The Paris agreement

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Paris 2015The world woke up on the morning of the 13 December to an agreement that has potential to be one of the most important in its history. Here we provide an overview of the ‘Paris agreement’[1] – the strengths and the gaps, as well as SEPA’s Chief Executive Terry A’Hearn’s views on its implications for Scotland and SEPA.

The dust is yet to settle on the agreement, but many observers are calling it historic. While the negotiation process involved compromises to achieve a deal acceptable to 195 nations, there is general consensus that significant progress was made to avoid ‘dangerous climate change’. The Paris agreement has legally-binding elements, addresses both mitigation and adaptation, is inclusive – involving all nations – and makes financial, resource and technology provisions that recognise the differing capacities and responsibilities between nations for tackling climate change.

The Paris agreement

The agreement puts steps in place to replace the Kyoto Protocol, agreed in 1997 and due to expire in 2020. The main provisions of the agreement are:

To keep global temperature rise ‘well below’ 2.0oC, and ‘endeavour to limit’ them even more, to 1.5oC.

The goal of preventing what scientists regard as dangerous and irreversible levels of climate change – deemed to be around +2oC of warming above pre-industrial times – is central to the agreement. Given that the rise is already +1oC, this is an ambitious target. The lower limit of +1.5oC is a recognition of the special circumstances of low lying and island nations. These are most vulnerable to sea level change and many are already impacted by such rises.

To limit the amount of greenhouse gases emitted by human activity to the same levels that trees, soil and oceans can absorb naturally, beginning at some point between 2050 and 2100.

There was agreement that atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations would need to stabilise. This will mean rapid transition to a low carbon economy and dramatic changes from the use of fossil fuel-based to renewable energy. At the same time, it recognises that there has to be allowance for poorer countries to develop. So the while emissions should fall generally, the richer nations should bear the brunt of cuts, and those of poorer countries can continue to rise – although finance and technology support should help minimise such rise.

To review each country’s contribution to cutting emissions every five years so they scale up to the challenge.

In contrast to the ‘top down’ approach taken in the Kyoto Protocol, the ‘Intended Nationally Determined Contributions’ (INDCs), submitted before the conference have provided the basis for the agreement on emissions. If delivered, these INDCs would limit temperature increase to around +2.7oC.

The agreement includes a five-yearly global stocktake[2] starting in 2023 to assess the collective progress towards the goals of the agreement. The agreement also includes a compliance mechanism, overseen by a committee of experts to operate in a ‘non-punitive way’.

For rich countries to help poorer nations by providing ‘climate finance’ to adapt to climate change and switch to renewable energy.

Finance to assist developing countries to address climate change has been a key issue for the negotiations. Building on a standing promise from 2010 of US $100bn (£67bn) a year by 2020, the agreement requires rich nations to maintain a $100bn a year funding pledge beyond 2020. This figure should be seen as a ‘floor’ for further support agreed by 2025. The deal says wealthy countries should continue to provide financial support for poor nations to cope with climate change and encourages other countries to join in on a voluntary basis.’

On adapting to the impacts of climate change, the agreement provides for all countries to submit ‘adaptation communications’, which can detail their adaptation priorities, support needs and plans. Developing countries will receive increased support for adaptation actions and the adequacy of this support will be assessed. Progress on adaptation and improving resilience will clearly depend on provisions on climate finance and on efforts to reduce increases in global temperatures.

Remaining questions?

While there was a generally-positive response to deal, there are aspects of the agreement where, for some, questions remain. These mainly relate to concerns that developing states had not received sufficient assurances about resources and funding to address climate impacts. As a result there have been criticisms voiced by Development NGOs, including:

  • The reductions in emissions pledged in INDCs will not be enough to secure the +2oC limit, since the transition away from fossil fuels is too slow to maintain global temperatures at a safe level.
  • The deal is not strong enough for poor countries – as one commentator said “What we needed out of Paris was a deal that put the poorest people first. What we have been presented with doesn’t go far enough to improve the fragile existence of millions around the world.”[3]
  • It doesn’t contain an emissions reduction goal or a peak year in global emissions.
  • It omits emissions from aviation and shipping.

Overall

The agreement represents the conclusion of five years of negotiation at annual conferences, each marking a step towards the final deal. There are unresolved issues, further action is needed and the success or otherwise of the Paris agreement will be determined by delivery in coming years. It remains however a major achievement securing global agreement on tackling climate change across 195 nations with dramatically different interests and needs.

If there has been success here, it has been as much down to negotiation and diplomacy both in advance of and then during the conference. This was exemplified by the:

  • significant movement in the US negotiating position, particularly the US President’s efforts to engage other key players like India and China;
  • French Government’s diplomatic efforts to ensure a successful conference;
  • goodwill on the part of developing nations to reach an agreement, with China, India and Brazil accepting the need for an inclusive agreement this time round;
  • scientific foundation for the agreement provided by the IPCC’s fifth round of reports.

The agreement – implications for Scotland and SEPA

Our Chief Executive Terry A’Hearn reflected on the agreement and the implications for Scotland and SEPA.

“Scotland has been a leader in tackling climate change so is well-placed to harness this new momentum and continue the transition to a low-carbon economy.

“At SEPA, we have been actively working on climate change for several years, both in reducing our own emissions and in supporting others with their mitigation and adaptation activities.  It is important that we now understand the agreement and what it means for Scotland.

“One observation I would offer is that the world in which all the businesses we regulate changed on 13 December. This will not necessarily be immediately dramatic and lead to major short-term changes. But one of the likely effects of the agreement will be to provide increased confidence to markets to consider carbon risks, adaptation risks and other climate change factors in pricing and investment decisions. We need to think about how we help Scottish businesses turn this into an opportunity to reduce their environmental impact in a way that works for them commercially. We also need to think about the opportunities for Scottish communities to benefit from the stronger global approach to tackling climate change.

“SEPA has a specific role in the climate change work that is undertaken in Scotland and we look forward to working with our partners, Scotland’s businesses and communities to help us perform this role in the new era that was established in Paris.”

[1] UN Adoption of the Paris agreement

[2] UNFCCC at http://newsroom.unfccc.int/unfccc-newsroom/finale-cop21/

[3] Harjeet Singh, ActionAid [quoted in]Guardian online Paris climate change deal too weak to help poor, critics warn 14 December 2015

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