Feature Report: COP 21: The Paris Agreement

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COP 21: The First Universal Climate Agreement

The accord reached in Paris at the 21st session of the annual Conference of the Parties (COP 21) is the first universal climate agreement and the result of a compromise between the different countries of the world. The Paris Agreement establishes broad ambitious goals and provides a framework of action, but leaves unresolved the issue of climate finance. If the process to combat climate change gains momentum in the coming decade, the accord will go down in history as the turning point of a new era.

French foreign minister Laurent Fabius brought down a wooden gavel to mark the adoption of the universal Paris Agreement. © FRANCOIS GUILLOT - AFP

The Paris AgreementOil contract under which the oil that is produced is shared between the state and the oil company... was approved by consensus vote on December 12, 2015 when French foreign minister Laurent Fabius brought down the green-colored gavel to mark its adoption. It was the first time ever that all the countries of the world – the 195 Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) – made a collective commitment to combat climate change.

As soon as the conference ended, the debate began as to the agreement's true scope and future. Here is a brief look at what defenders and detractors are saying about the agreement's effectiveness in addressing the challenges of global warmingGlobal warming, also called planetary warming or climate change....

Long-Term Goals 

With regard to the agreement's long-term goals, Article 2, within the same sentence, aims to hold the increase in the global average temperature to "well below 2°C" above preindustrial levels by 2100, and "to pursue efforts" to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C. This last figure is an extremely ambitious target, given that the current temperature increase is already more than 0.8°C and that most scientists believe that the 1.5°C target will be very hard to reach.

However, the Paris Agreement doesn't set targets for reducing greenhouse gas (ghg) Gas with physical properties that cause the Earth's atmosphere to warm up. There are a number of naturally occurring greenhouse gases... emissions, unlike the Kyoto ProtocolInternational agreement linked to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change..., which established binding obligations, though only for developed countries. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)Body established by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) in 1988..., global emissions will need to be cut by 40% to 70% by 2050, but specific figures like these were not taken into account. The agreement merely encourages the parties to reach peak greenhouse gas emissions "as soon as possible"– targets differ depending on whether the country is in the North or the South – and to achieve carbon neutrality in the second half of the century.

0.85°C: The increase in temperature already recorded between 1880 and 2012.

Creating an Upward Spiral of Ambition

While there are no binding emission reduction targets, countries are urged to set objectives in their Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs). What's more, they are encouraged to review their pledges and ratchet them up every five years, beginning in 2018. The first global stocktake is scheduled for 2023. The purpose of this process is to produce an upward spiral of ambition.

But the NDCs are voluntary commitments. Before the climate conference even started, 186 countries submitted action plans for 2025 or 2030, but so far the results haven't been convincing. According to experts, the action plans will result in a global average temperature rise of nearly 3°C, which is far from the "well below 2°C" target. (See Close-Up: Nationally Determined Contributions)

Carbon Pricing

Even though France, the host of COP 21, tried hard to put carbon pricing on the agenda, either in the form of emissions tradingThe buying and selling of products in financial markets... systems or carbon taxes, the topic was left out of the agreement. (See Feature Report: Carbon Pricing.)

Optimists derive consolation from the fact that carbon pricing is mentioned in the accompanying decision to the Paris Agreement, which recognizes the "important role" of providing incentives for emission reduction activities, particularly carbon pricing. They believe the wording, albeit prudent, signals support for the various initiatives being undertaken by countries, companies, cities and civil society in general. (See Close-Up: COP 21: New Actors Get Involved.) Furthermore, France has announced that it is pursuing efforts to launch a carbon pricing leadership coalition.

Emissions need to be cut by 40% to 70% by 2050, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

Differentiation and Financing

The Paris Agreement has addressed one of the main bones of contention that had limited the impact of the Kyoto Protocol, i.e. the developing nations' refusal to be put in the same boat as the industrialized world, based on their belief that countries in the North are responsible for the historical buildup of CO2See Carbon Dioxid in the atmosphere. The issue was resolved thanks to recognition of the fact that countries move forward at different speeds and that the North will need to provide financial support. According to the agreement, the developed world will provide $100 billion a year in climate finance for developing countries, an amount that is considered to be a “floor”. A new finance goal will be set by 2025.

On the downside, the finance method has yet to be defined, and major emerging economies, like China, are reluctant to make a financial commitment. (See Close-Up: Funding the Transition in Developing Economies.)

The Upcoming Agenda How the Paris Agreement plays out will be decisive in determining whether the conference was truly a landmark event or just another step in the process. Here is a list of events already scheduled for the future: 

- April 22, 2016 : A high-level signing ceremony will take place on Earth Day at the U.N. Headquarters in New York on the first day that the Paris Agreement will be open for signature (until April 2017). The agreement will enter into force when it is ratified by the national parliaments or approved by the individual governments of 55 countries representing 55% of global greenhouse gas emissions.
- December 2016 : The 22nd session of the Conference of the Parties (COP 22) will take place in Marrakesh, Morocco. The purpose of the meeting will be to hammer out several mechanisms created by the Paris Agreement (particularly the market mechanism for the post-2020 period) and possibly to review some of the disputed issues at the Paris summit.
- 2018 : A meeting will be held to assess the adequacy of the NDCs. The IPCC will release a new report on the impact of a 1.5°C increase in the global average temperature.
- 2020 : The Paris Agreement will come into force if it has been ratified or approved by at least 55 countries representing 55% of world greenhouse gas emissions.
- 2023 : A first global stocktake of the NDCs will be conducted.