test comes when the optimism is subjected to the expected challenges. Countries would expect a number of issues with regard to implementation of the agreement according to Frank Incropera, a H. Clifford professor. 

"Each and every nation in the COP will face political and/or economic obstacles to implementation,” writes Incropera. “Consider today's top three emitters, beginning with the U.S.  Its ability to achieve its target depends strongly on the Clean Power Plan (CPP) imposed by the Environmental Protection Agency.”

To make the agreement workable, Marjanneke J. Vijge, a PhD candidate with the Environmental Policy Group notes that each country will need to “regularly assess individual and collective progress and voluntarily ratchet up targets” given that any “binding country targets or international monitor or review process” would be impossible. Professor Ove Hoegh-Guldberg, Director of the Global Change Institute, University of Queensland agrees that this will be the next set of challenges in implementing COP21 agreement.

"The next challenge will be the design and implementation of the five-year review and associated ratcheting mechanisms, as well as the very significant boosting of the INDC so that they ensure a safe planet," said Hoegh-Guldberg. "Given the success of COP21 so far, I personally believe we are at a pivotal moment and that we will tackle this next set of challenges successfully."