Five Years on, Keeping the Hope of the Paris Agreement Alive and Strong

December 9, 2020 | 4:05 pm
UN Photo/Amanda Voisard/CC BY-NC
Rachel Cleetus
Policy Director

On December 12, the world will mark the fifth anniversary of the landmark Paris Agreement. Back in 2015, there was so much hope that this would be a true turning point for global climate action. Yet, we have fallen well short of sharply bending the global heat-trapping emissions curve, and meanwhile climate change is unfolding around us in terrifying ways. Nevertheless, the Agreement endures and continues to be a precious beacon lighting the way. Now it’s time for nations—including the US, which will shortly rejoin the Agreement under President Biden—to show renewed and strengthened commitment to its goals, for people and the planet.   

Science and equity in the Paris Agreement

One of the biggest legacies of the Paris Agreement is that it gave us, for the first time, an ambitious science-informed global climate goal, agreed to by 190+ countries, of “holding the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and pursuing efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels.” It was also the first time we saw the phrase “to achieve a balance between anthropogenic emissions by sources and removals by sinks of greenhouse gases in the second half of this century,” as a way to frame the need to reach net zero emissions to meet the temperature goal.

And in 2018, the IPCC Special Report on 1.5°C—which was requested by countries in Paris—put a finer point on this: global net carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions must decline about 45 percent below 2010 levels by 2030 and reach net zero by around 2050 to stay within the goals of the Paris Agreement.

Why these goals? Quite simply, the science was clear in 2015 and is even more so now: The world is already experiencing some pretty devastating climate impacts at about 1°C increase in global average temperatures, and limiting the temperature increase to as far below 2°C as possible is our best hope of staving off truly catastrophic impacts.

The Paris Agreement was also meant to enshrine the aspirations of small island nations, and many other climate vulnerable nations and peoples, facing existential threats from climate change. In Paris, their starkly simple yet emotionally powerful rallying cry was “1.5 to stay alive.”

And what doesn’t get enough attention is that, before stating the well-known temperature goals, Article 2 of the Paris Agreement also states that:

This Agreement…aims to strengthen the global response to the threat of climate change, in the context of sustainable development and efforts to eradicate poverty. [emphasis added]

Keeping that context and collective commitment clearly in the foreground is vital. Especially for richer nations that often fail to appreciate the plight of countries struggling to improve their peoples’ lives even as they find themselves in the climate maelstrom, and also the unjust and inequitable impacts on frontline and marginalized communities within their own countries.

Five years on, a lot of heartache

The Paris Agreement provides a powerful framework—but its ability to deliver depends on what nations do at home to implement robust and durable climate policies. And the track record on that has been decidedly mixed, with the US experience as a prime example.

Since 2015, global emissions have continued to rise. Although 2020 will bring a temporary drop in emissions due to the pandemic (including in the US), that is by no means the sustained decline we need—and it is the result of a harsh, inequitable economic and public health crisis, rather than deep, thoughtful policy changes. Atmospheric concentrations of CO2, which are driven by cumulative emissions, have risen from 400 parts per million (ppm) in 2015 to 410 ppm just four years later in 2019, according to the World Meteorological Organization.

sobering new report from the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) shows that global emissions are on track for over 3°C of temperature increase above pre-industrial levels. Another recent report from UNEP and other research organizations shows that the world would need to decrease fossil fuel production by 6 percent per year over the next decade to limit warming to 1.5˚C—yet countries currently plan to produce double the amount of fossil fuels in 2030 than would be consistent with that goal.

Meanwhile, the climate crisis is growing rapidly more dire. This year alone brought devastating wildfires in Australia and California; heatwaves in Europe, Asia and the Arctic; flooding in Africa, Asia and the US Midwest; rapidly intensifying and record-breaking hurricanes, typhoons and cyclones; and floods, drought and locusts in Africa, among the many here-and-now manifestations of climate change.

And in 2020, the climate crisis collided cruelly with the COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting global economic crisis, compounding its inequitable impacts on marginalized communities and those who live in poverty around the world.

Most shamefully, 2020 also saw the US, under the Trump Administration, be the first nation to exit the Paris Agreement.

Yet, some signs of progress

We have seen phenomenal growth in renewable energy around the world, with new wind and solar generation resources now being the cheapest forms of newly installed electricity resources in most places. The costs of renewable energy and battery storage technologies continue to drop dramatically. Innovation in the field continues apace, including in offshore wind.

Despite the COVID-19 pandemic and the economic crisis, data from the IEA show that net installed capacity of renewable electricity grew by almost 4 percent globally, and renewables accounted for 90 percent of the new installed capacity worldwide. China and the US led this trend.

Here in the US, renewables are now 20 percent of our electricity mix, and in 2019 renewable energy consumption surpassed coal for the first time in over 130 years.

The tremendous potential is there for the taking—if only we implement robust policies to accelerate the clean energy momentum already underway, and ensure that that happens in a just and equitable way (including prioritizing the needs of coal communities and environmental justice communities).

Crucially, as the world sets a course to emerge from the current pandemic and economic crisis, policymakers must connect near-term imperatives to create jobs and jump start the economy with the longer-term necessity to shift to a zero-carbon economy. That means ensuring that we invest in renewable energy, and the infrastructure needed for that, as pathway out of the current economic crisis and toward a healthier, more sustainable future.

