The year was 2009. The location was Copenhagen. And the world was watching the dream of an international agreement to tackle climate change slip through its fingers.
Six years later, at the highly anticipated COP21 in Paris, Christiana Figueres orchestrated the seemingly impossible: a global treaty that saw 196 parties legally commit to submitting new – and increasingly ambitious – climate targets every five years. The Paris Agreement was born.
What is it?
The Agreement is an international treaty adopted in 2015, which came into force in November of 2016. It’s goal is to keep global warming “well below 2, preferably to 1.5 degrees Celsius, compared with pre-industrial levels.”
Signatories must submit significant climate targets every five years, and the first one is due right now – at COP26.
Sounds great, has it been effective?
It’s hard to tell. Some major details were left out of the Paris Agreement, like what exactly the targets that countries need to set are, and how they’ll be enforced.
Consequently, countries are able to get away with submitting targets that fall far short of what is needed to remain below 1.5C of global warming. According to Niklas Hohne, of the NewClimate Foundation, “there is not a single government that has the policies needed.” The lack of specificity has drawn criticism from scientists, leaders and activists alike as a sign of the agreement’s limitations. Further criticism comes for the lack of accountability or repercussions for countries that fail to meet even those targets – which were insufficient in the first place.
Did it make any difference?
It’s not all bad news. Many countries have seen a reduction in their CO2 emissions per capita since 2015. The EU has seen a 7% decrease in carbon emissions, the US managed a 5% decrease and the UK got 15% lower.
The Agreement has also led to numerous countries making more ambitious commitments than the global platform had previously seen.
Globally though, carbon emissions have risen from 35.2 Gigatonnes in 2015 to 36.4 Gigatonnes in 2019. Despite a brief dip in emissions during 2020 – for obvious reasons – the world has been busy at work driving them up again since lockdowns have ended.
So why was it so important?
Despite its limitations in enforcing specific climate targets, the agreement represents a landmark achievement in diplomacy, collaboration and climate action. It is the culmination of decades of negotiations; for the first time in history, every country in the world publicly recognised the need to keep global temperature rises below 2C.
The agreement has also been celebrated for adjusting climate responsibility proportionally, based on the extent to which different countries had contributed to the problem. It attempts to hold the world’s biggest polluters accountable by specifying that developed countries must take the lead on reducing emissions.
“For the first time, a binding agreement brings all nations into a common cause to undertake ambitious efforts to combat climate change and adapt to its effects.”UNFCCC
The sense of disappointment lingered after Copenhagen and the clock was ticking to reach a global deal to begin taking action against the increasing threat of climate change. As a result, when a deal was finally struck in Paris, it instantly became historic.
What’s the next step?
All eyes have now turned to Glasgow as representatives of every country in the world present COP26 with the climate targets that they pledged to create in The Paris Agreement.
The 2015 agreement is transparent in its limits, but remains historic in its achievements. What the world needs next – a more ambitious, binding and material plan of action – depends on the decisions made in the next 10 days. Hopefully, we will see the world’s leaders rise to the challenge.