The Paris Agreement: not great but still a good deal

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Le Bourget for COP21 (@Takver)

“Perfect is the enemy of the good, so we don’t have a perfect agreement but a good agreement and this is an earth-shaking moment,” said Dr Vivian Balakrishnan, Minister of Foreign Affairs and head of the Singapore delegation in Paris, said few minutes after the adoption of the COP 21 agreement.

The main goal of the climate change deal was to limit the rise in global temperatures to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels. And it has been agreed in Paris after two weeks of negotiations, so it’s quite understandable that all participants from 196 countries heralded it as historic – historique, sorry.

Such enthusiasm was not shared by everyone. The former NASA scientist James Hansen, the controversial father of climate change awareness, called the Paris Agreement “A fraud, a fake. It’s just bullshit for them to say: ‘We’ll have a 2C warming target and then try to do a little better every five years.’ It’s just worthless words. There is no action, just promises. As long as fossil fuels appear to be the cheapest fuels out there, they will be continued to be burned.”

Sentiments echoed by Nick Dearden, director of the campaign group Global Justice Now: “It’s outrageous. This deal undermines the rights of the world’s most vulnerable communities and has almost nothing binding to ensure a safe and livable climate for future generations.”

A fraud in disguise or a triumph indeed, no one can deny the political success of the Conference if compared to Copenhagen or to other previous COPS. It was not only cosmetic, there was also some substance. For the first time “loss and damage”, as requested by smaller island countries, were formally acknowledged as the result from climate change. Unfortunately, liability was not mentioned in the final document.

Surely, there was a lot of compromise in Paris under the expert guidance of France’s Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius. The most evident case was when oil-producing countries managed to obtain the substitution of the “reaching greenhouse gas emissions neutrality in the second half of the century,” explicit goal with the more generic “Parties aim to reach global peaking of greenhouse gas emissions as soon as possible, recognizing that peaking will take longer for developing country Parties, and to undertake rapid reductions thereafter in accordance with best available science, so as to achieve a balance between anthropogenic emissions by sources and removals by sinks of greenhouse gases in the second half of this century, on the basis of equity, and in the context of sustainable development and efforts to eradicate poverty”. Which means that fossil fuels are not ruled out, they only need to be adequately matched with the increase and implementation of “greenhouse eaters”.

The December 2015 agreement is partly legally binding, partly voluntary, which ensures there is room for improvement. Arguably the most incisive summary was written by George Monbiot on his column on the Guardian: “By comparison to what it could have been, it’s a miracle. By comparison to what it should have been, it’s a disaster”.

The Paris agreement’s 5 key points:

  1. LIMITING THE TEMPERATURE INCREASE TO 1.5°C. The Paris Agreement adopts a more ambitious target than in the past. If that 1.5°C limit will be achieved, it would help to avoid the most severe effects of climate change.
  2. PRESERVATION OF FORESTS. The Agreement supports actions to reduce emissions from deforestation and forest degradation and acknowledges the role of conservation, sustainable management of forests and enhancement of forest carbon stocks in developing countries.
  3. COST BURDEN. One of the most debated and disappointing points. The Agreement recognises that “developed countries should support country-driven strategies, and taking into account the needs and priorities of developing countries”, but it fails to fix a specific figure. No formal commitment for rich countries only the promise in the preamble – better, the ambition – to guarantee at least $100 billion a year in contributions to developed nations. This is a major point because an insufficient financial package means that poorer countries will be forced to rely on the cheapest options which are still fossil fuels.
  4. ONE SYSTEM. The United States argued that it was necessary to adopt and implement a unique system to evaluate the carbon reduction of every country. Different grade of commitment will be measured and, most of all, it will be easily assessed. It could turn out to be one of the most significant achievement of the COP 21.
  5. FIVE-YEAR REVIEW. Every five years every country has to communicate a nationally determined contribution in accordance with any relevant decisions of the Conference of the Parties.
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