|Posted on January 12, 2016 at 7:00 PM|
Explain the Paris agreement to me in 17 words.
Countries agreed to collectively to solve climate change, and individually to set their own targets for doing so.
So won't every country just set weak-sauce targets, and leave the hard work to others, meaning nothing gets done?
First of all, even some developing countries have already set some pretty strong-sauce targets. Morocco, for example set a target of emissions reductions of 32% by 2030, effectively freezing its emissions while growing its economy. The EU is already aiming for a substantial 40% below 1990 levels by 2030.
But more importantly, the Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) that countries have submitted so far are not set in stone. In fact, after a five-yearly "global stocktake" (effectively starting in 2018 ) that reviews the additive effect of all countries targets, countries are required to re-up their NDC. EU Climate chief Miguel Arias Cañete has already strongly suggested that the European mitigation target will be significantly boosted after the first formal review, and there will be powerful incentives on all countries to increase their efforts, as technology makes cuts easier, and the impact of peer pressure pushes countries to do more on all their goals.
But there's no consequences for failing to meet their targets!
Well, welcome to the messy world of international law. Unlike the national communities we live in, the global community does not have its own police force that can legitimately coerce law-breakers back into compliance. The only real resources the UNFCCC ever had on its side was via reputational effects – other countries naming and shaming those that didn't live up to their pretty promises. The strength of the Paris Agreement is that it embraces this constraint, rather than ignoring it, like the Kyoto Protocol did. It also allows “clubs” of countries to form that require strong actions from prospective members.
Further, what experienced Panamanian diplomat Gilberto Arias calls the "hidden triumph" of the Paris agreement is that the process of regularly making public targets empowers civil society (that's us) to compare and contrast different countries efforts and call out laggards and loop-holers. Whereas the targets set at Kyoto were arranged behind closed doors through a small number of state-state negotiations. Paris ensures target setting will be in full sight, and reach, of increasingly sophisticated climate justice NGOs.
Still, carbon emissions “peaking as soon as possible”? Net-zero emissions “in the second half of the century“? Transparency rules that “build upon collective experience”? Couldn’t the agreement have been much more precise?
Let's think about the circumstances of the agreement. There are 196 countries at the table. Each one had a different set of objectives going into the deal. Low-lying and vulnerable countries wanted a tight cap on emissions and temperature rises, oil-producing countries and developing economies didn't. Countries with a lot of forests wanted forests in the deal, many other countries didn't. The US and EU wanted tight reporting requirements on all countries, large developing economies didn't. Countries that were classed as developing in 1992 wanted to hold on to the "Annexes" from the 1992 Framework convention, the EU and other developed countries wanted a new start.
Add to this volatile mix the decision rule of the UNFCCC: consensus. So any country has the power to quash an agreement if it left out anything from its "christmas list". On paper, the hopes of getting an agreement any stronger then Copenhagen's 5-page "climate change is bad, mmmmmkay?" seemed slim.
Vague language is the lubricant that allows some of the most difficult political conversations to be postponed, while settling others. But it's a delicate thing. Too much lube and it will be impossible to hold anyone to the Agreement they make, too little and it will be too abrasive for anyone to consent to it.
It's true that the Agreement and Decision are vague, but there's also substance there. For instance, we have an ambitious long term goal, a clear process for submitting targets, and a timetable for reviewing them. In the Decision we have the commitment to address climate displacement, a floor of 100bn per year in climate finance from developed countries, high-level champions and a major meeting to promote ambition before 2020. That the Paris Agreement says anything at all is as George Monbiot reluctantly agrees, really a miracle, brought about by some stunning diplomacy from the French hosts.