COP21: Hope Dawns Prematurely


The 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP21), held in Paris, culminated last Saturday in the adoption of the legally binding Paris Agreement. Lauded by the participants as heralding a new era of responsible climate control, doubts nonetheless remain as to the significance of the Paris Agreement and the viability of its promises.

COP21 was the 21st annual conference on global warming to be held by the parties to the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. By resulting in the publication of a legally binding agreement on climate change with 195 signatories—including the United States, whose refusal to sign the 1997 Kyoto agreement spelled the death of early attempts to legalise climate change commitments—COP21 has succeeded where the previous annual global warming conferences had failed.

The political rhetoric surrounding the Paris Agreement has been, unsurprisingly, rousing and evocative. François Hollande, the President of France and the summit host of the Paris conference, waxed lyrical in lauding the agreement as “the most peaceful and beautiful revolution”, describing the outcome as a “major leap for mankind”. It is arguable, however, that Hollande is guilty of hyperbole.

One of the most significant parts of the Paris Agreement is housed in Article 2(1)(a), with the signatories promising to hold the average global temperature at “well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels”, with the temperature cap of 1.5°C cited as an aspiration. This promise is, however, a far cry from the “major leap” that Hollande lays claim to.

The 2°C figure is nothing new, having been first proposed by climate experts in the mid 90s as the absolute maximum tolerance of temperature rise that the globe could cope with without calamitous ramifications. It is a figure that has featured in the non legally binding 2009 Copenhagen Accord—formed at COP15—and was central to the 2011 Durban (COP17) and 2012 Doha (COP18) climate conferences on climate change, where the participants stressed that the then-current efforts to cap global warming to a 2°C rise were gravely inadequate.

That the Paris Agreement legalises the commitment to keep the average global temperature rise to below 2°C represents a modicum of progress. However, international law has yet to develop an effective mechanism to control the activities of the major powers, and there appears to be little impediment to continual failings to achieve targets for the reduction of global warming.

Proponents of the Paris Agreement will point to the peer review approach adopted in Article 14(2) as a useful alternative to mere reliance on international law, with a “global stocktake” of the progress of the signatories being due in 2023 and every five years thereafter. Similarly, a peer pressure process of enforcing the nationally determined contributions towards achieving the aims of the Convention can be seen in Article 4, with the secretariat being empowered to collect and publish the contributions of each nation. Nonetheless, the ramifications of failing to match global warming reduction targets were not set out, while, significantly, there remains no consensus on how to actually tackle climate change.

Recent data released by the Met Office indicates that, as of 2014, society had already used more than half of the 2°C budget as a result of the current global volume of greenhouse gas emissions. Whilst many governments are increasingly trying to pursue greener modes of generating energy, there is still much work that must be done, and quickly. The United Nations and the World Resources Institute report that even if the intended nationally determined contributions of the signatories to the Paris Agreement are met, global warming would be capped at 2.7°C-3.7°C, a figure substantially higher than the pledged value of well below 2°C.

Outside of the Pairs Agreement, COP21 also resulted in an accompanying, non-binding, agreement requiring the developed countries among the signatories to pursue the mobilisation of $100 billion (£65.9 billion) in order to achieve the aims of the Paris Agreement. This statement of intent is, if anything, more important than the binding but vague and non-committal Paris Agreement, and must be backed by decisive action in an effort to drastically cut greenhouse gas emissions.

To achieve the 2°C promise, the signatory nations must use the $100 billion to encourage and facilitate private investment in green energy and, alongside this, must implement policy changes in the energy markets. Coal combustion needs to be phased out, as must traditional transport and manufacturing processes in favour of carbon-negative alternatives. Furthermore, reforestation and the creation of seaweed farms would help to greatly reduce atmospheric carbon dioxide levels.

It is clear that the Paris Agreement represents part of the evolutionary process for securing environmental stability, but it is not, as claimed by Hollande, a “revolution”, or even a “major leap”. The 2°C promise is not novel and is, in reality, practically unenforceable, while current trends indicate that the promise will be broken. It is a step in the right direction, but this paper tiger must be fleshed out by affirmative radical action from the signatories. A failure to do so will be catastrophic.