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The Paris Agreement (Part II): The First Step on the Long Road Ahead

18 Dec 2015

The Paris Agreement (Part II): The First Step on the Long Road Ahead
Last weekend, the world witnessed a historic success in international diplomacy. Years of international negotiations on a follow-up agreement to the Kyoto Protocol culminated in the adoption of a universal climate agreement at COP21 in Paris. Tireless efforts of a diverse range of stakeholders, including member states, the UNFCCC Secretariat, civil society and scientists seem to have finally exorcized the ghost of Copenhagen.

Dunja Krause is an Associate Expert at UNRISD. Her research interests include social vulnerabilities in relation to natural hazards and risks, metrics of risk, and climate change adaptation, the latter in particular with regard to the evaluation of competing approaches.

Stronger than it could have been

In the closing plenary, country representatives time and again pointed out that the agreement is not perfect, but overall they celebrated and commended its adoption and welcomed it as an unprecedented success in climate diplomacy. Many questions remain open, especially given the gap between mitigation efforts announced in the Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs) and the actual mitigation needed to keep global warming well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels. Other questions remain fraught with tensions: how to operationalize the global goal on adapting to the unavoidable impacts of climate change, and how to ensure progressive mobilization of climate finance for developing countries with the aim of providing a floor of USD 100 billion per year by 2020, which will now not be revisited until 2025.

But there is also a lot of relief: the Paris Agreement is significantly stronger than it could have been and is recognized as an important step on the long road ahead. The gap between INDCs and the 2°C goal may indeed be worrying, but the agreement now goes further on climate change mitigation than most had dared to hope, not just aiming to stay well below 2°C but pushing for a global warming limit of 1.5°C. In addition, the controversially discussed support mechanism for loss and damage made it into the agreement albeit with the associated disclaimer that it does not provide a basis for liability or compensation.

For possibly the first time in the history of climate talks, enthusiasm and optimism seem to outweigh the more sceptical voices. That in itself makes the Paris agreement a landmark. For the first time, all parties have committed to a universal agreement on climate change that can serve as a framework and basis for the much needed shift away from fossil fuels to clean energy systems.

The biggest remaining questions now relate to implementing the profound transformation that is needed to achieve the agreed goals and how to hold parties accountable in a party-driven approach to climate governance. If we want to harness the full transformative potential of the agreement, we must ensure that the transition is fair and inclusive, that it respects human rights and reduces inequalities.

Taking a social development approach to climate change response

UNRISD plans to conduct policy-relevant research on clean energy transition which will highlight the interlinkages between environmental and social policies. Such research is needed to inform the more integrated policy-making required to govern climate change response in an inclusive and fair way.

It is clear that countries will and should take many different approaches to implementing the agreement and reaching their emissions reductions targets. In his statement during the closing plenary, US Secretary of State John Kerry pointed out, for example, that it will not so much be governments but, in his words, “business unleashed” that will take many decisions on the products and technologies needed reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

This statement leads me to re-emphasize the need for a social perspective on climate change mitigation pointed out in my previous post. Framing business as the decisive actor in climate change mitigation might be helpful when thinking of a participatory approach to sustainable consumption and production, and to unleash innovations that are often driven by competitiveness. But applying business logic to climate change response is bound to come at the expense of poor and vulnerable countries and people who contributed least to the problem, thus turning what is already a double injustice into a triple one. Framing the issue as a matter of technology and markets runs the risk of undermining the key principles of social inclusion and justice because it neglects the inherently political nature of decision making.

Integrating social development concerns into policies and plans for climate change mitigation requires an understanding of the more profound structural change that is needed to challenge institutions and power relations in order to tackle unsustainable practices enshrined into both the global economic system and individual behaviour.

This blog is the follow-up to a viewpoint posted just before the beginning of COP21:
        The Paris Agreement (Part I): Landmark or COP-out?

        As 2015 draws to an end, the 21st Conference of Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), COP21 in short, marks the concluding milestone in a series of potentially game-changing international agreements aimed at transforming our world towards sustainability.

        Why COP21 is critical

        COP21 is critical for several reasons, first and foremost because of the dire need for a new climate deal that can limit global warming to levels that avoid dangerous interference with the climate system. Our time to tackle climate change is running out and its unavoidable impacts become more severe the longer we wait. COP21 could be... read more


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This article reflects the views of the author(s) and does not necessarily represent those of the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development.