The Paris Agreement is a truly landmark climate accord, and checks all the boxes in my five-point scorecard for a potentially effective deal. It provides a broad foundation for meaningful progress on climate change, and represents a dramatic departure from the Kyoto Protocol and the past 20 years of climate negotiations.
In Paris, representatives of 195 countries (plus the European Union) adopted a new hybrid international climate policy architecture that includes: bottom-up elements in the form of “Intended Nationally Determined Contributions” (INDCs), which are national targets and actions that arise from national policies; and top-down elements for oversight, guidance, and coordination. Now, all countries will be involved in taking actions to reduce emissions.
Remarkably, 186 of the 196 parties to the agreement submitted INDCs by the end of the Paris talks, representing some 96% of global emissions. This broad scope of participation under the new agreement is a necessary condition for meaningful action – but, of course, it is not a sufficient condition.
Also required is adequate ambition of the individual contributions. But this is only the first step with this new approach. The INDCs will be assessed and revised every five years, with their collective ambition ratcheted up over time.
That said, even this initial set of contributions could cut anticipated temperature increases this century to about 3.5°C – more than the frequently discussed aspiration of limiting temperature increases to 2°C (or now, under the Paris deal, potentially to 1.5°C), but much less than the 5-6°C increase that would be expected without this action. (An amendment to the Montreal Protocol to address hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) is likely to shave off a further 0.5°C of warming.)
The problem has not been solved, and it will not be for years to come, but the new approach brought about by the Paris Agreement can be a key step toward reducing the threat of global climate change.
The new climate agreement, despite being pathbreaking and the result of what The New York Times rightly described as “an extraordinary effort at international diplomacy”, is only a foundation for moving forward. But it is a sufficiently broad and sensible foundation to make increased ambition over time feasible for the first time.
Whether this foundation for progress is effectively exploited is something we will know only 10, 20, or more years from now.
What is key in the agreement is the following: the centrality of the INDC structure; the most balanced transparency requirements ever promulgated; provision for heterogeneous linkage, including international carbon markets (through “internationally transferred mitigation outcomes” – ITMOs); explicit clarification in a decision that agreement on “loss and damage” does not provide a basis for liability of compensation; and 5-year periods for stocktaking and improvement of the INDCs.
So my fundamental assessment of the Paris climate talks is that they were a great success. Unfortunately, some advocates and some members of the press may characterise the outcome as a “failure,” because the 2°C target has not been achieved immediately. But the Paris Agreement provides an important new foundation for meaningful progress on climate change, and represents a dramatic departure from the past 20 years of international climate negotiations.
Of course, the problem has not been solved, and it will not be for many years to come. But the new approach brought about by the Paris Agreement can be a key step towards reducing the threat of global climate change. In truth, only time will tell.