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The good, the bad and the ugly of the Paris Agreement

More than a week has passed since ministers and negotiators left the global climate talks in Paris. After a momentous fortnight, which saw 150 world leaders attend the opening days of the summit, the dust has begun to settle on the much-anticipated Paris Agreement. Lord Deben and Lord Krebs, Chairmen of the Committee on Climate Change and its Adaptation Sub-Committee respectively, take a step back to consider the highs and the lows of the deal.

The good…

  • However you look at it, the agreement reached in Paris is historic. Every country in the world, and many businesses, cities, regions and states, have now recognised that keeping global warming to below 2°C is nothing short of essential. In fact, nations went even further than expected, saying that warming should stay “well below” 2°C and that nations should “pursue efforts” to stay below 1.5°C. They also agreed that emissions should peak as early as possible and that a balance between sources and sinks of greenhouse gases should be reached in the second half of the century. This level of commitment to tackle climate change, by Governments on behalf of their 7.3 billion citizens, is simply unprecedented.
  • There’s no way in which cutting the world’s emissions would be complete or successful without a method of regular review of global progress against targets and a system to make the necessary adjustments. The solution comes in the form of ‘stocktaking’ and ‘ratcheting’. The Paris Agreement requires a global stocktake (covering both mitigation and adaptation) every five years, with the first due in 2023. A ‘facilitative dialogue’ – a formal meeting – to enable countries to prepare for this crucial exercise will come in 2018/19. Ratcheting, which will allow countries to ramp up their efforts to cut emissions if they find they are newly able to do so, will take place every decade.
  • For the first time, all countries have acknowledged that the effects of historic and ongoing emissions will have serious and lasting consequences for the earth’s natural systems. Global temperatures have already risen by around 1°C since pre-industrial times, while changes in extreme weather-related events in the UK and around the world are consistent with the projected consequences of climate change. The Paris Agreement places considerable emphasis on the need for adaptation and establishes a new global goal to significantly strengthen countries’ abilities to adapt to the impacts of climate change.
  • There’s good news on finance, too. Recognising that many nations will have a tough job to reduce their emissions and overcome the projected impacts of global warming – whether in the form of floods, droughts, or temperature extremes – nations have agreed significant sums of money to help. Richer governments will work towards a clear roadmap to raise the level of ‘climate finance’ to less rich nations to US$ 100 billion per year by 2020, and they will set a new goal before 2025 to extend this financial support further.

The bad…

  • But it’s not all positive. Though Governments have agreed to limit warming to 2°C, so far countries’ individual pledges (known as Intended Nationally Determined Contributions in UN-speak) don’t get us there. Instead, taken together, they lead to a global temperature rise of around 3°C by the end of the century. That’s not good enough – and further action will clearly be required. The INDCs remain voluntary, and it’s difficult to know if or how nations will be penalised if they fail to live up to their promises.
  • Then there’s the crucial issue of accountability and transparency. Unlike in the UK, where the Committee on Climate Change has a key role in assessing and verifying domestic emissions reductions, as yet there is no process to verify independently all 195 countries’ greenhouse gas inventories, or progress towards their targets. That could pose serious problems in the years to come, especially as INDCs have been calculated and presented to the UN in myriad ways. The lack of a common or comparable format will clearly make national emissions reductions even harder to assess and track. A solution needs to be developed urgently.
  • If indeed progress is slow, and global emissions do not fall as quickly as they need to, further challenges will lie ahead. To keep on track to the 2°C commitment, let alone 1.5°C, some nations will have to ratchet up their effort potentially over a relatively short period of time. The UK, for example, has previously said that the EU should increase its emissions cuts for 2030 from 40% to 50%, if other countries agree to do more.

….and the ugly

  • Last but not least are reports that a number of leaders have returned to capitals, Paris Agreement in hand, only to announce that domestic policy need not change in light of the new global deal. That’s unlikely to be true – and they don’t have the long term assurance that is written into our Climate Change Act. Tangible action remains the only real solution to dangerous climate change.