“Well below 2°C” – A First Response to the Paris Agreement on Climate Change

By Dr Birgit Lode

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“This Agreement (…) aims to strengthen the global response to the threat of climate change (…) including by holding the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels (…)”

Even this short excerpt from Article 2 of the newly adopted Paris Agreement reveals much about the outcome of the 21st Conference of the Parties (COP21) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in Paris. The Agreement can be considered a successful and historic achievement that will set the course until at least the middle of this century, both with respect to the legally binding temperature goal set out in Article 2, as well as the long-term goals (listed in the same article) for adapting to climate change and climate finance. Particularly notable is the successful integration of measures to be undertaken by the member states at a national level – the “nationally determined conditions” (NDCs; the “intended” that was appended before the conference has now been dropped) – and responsibilities of the parties at the international level, for example participation in periodic assessments of the implementation of the Agreement (“global stocktake”; Art. 14). The results of the stocktakings are to assist the parties continuing to adjust and scale up their NDCs so that “[t]he efforts of all Parties will represent a progression over time” (Art. 3).

The COP decision, to which the Paris Agreement is annexed, contains a number of other welcome aspects; it is, however, unfortunate, that most international law experts do not consider this part of the document to be legally binding. It reaffirms, for example, that climate change is a “common concern of humankind”. While it lacks an explicit reference to the internationally recognised common heritage principle, the appeal to a “common concern”, rather than a “common interest”, which is another expression frequently used in this context, strengthens the sentiment.

IPCC to Prepare Special Report on Effects of 1.5°C Global Warming

The holistic approach to master the challenges resulting from global warming is underscored by the call for the Parties to the Convention to “respect, promote and consider their respective obligations on human rights” while addressing climate change, amongst others the right to health, the rights of indigenous peoples, local communities, migrants, children, persons with disabilities, and the right to development, gender equality, and intergenerational equality. In order to continue to ensure that all measures undertaken as part of the Paris Agreement have a solid scientific basis, the invitation extended to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to provide a special report in 2018 on the impacts of global warming of 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels is particularly laudable. Likewise, the open formulation about Parties striving to “include all categories of anthropogenic emissions” in their NDCs is to be seen as largely positive. It implicitly clarifies that states are not confined to focus their efforts exclusively on CO2 and the classic “Kyoto gases” (i.e., greenhouse gases), but instead may also include contributions to reducing short-lived climate-forcing pollutants (SLCPs) in their NDCs.

After the tragic events in Paris shortly before the beginning of the conference, it was far from certain that COP21 would ultimately result in not only a universal, internationally binding agreement on climate change – the first such agreement in human history – but also multiple passages of the agreement clearly pointing towards decarbonisation. The uncertainty of the outcome became particularly clear to me during the second half of the second week of negotiations when, as a member of the Steering Committee of the Climate and Clean Air Coalition (CCAC), I received a message from a highly concerned Indian non-governmental organisation in which they pleaded for our support for their efforts to achieve an “Agreement with substance”. The fact that many of the negotiators were seldom or never to be seen in public during the entire conference was for me a positive sign, an indication that they were really working day and night to prevent COP21 from going down in the history of the UNFCCC as a “second Copenhagen”.

Formulation of Long-Term Goal for Reducing Emissions Too Vague

However, in spite of the many encouraging aspects of the new climate change agreement, in several places less vague formulations would have been desirable, in particular in Article 4, which details how the Parties to the Convention intend to achieve the long-term temperature goal set out in Article 2. The aim of the Parties to “reach global peaking of greenhouse gas emissions as soon as possible” could definitely have been phrased more concretely and fixed to a specific year. The same is true for the aim of achieving a “balance between anthropogenic emissions by sources and removals by sinks of greenhouse gases in the second half of this century”. Rather than merely stabilising emissions at a state of equilibrium, it would have been preferable to see a formulation that included the words “zero” or “neutral(ity)”, as we suggested in our paper about long-term climate goals. Also desirable would have been a clarification that reducing emissions is the top priority, whereas so-called “negative emissions” – brought about using technologies to remove and store CO2 – are not a first-choice solution.

The Paris Agreement has not yet entered into force, since it will likely take a number of years before the required number of countries has ratified the agreement. Thus, what was true before COP21 continues to be true now as well: the key to successfully addressing global climate change lies in taking action in the near-term – prior to 2020 – and in wide-scale emissions reductions of both short- and long-lived climate pollutants.

A walk among the columns: in front of the entrance to COP21

A walk among the columns: in front of the entrance to COP21. (c) Birgit Lode

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