At the end of the COP21 (Conference of the Parties), on the December 12th 2015, 195 countries adopted the first ever binding global climate deal that aims at limiting global warming to below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and pursuing efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels. This agreement was then deposited at the UN in New York and opened for signature on April 22nd 2016 where 175 parties – 174 countries and the European Union – signed it. This sets a new record for an international agreement to be signed on its opening day, well overpassing the previous record of 119 signatures on the Law of the Sea Treaty in 1982. From this moment on, other countries have one year to sign the deal that will eventually enter into force thirty days after at least 55 countries, representing at least 55% of global emissions, ratify it.
It is far too soon to consider the Paris Conference as an important step forward in the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. Its realistic efficacy will only be proved in the years to come. However, the COP21 can already be seen as a diplomatic success, especially if we look back at how the Conference of the Parties has evolved over the last twenty years.
The COP is the supreme decision-making body of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and it is composed by all States that are Parties to the Convention. The latter was adopted at the Rio Earth Summit in 1992 and entered into force two years later, in 1994, with the aim of “preventing dangerous human interference with the climate system”. Since 1995, the Parties to the Convention have met annually in conferences (COP) to assess progresses in climate change reduction.
Looking back at the 20 conferences that preceded the last one in Paris, it’s worth mentioning the COP03 that took place in Japan in 1997. After long negotiations, it gave birth to the Kyoto Protocol that established binding obligations for the world’s leading economies to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions of 6-8% below 1990 levels between 2008 and 2012. Unfortunately, some of the largest contributors of GHG didn’t take part to the protocol. In fact, the United States didn’t ratify the treaty, while important emitters from the developing world like China and India weren’t required to curb emissions at all. Furthermore, the Kyoto Protocol offered flexibility on how countries could meet their targets meaning that they could compensate for their emissions by increasing forests which operate on the opposite side - they remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere - either on their territories or on other countries. Or they could compensate by paying for foreign projects that contribute to greenhouse gas cuts. It is easy to understand how these compensative measures turned out to be an excuse for industrialized countries to continue acting the same way.
Fourteen years later, in 2009, the COP15 held in Copenhagen fail to deliver a climate deal. The Kyoto Protocol had proved that its approach wasn’t effective since it showed that countries didn’t comply or participate with international agreements if that was not economically viable for them. And the flexibility offered by the Protocol – as mentioned above – certainly contributed to the low results of the Japanese Agreement since countries continued acting on their personal interests rather on the global ones. As a consequence, moving from a top-down approach, the Copenhagen Accord pursued a bottom-up pledge where countries could submit their climate change actions to be discussed and reviewed internationally. Theoretically, this should lead to a “broad but shallow” agreement where more nations make small efforts towards climate change. Results of this approach can hopefully enhance its credibility and show how environmental measures can be compatible with economic growth. In the end, like in a virtuous cycle, it can trigger more ambitious plans in the future to strengthen previous efforts. In reality, the Danish Accord didn’t find the required support to let the COP adopt it, resulting in the Copenhagen Conference to be a failure. What emerged the most was that developing countries – this time involved in the global concern – weren’t willing to halt their growth and be penalized by restricted measures to cut emissions assuming that they hadn’t cause the environmental damage now affecting the planet. On the other hand, some developed countries blamed new large emitters like China and India for their uncooperative attitude.
As a consequence, during the COP19 in Warsaw in 2013, it was agreed that Parties should decide for themselves what measures to put in place by providing their Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs). The same decision was then reiterated one year later in Lima during the COP20 where it was clarified that efforts should go beyond current mitigation pledges and prevent backsliding.
Six years after the Copenhagen failure, controversies between developed and developing world seems to be over. At COP21, for the first time ever, all nations committed to reduce their carbon emissions as soon as possible and to keep global warming to below 2°C. With reference to this important milestone in the history of COP Conferences, President Barak Obama said that “This agreement sends a powerful signal that the world is formally committed to a low carbon future. And that has the potential to unleash investment and innovation in clean energy at a scale we have never seen before”.
In particular, the Paris Agreement sets up accountable actions that should guarantee a transparency system on some key issues:
- Mitigation: it is of paramount importance to limit temperature increase and therefore parties have to submit their INDCs that should include time frame for implementation, scope and coverage and planning processes among the rest;
- Adaptation: vulnerable countries from the developing world will continue to be internationally supported for adaptation;
- Loss and damage: all those actions that minimise the effects of climate change have to be reinforced (i.e. early warning systems, emergency response, risk insurance, etc.);
- Transparency: every five years Parties will report to each other of their progresses and will discuss on how to implement their targets;
- Finance: developed countries will continue to support developing ones by mobilizing 100 billion USD per year until 2020 – as agreed in Copenhagen – and to continue until 2025 when a new goal will be set.
The bad news is that, in reality, pledges vary a lot from country to country. The BRIC nations, as an example, are still developing and are therefore concern about not hampering their growth. For this reason, according to the INDCs submitted, temperatures are still expected to overpass the target of 2°C, but not as much as it would happen with current policies.
On the whole, the Paris Agreement will hardly achieve its goal, but it has proved that the governments of the world can work together to make the days of burning fossil fuels becoming to an end. If actions applied in the years to come won’t solve the problem of climate change, they will at least allow countries to start to figure out how to invest money and use technology in the right direction.