COP21: The Agreement

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bozzolaJordi Teixidó-Figueras (RSCAS 2015-2016)
Martina Bozzola (RSCAS 2015-2016)


Paris wrote a new page in the progress of human society, on this occasion by dealing with the widest climate change agreement ever produced.  Last December, leaders from around the globe met in Paris for the 21st Conference of Parties (COP21) to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), adopted at the Rio Earth Summit in 1992. COP21 is a long waited step towards tackling climate change.  However, many voices raised the idea that such an agreement will pass into history as a new show for the gallery; it is full of (nationally determined) good intentions and empty of real binding commitments. An African proverb says that until the lion has her own storyteller, the hunter will always have the best part of the story. Probably, the same applies to the Paris climate agreement, depending on who tells the story the agreement is either pronounced a triumph or a announced.  Perhaps both are right.

The Hunter: Paris has been a success for many reasons. Among them, history will record COP21 as the world’s greatest diplomatic success on climate change so far. The Agreement includes a wider spectrum of countries than its predecessor in Kyoto. If only 38 countries agreed then, the so called Annex I countries, Paris got 195 countries involved, representing more than 90% of total carbon emissions. Among them, China, with 27% of global emissions and the US with 17%. The agreement will also be remembered for the growing engagement of the private sector and other non-state actors, and the recognition that the contribution of the private sector is essential to the success of the goals set by the COP21.

This wide support in Paris is certainly a good piece of hunting; a necessary step forward in the climate action that we need. The sink capacity of the atmosphere is one of the few things in life that is equally distributed among countries, all countries have the same access to it. When some countries have agreed on some carbon reduction, while others have not, it is easy to find that some carbon emission reductions may be explained by increases in other countries. This is not necessarily explained by polluting firms moving to other countries with lower environmental standards; rich countries have experienced structural shifts in their economies in recent decades, moving from an industrial basis to a more service based production system, yet importing many carbon embodied goods. These are the issues that in fact explain part of the result in the Kyoto agreement: despite the fact that the 38 countries achieved a -12% reduction, far beyond the -5% targeted, the world as whole increased its emissions by almost 50% (from 1990 to 2011). In this regard, having the whole world involved in the climate action is undoubtedly a basic condition to keep world emissions low, not only the emissions of some countries.

Paris agreed to keep the earth’s temperature “well below 2º C” by 2100. This is also a big game hunt as it makes climate policy consistent with what climate change actually is: a stock problem as opposed to a flow problem. This means that the reduction of annual emissions is a necessary condition but not a sufficient one. The Paris agreement acknowledges the balance needed between carbon emissions by sources and removals by carbon sinks of greenhouse gases. Indeed, climate change is about accumulated emissions in the atmosphere. Aiming the climate agreement towards the stabilization of the earth’s temperature makes the policy more consistent with the real problem.

Another valuable piece in the agreement is the recognition of equity issues. Probably influenced by having so many countries involved, Paris “resolves to enhance an urgent and adequate finance, technology and capacity building support by developed countries” to enhance climate action by developing countries. Furthermore, the financial resources provided have a concrete sum; from a floor of US$100 billion per year aimed at the needs and priorities of developing countries, including adaptation and mitigation. This is for many the most important piece of the agreement. One of the main barriers that climate policy usually needs to overcome is the high level of world economic inequality. Global climate change action has historically collided with the so-called right to development; leveling the playing field in this regard is certainly in the spirit of the Paris agreement.

The lion. Despite its intrinsic uncertainties and unknowns, it is recognized that climate change will have a stronger impact on some countries than others, and within countries it will harm poorer households. Climate change can be seen, in fact, as a game with losers and winners: it is unequal in its impact and in its origin. Sub-Saharan Africa and Southern Asia, despite their small contribution in historical emissions, will see their food security (even more) threatened as the earth’s temperature rises and the strength and frequency of extreme weather events increase. From this perspective, the agreement’s main flaw is in its flexibility and its trust in voluntary contributions.

The COP21 agreement is based on the so-called Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDC), an outline of climate actions that countries intend to take under the new agreement; its submission was almost the only binding commitment undertaken in Paris. All countries agreed to submit a plan of emissions reductions, but no mechanism was agreed to enforce their implementation; it is all left to the hope of an – already long awaited – virtuous cycle. In other words, Paris reached an agreement the effectiveness of which can be hindered by the avoidance of binding commitments, putting countries’ good will in its place. Yet relying on the good will of countries, which is quite an assumption, the INDC are not enough to fulfill the 2ºC target, as the very agreement recognizes. If all parties did what they say they voluntarily will, the global temperature would rise up to 2.7ºC- 3ºC, a level beyond a safe and livable climate.

Some of the climate actions documented in the INDC are conditional on receiving economic compensation. This also depends on the parties’ good will; such lack of detail in economic compensation may involve redirecting existing funds rather than bringing in new money. Indeed, the echo of those voluntary US$100 billion dollars in economic compensation for the poor diminishes when compared to the US$5.3 trillion global subsidy (direct and indirect) to the fossil fuel industry, an estimate by the International Monetary Fund for 2015 alone.

Altogether, from the lion’s perspective, the agreement does not deal with the urgency needed given the gravity of the issue. Climate migrations and wars for the control of even scarcer natural resources may make world governance even more complicated if climate change is not addressed. However, avoiding climate change may require a radical shift from the current social production mode, and COP21 agreement required actually all the contrary.

The road to hell is paved with good intentions but we’ll never find a rainbow if we are looking down.

(*) The MWPBlog is a platform for MW Fellows to address scholarly topics and comment on current affairs. The thoughts expressed in the posts represent solely the views of the posting Fellows and not of the Max Weber Programme