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Why does it matter to save energy?

Paris Agreement 2015: is it the real deal?

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius (centre) leads the celebrations marking final acceptance by nearly 200 nations of the Paris Agreement on climate change. Image courtesy of UN.Paris 2015

The Paris Agreement adopted by 195 nations on 12 December 2015 has been hailed as a 'historic' breakthrough in our collective efforts to tackle climate change. Indeed there were cheers and some tears of joy when French Foreign Minister, Laurent Fabius, who was presiding over the talks, brought down his leaf-shaped gavel to mark adoption of the final document. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said: “We have entered a new era of global cooperation on one of the most complex issues ever to confront humanity. For the first time, every country in the world has pledged to curb emissions, strengthen resilience and join in common cause to take common climate action."

New 1.5C limit on global warming

The headline goal is to "pursue efforts to limit" the global average temperature rise to 1.5C above preindustrial levels, which is an improvement on the 2C limit adopted at the Copenhagen talks in 2009. However, this new, lower limit remains just an aspiration, with no detailed strategy for achieving it. But, the Paris talks can be seen as as marking a sea change in attitudes, not only by national governments but also by major cities and corporations around the globe. Much work has been done since Copenhagen through a 'bottom-up' approach - 188 countries submitted climate plans in the run-up to Paris, and over 7000 cities and more than 5000 companies have signed up to a Lima to Paris Action Agenda (LPAA).

Christiana FigueresChristiana Figueres, Executive Secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), said: “The recognition of actions by businesses, investors, cities and regions is one of the key outcomes... Together with the LPAA, the groundswell of action shows that the world is on an inevitable path toward a properly sustainable, low-carbon world." Image: The Lisbon Council.

So, does this Agreement really herald a new dawn and the end of the fossil fuel era? Or is it just a mish mash of warm words with no effective enforcement or legally binding substance? What are the key points?

Key points

  • More ambitious goal of a 1.5C limit on global temperature rise - although we are due to pass 1C in 2015 according to the UK Met Office.
  • Voluntary climate plans already submitted by 188 countries - but many of these are little more than aspirational, and even if all were implemented in full, global warming would exceed 2.5C. Updated climate plans are to be submitted every 5 years.
  • Net carbon emissions to be reduced to zero 'in the second half of this century' - but no specific target date.
  • Every 5 years, starting in 2023, there will be a 'global stocktake' of the impact of measures, so these can be strengthened and updated as necessary.
  • Financial support for developing nations to mitigate and adapt to climate change and improve resilience, to the tune of US$100 billion annually by 2020, to be paid by the developed nations. However, this is not legally binding.

Reaction

It is generally agreed that the Paris Conference exceeded expectations, after the disappointment of Copenhagen, and is a credit to the determined diplomacy of dedicated UN officials such as Christiana Figueres. The Agreement embodies opportunities to monitor progress and strengthen actions, allowing an accelerating trajectory towards that still distant 'zero emissions' goal.

Nicholas Stern, economist and author of the influential Stern Report, said "the Paris Agreement is a turning point in the world’s fight against unmanaged climate change, which threatens prosperity and well-being among both rich and poor countries. The Agreement creates enormous opportunities as countries begin to accelerate along the path towards low-carbon economic development and growth.”

Craig Bennett, Chief Executive of Friends of the Earth, was more sceptical: "The Paris climate deal will require people-power to make politicians live up to their rhetoric, because we have not got the legally binding science- and justice-based agreement that was needed." This pessimistic view was shared by journalist George Monbiot: "Though negotiated by some nations in good faith, the real outcomes are likely to commit us to levels of climate breakdown that will be dangerous to all and lethal to some." 

The UK's Energy Secretary, Amber Rudd, speaking on the BBC, was more upbeat: "We had to get the balance of being totally inclusive, getting 200 countries to sign up, but also not having such a tough compliance regime that you can say we had at Kyoto, which didn't succeed, that some countries would step away. I think this is the right balance, but it is a compromise. It is nevertheless a historic moment."