The Paris Agreement: 5 years on we are cautiously optimistic

Five years ago, the Parties to the UNFCCC negotiated the Paris Agreement – a landmark environmental accord that aimed to tackle climate change, adapt to its impacts and support the developing world to do the same. For the first time, the nations of the world had united in this common cause. This was undoubtedly a ...

Lucy Haines

9 Dec 2020 6 mins read time

Five years ago, the Parties to the UNFCCC negotiated the Paris Agreement – a landmark environmental accord that aimed to tackle climate change, adapt to its impacts and support the developing world to do the same. For the first time, the nations of the world had united in this common cause. This was undoubtedly a moment of great hope.

Five years later. How much progress has actually been made? Are we still united and on track to change the course of history and avoid catastrophic climate change?

The world wakes up to climate change

Engagement on climate change has changed significantly since 2015. There has never been more media coverage of climate-related issues, more climate activists on the streets protesting change or more climate commitments from governments, cities and corporates around the world.

This year in EcoAct’s 10th Anniversary research into the Sustainability Reporting Performance of the FTSE 100, 45% of companies were publicly committed to Net Zero emissions, over 80% reported their climate risks and 57% had set or committed to set emissions reductions targets in line with science for limiting global warming to below 2oC. These are statistics we might only have dreamed of when we published the first report in 2011.

There has never been more pressure on organisations to take action either and this action is now expected to be robust and transparent. The general public, consumers, investors and NGOs are now more informed, more discerning and more inclined to hold organisations and their environmental claims to account.

The Paris Agreement went on to be ratified by 189 of the 197 Parties and this has no doubt played a role in catalysing the movement for change across the globe over these past five years. But it has not been the only driver.

In September 2019, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a special report on warming at 1.5oC. It painted a stark picture of our world at 2oC compared to 1.5oC and the catastrophic impacts that would arise if we break the 2oC barrier. Science made it clear, in no uncertain terms, that it is imperative that we keep global warming under 2oC or face dire consequences. To make this possible we must achieve Net Zero before 2050, otherwise these consequences will be unavoidable. Since this report was published, over 100 countries have committed to achieving Net Zero by 2050 with over 1,500 large corporates following suit.

In 2019, we also reached 1.1oC of warming and were already witnessing its effects. We saw record-breaking temperatures, extreme weather wreaking havoc and wildfires raging across the globe, even in the arctic circle. Since 2015, it has become virtually impossible to deny that climate change is here already. Five years on from Paris, and the world is waking up to its impacts almost every day.

Faltered ambitions and lack of multilateral governance

Since it’s inception, the task has been to formalise the terms of the Agreement and set out a clear path to global climate action. This process has not been without considerable challenge.

In 2019, as promised by Trump’s Presidential election campaign, the US gave notice that they would withdraw from the Paris Agreement. This threatened to undermine the intention of global governance and cooperation in tackling climate change. It also removed one of the largest global emitters from the negotiation table.

By COP25 in December 2019 further challenges to finalising the operational rules of the Paris Agreement emerged. Negotiations failed on several major issues, revealing the profound differences between States. This hampered the ability to come to unanimous decisions on key agenda items, such as the rules and mechanisms for financing and transferring emissions reductions across boundaries.

In 2020, the global coronavirus pandemic has taken the in-person conference off the table entirely and diverted attention to a new seemingly more immediate threat. This has further thwarted efforts to make progress in sustainability as the window for action rapidly closes.

Five years on, we remain without a clear rule book or universal consensus and are heading towards at least 3oC of warming according to UN Secretary General António Guterres. Despite the growing number of commitments to climate action, the lack of global cooperation and national leadership is clearly damaging our ability to make sufficient progress.

Renewed hope for the Paris Agreement at COP26

Things could be about to change.

United States President Elect, Joe Biden, has promised to bring the US back into the Paris Agreement and commit to Net Zero by 2050, which will align the US with the ambitions of the agreement.

The tragedy of the pandemic is also proving to be a catalyst for change with resounding calls from businesses, climate groups and political figures for us to “build back better” from this crisis. We have been forced to re-evaluate our relationship with the natural world, the consequences of environmental degradation and our failure to heed the warnings on future climate risk. Many are realising that we have a unique opportunity now to avoid what could be a global crisis of far greater proportions.

Despite the postponement of COP26, to mark the anniversary, there will be a virtual Climate Ambition Summit co-hosted by the UK COP Presidency, the UN and France, in partnership with Chile and Italy. It will be an opportunity for countries to present their new Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs).

Furthermore, on Friday 4th December, Boris Johnson announced that the UK will increase its existing emissions reduction target of 57% to at least 68% (compared with 1990 levels) by 2030, as advised by the UK Climate Change Committee (CCC). The promise is to go “further and faster” than other nations.

This is an encouraging sign that, as hosts of the next COP26 (now rescheduled for November 2021 in Glasgow), the UK intends to demonstrate leadership and set the bar for other countries to step up to.

Stuart Lemmon, CEO of EcoAct UK, believes “this is a promising signal from the government that it is committed to achieving the goals of the Paris Agreement”. However, he cautions that “to achieve the target will require that climate be at the heart of all aspects of government policy in future. Recent spending commitments suggest that we are lagging behind in this regard and a roadmap for action across the economy is not yet clear”. We remain cautiously optimistic that this new target means a comprehensive and aligned action plan will now be forthcoming.

The Paris Agreement 5 years on

It is clear that expectations are high and the credibility of the Agreement still remains at stake. There is still much work to be done and in a limited time frame. In 2019 the UN Emissions Gap Report stated that we need to reduce global emissions by 7.6% every year between 2020 and 2030 to not miss our chance to avoid the worst of climate change. National commitments to date are not near enough to achieve this but there is still time to change that.

Five years on, we appear to be at a turning point that could be make or break for the Paris Agreement but the hope of international cooperation to avert the worst of the climate crisis is still very much alive.

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