Why the Paris Agreement (still) matters

The Paris Agreement is still an enduring and powerful testament to the global community’s ability to take on complex, worldwide challenges together. It is a durable and flexible agreement, designed to evolve over time in ways that suit the many individual situations in each country while maintaining an overall high bar for collective action. It’s designed to be updated and informed by the latest science. And the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate change (UNFCCC), under which the Paris Agreement was reached, is the one legitimate global forum on climate change where all countries, small and large, have a voice.

The Paris Agreement has completely reshaped the ways in which governments and multilateral organizations think about climate policies. It has prompted many major companies to also reorient their thinking about the private sector’s role in helping to transition to a net zero economy. It has helped launch a multitude of analyses of low-carbon pathways, showing how they are both cost-effective and feasible.

And then there’s that arcane acronym, the NDC or nationally determined contribution—individual commitments that countries make to help meet the goals of the Paris Agreement. In 2015, it was clearly understood that the initial commitments countries had put forth were seriously insufficient, and that they would need to be increased over time. The so-called ratchet mechanism of the Paris Agreement.

Well, it’s time (past time) to ratchet up! And that’s where the action needs to be in 2021.

What needs to happen ahead of COP26 in Glasgow

The most important priority next year is that a large group of countries make ambitious commitments, via their updated NDCs, well ahead of COP26, slated to take place in November 2021 in Glasgow. We have already seen the EU, UK, Japan, Korea, and China signal an early intention to do so. Much more detail on these plans is needed, including more information about the domestic policies that will back up those international commitments, especially in the near- to medium-term.

The US must join the ranks of responsible nations, delivering concrete actions in line with its stature as a major economy. President Biden will certainly move to have the US rejoin the Paris Agreement quickly, and we must do so with a renewed commitment to put forth an ambitious NDC well before COP26. The Biden Administration’s promise to center science and justice in its response to climate change, is a welcome change. But it will quickly have to signal actual policy changes to back up its promises.

John Kerry’s appointment as Special Presidential Envoy for Climate is very significant, even more so because for the first time this position will be part of the National Security Council. It’s a clear signal that the Biden Administration intends to treat climate change as a top priority. Mr. Kerry has a deep understanding of the science of climate change and is a strong champion of working with other countries to address the pressing global challenges of the day. He played a vital role in securing the Paris Agreement, alongside other world leaders. He is also a skilled diplomat and knows how to work well with other countries in a spirit of respect, cooperation and mutual benefit.

The Biden administration must engage deeply with other major economies in multilateral and bilateral forums, including the UNFCCC, G7 and G20, and all parties must add more policy details to their climate commitments to ensure credibility and ambition. One of the most important bilateral relationships will be that with China. If the US and China can agree to ambitious actions together, that would be of huge importance to the global effort to fight climate change and could prompt more countries to follow suit. Mr. Kerry should also work to ensure that the US quickly endorses and moves toward implementing the Kigali amendment on phasing down hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), which are powerful global warming gases.

 Time for the US to live up to its responsibilities

After four years of sitting on the sidelines, the US will finally be back in the fight against climate change at the federal level. (Of course, all along, many US states and sub-national entities have continued to do their part). As a major economy responsible for the largest share of cumulative carbon emissions to date, it’s high time for the US to contribute its fair share to solutions, including making deep cuts in its carbon emissions and providing climate finance for developing countries.

Ultimately, the ability of the US to step up on the international front will depend on what the Biden Administration is able to deliver on an ambitious domestic climate agenda, through administrative and regulatory actions as well as in partnership with Congress to pass legislation.  The US must also make good on delivering its fair share of climate finance for developing countries to help them get on a low-carbon pathway and better cope with unavoidable climate impacts, and that too will require action from Congress.

If Congress and the Biden Administration step up, the US can deliver economywide emission reductions on the order of at least 50 percent below 2005 levels by 2030, and it can at least double its initial $3 billion commitment to the Green Climate Fund over the next four years (in addition to making up for its failure to meet that initial commitment—only $1 billion of which was actually disbursed under the Obama Administration before the Trump Administration took power). There is much more the US can and should do—this is a bare minimum.

The biggest challenge will be a closely divided Congress that has not shown a commitment to ambitious climate action thus far. Without congressional action, there are limits to what the Biden Administration can offer on the world stage. President-elect Biden and Mr. Kerry’s experience and working relationships with the US Senate will be much needed.

The Paris Agreement is still our best hope

While it is sobering to reflect on the lack of transformative actions on a global scale since the Paris Agreement came into being, that hard-won Agreement is still our best hope to limit climate change. It’s up to every country to live up to the goals of the Agreement—and it is especially incumbent on richer nations, such as the US, that have contributed the most to this crisis. If we fail to rein in the worst impacts of climate change, it will not be because the Agreement is flawed but because we failed to live up to our responsibilities and implement the policies it will take to deliver on those goals. The time for endless geopolitical negotiations is done; now is the time for action.

This week I have been thinking a lot about that moment in Le Bourget, the site of the Paris Agreement negotiations, when the gavel came down signaling that a historic climate agreement had been reached. It feels like a foregone conclusion now; but it was definitely not so at the time, with uncertainty and anxiety running high right until the very last minute. Some might also remember that these negotiations happened in the aftermath of terrible terrorist attacks in Paris and Beirut. No, none of it was easy.

The reason we succeeded then—and the same reason we can succeed now—is that individual nations rose above their narrow self-interests and saw the global common good. We succeeded because a broad, powerful climate movement showed up and held our governments’ feet to the fire so they could do the right thing.

That time is here again—time for us to hold our governments accountable, starting with the Biden Administration, and to keep the hope of Paris alive and strong.