Paris agreement: Only the start
Amidst cries of joy, the world agreed to a new climate change agreement in Paris on Saturday night. Signed by 196 countries, the deal promises to keep the rise of global temperatures significantly below 2 degrees Celsius by the turn of the century. Countries gathered at the summit agreed that they would attempt to peak their global emissions as soon as possible with developed nations taking the lead. However, through the second half of the century, countries will collectively ensure to reduce net greenhouse emissions to zero. Under this aim, developed nations have opted to take the lead, with developing nations given latitude to achieve their poverty eradication targets.
At the outset, it is important to understand that the 31-page document seeks to add structure to efforts already underway to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions. Besides targets, the deal seeks to add measures to verify that nations are actually reducing their emissions. Every five years, nations will reconvene to reassess their pledges and the means to achieve them. Like Minded Developing Countries, which include India and China, presented a united front on the principle of Common But Differentiated Responsibility (CBDR). Suffice to say, the CBDR principle has found its place in different parts of the agreement. Moreover, it has been clearly established that the onerous burden of reducing greenhouse emissions will not be greater on developing nations than developed nations. The concept of climate justice, which Prime Minister Narendra Modi has pushed for since the beginning of talks, has found a place in the agreement.
Although the CBDR principle has taken a few hits, the overall understanding is that the final result reflects a much better outcome than the one expected. In the face of an aggressive push by the US and other developed countries to tear down the CBDR principle entirely, the developing nations stood firm and extracted some concessions. However, one of the biggest hits the CBDR principle took was the removal of the phrase “historical responsibility”. Suffice to say, such a position weakens the obligations of developed countries to take stern actions against their past acts of emission. Without the burden of historical responsibility on their head, equity is now interpreted only in terms of “respective capabilities and national circumstances”, further breaking down the differentiation between the climate change actions of developed and developing countries. In fact, developed nations under the Umbrella group have gone to the extent of establishing that damage due to climate change “does not involve or provide a basis for liability or compensation”. The notion of equity is further dampened by the fact that Nationally Determined Contributions are not legally binding and all countries must take up commitments to mitigate the impact of climate change.
In essence, the developed nations have lowered the legally binding expectations from them and raised the expectation of action by the developing world. Let’s take the example of climate finance. According to the agreement, developed nations will be required to finance the developing world’s bid to cut emissions and adapt to a new carbon-free energy paradigm. Coming to the specifics, developed nations will be expected to provide upwards of $100 billion annually after 2020 to developing countries. However, the pound of flesh extracted by the developed nation’s bloc implies that the provision of finance to poorer nations will not be legally binding on them. “On the whole, the draft Paris agreement continues to be weak and unambitious, as it does not include any meaningful targets for developed countries to reduce their emissions. It notes that climate injustice is a concern of some and it maintains that the agreement will be under the UN convention. But as it does not operationalise equity and the term carbon budget did not even find mention in the text. This will end up furthering climate apartheid,” says Sunita Narain, the Director General of the Centre for Science and Environment. Suffice to say, it is hard to disagree with her.
Going beyond the politics, it is clear that the Paris agreement can only encourage countries to step up their efforts. It can’t force them to do so. Compelling nations to act on their pledges will be the hard part. Further action on climate change will ultimately depend on policymakers, investors, engineers, scientists, and activists across the world. The lack of a detailed roadmap for cutting greenhouse gases that cause the problem is gaping hole that the agreement has not addressed. By that measure, what was agreed in Paris is only the first step. As a column in Vox, a prominent American online news digest says, “To stop global warming, every country will have to do much, much more in the years ahead to transition away from fossil fuels (which still provide 86 percent of the world’s energy), move to cleaner sources, and halt deforestation. They’ll have to pursue new policies, adopt new technologies and go far beyond what they’ve already promised.”