The Paris Climate deal.

In what I think is genuinely a day to celebrate, we have an ambitious legally binding climate deal from the Paris COP21 negotiations.

The French did a great job on running the incredibly complex negotiations, resulting in an agreement that is stronger than anyone dared hope two weeks ago. The process was transparent, democratic and flexible and these values seem to have continued into the final text.

It is the first time in history rich, poor and emerging economies have made a joint commitment to tackle climate change, aiming to limit warming to “well below 2C”. There’s also the aspirational goal of limiting it to the safer 1.5C.

To achieve this, all fossil fuel use will need to stop by 2050.

All countries are legally obliged to “prepare, communicate and maintain” successive climate plans, though in a sop to the US, the specific targets are not binding. These will be reviewed on a five-yearly basis, with a first update on national plans expected from governments in 2020 after a 2018 UN emissions stocktake.

The task now is to ensure that action matches the ambition.

Key things to realise about the Paris deal are that

Its “legally binding”, but …

It often uses words like countries “should” do something rather than the stronger “shall”, so for example, countries aren’t legally bound to meet the national emissions targets they offered in their “Intended Nationally Determined Contributions” (INDCs) months leading up to the negotiations. To the horror of the US, there was a last minute huddle when the word “shall” accidentally(?) got inserted in the clause about emission reductions in the final draft!

It comes into force when 55 countries, representing 55% of total, global greenhouse gas emissions have approved it.

The temperature target has strengthened, but…..

In Cancun in 2010, there was a non-binding agreement to hold warming “below 2C” This has now been strengthened, making it clear that the global long-term goal is to limit global average warming to “well below” 2C with a more aspirational ambition of limiting warming to 1.5C.

Scientifically, this is absolutely what we need to reduce the risk of dangerous climate change, but achieving it will be extraordinarily challenging.  The emissions reductions in the INDCs resulted in at best a 2.7C rise, so there’s a lot of work to do if action is to match ambition.

To have a chance of achieving 1.5C, we can only hope that we’re lucky in the sensitivity of the climate to greenhouse gases, and the speed with which the Paris treaty stimulates rapid decarbonisation of the global economy. If not, we’ll be faced with the massive task of removing greenhouse gases from the atmosphere from around 2050: something that will bring huge risks and costs for future generations.

In a major omission, aviation and shipping have been excluded from the deal (maybe because they’re hard to include in a framework based around national contributions), but it will be impossible to limit warming to 1.5C without addressing them.

The deal is ambitious, but…..

By committing countries to phase out greenhouse gas emissions, it explicitly states that the era of fossil fuels is coming to an end. However, the wording about what countries must actually DO is weak, so for example, the key phrases, in Article 4.1, are that countries

  • “aim to reach global peaking of greenhouse gas emissions as soon as possible”, and
  • “to undertake rapid reductions thereafter … to achieve a balance between anthropogenic emissions by sources and removals by sinks … in the second half of the century”.

In practice, this implies phasing out of fossil fuels by as early as 2050. Given the investment timescales for major infrastructure, this is an enormous challenge. There will of course be huge resistance from vested interests, and huge temptations for national governments to ignore their Paris promises.

Nevertheless, trillions of dollars of investment are already starting to move away from fossil fuels and towards low carbon technologies and infrastructure.  This will bring good times for low carbon innovators.

Sustainable lifestyles are in!

Pleasingly, and for the first time, the preamble to the deal recognises that “that sustainable lifestyles … play an important role in addressing climate change”.