Ryan Mearns & Simon Hillier: Opinion: Paris Agreement a major step forward

This post originally appeared at the NZ Herald in Element Magazine.

The gavel went down on the Paris Agreement on the 12th of December with the French President calling it a historic moment. The Agreement is definitely a clear signal that the world has come a long way since the failure of Copenhagen in 2009. Civil society group aren’t calling it an absolute success - but it is certainly not a failure.

The Paris Agreement lays out an important vision. The world is now formally committed to action on climate change. This includes a responsibility for the government and citizens of New Zealand. The signposts of success in the agreement was a strong purpose with reference to 1.5 degrees, long-term goals that countries work toward using emission targets, finance for the poorest countries to adapt to the warming that will already occur from the carbon in the atmosphere, and transparent implementation mechanisms.

The basic gist of the agreement is that countries have agreed to peak greenhouse gases emissions as soon as possible, and reach to net zero emissions between 2050 and 2100. To do so they have to submit nationally determined contributions as a plan to cut emissions.

Countries have already submitted the first of these plans. If they are implemented, they will hold global average temperature rise to between 2.7 and 3.5 degrees. Countries have agreed that below 2 degrees is the limit, and 1.5 degrees should be pursued otherwise small island nations will be under water from sea level rise. This was talked about in the negotiations as the ‘ambition gap’ which occupied a lot the conversations over the two week deliberations.

The mechanism to close the ‘ambition gap’ between countries submitted targets and the temperature limit is for countries to come together every five years and improve their commitments, with no backsliding on previous targets. This process will be informed by a global stocktake where countries will aggregate their targets and assess how well they are going toward meeting their individual goal and meeting the Agreement’s long term goal.

Richer countries are expected to support poorer countries for the Agreement to be inclusive. They do this through providing money to poorer countries, technological support, and capacity building programmes. There is also an adaptation component in the Agreement which helps countries on the front lines to adapt to the impacts of climate change.

The Paris Agreement is a unique and unprecedented legal package. The finance and mitigation commitments are not legally binding, per se. This will allow the United States to implement the agreement through the President's executive action, rather than passing it through Congress like a normal treaty. Furthermore, any compliance mechanisms will not be punitive, as the Agreement’s intention is more about giving Government’s direction, signals to the private sector, and moments for civil society to rally around rather than forcing anyone to behave in a specific way. As such, the Agreement can be described as a hybrid of a ‘top down’ and ‘bottom up’ law; and a hybrid of hard law (binding and prescriptive) and soft law (general and aspirational). These factors, as well as its scale, make the globally-inclusive Paris Agreement unlike anything we have seen before.

Once again, it is worth noting that the Agreement is not a solution. Practically, it will provide a central structure for civil society to rally around and hold domestic governments to account in the transition away from fossil fuels and towards renewable energy. The Agreement will likely be remembered as a turning point in the climate crisis, and an international convergence of understanding in how to effectively pursue sustainable development.

This was always the road through Paris rather than the road to Paris, which means that New Zealand must commit to the long term goal and increase its climate ambition. The next step is a pathway from Paris for New Zealand to increase its ambition in 2018 as part of the facilitative dialogue which is the next big moment. The Government’s climate target of an 11% decrease on 1990 levels by 2030 is inadequate on a global scale to achieve 2 degrees so there is going to need to be a dramatic increase in ambition to play an adequate role in keeping the temperature below 1.5 degrees, inline with the calls from our Pacific neighbours.

Across the political spectrum we need a consensus on a climate plan that progressively increases ambition which builds on our low climate target. This 2018 review is the next moment to rally around for civil society and the private sector. It needs to be high on the agenda for all political parties as the moment to push whoever is in Government to do more on climate change in New Zealand.

We can be comforted by the fact that the world has made a bold statement and a major step forward on climate change, but now the conversation needs to turn to what this means for individual countries.


All posts by Institute delegates reflect their own thoughts, opinions and experiences, and do not reflect those of the Institute

Posted on December 22, 2015 and filed under UN Climate Talks 2015, Institute Updates.