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[Burning Issue] Five Years of Paris Agreement

We owe it to the next generation who will have to bear the burden of climate change and pay off the debt of the recovery…..

The international community, including the European Union (EU) and India, gathered at the Climate Ambition Summit 2020. The Summit was held on the 5th anniversary of the Paris Agreement.

This edition of Burning Issue takes stock of the progress made on climate action in the last 5 years.

The story at a glance

  • Five years ago, as negotiations for the Paris climate agreement ran into overtime, a worldwide urgency was felt for reaching an accord. Thus came to being, the Paris Agreement.
  • Yet five years after the Paris pact was signed, the heady wine of global climate collaboration has been soured by rogue nations backsliding, and in the case of the US, even withdrawing from the agreement.
  • And effective climate action has been hampered by continued fossil fuel propaganda as well as by related economic policies like fossil fuel subsidies (as in the case for natural gas) anywhere in the world.
  • Under the agreement, 2020 was supposed to be a milestone year, with a deadline for setting more ambitious targets to cut emissions.
  • But, the deadly global pandemic had stalled all the efforts as well as talks. Then came, the Climate Ambition Summit 2020.

What is the Paris Agreement?

  • The Paris Agreement is a legally binding international treaty on climate change. It was adopted by 196 Parties at COP 21 in Paris, on 12 December 2015 and entered into force on 4 November 2016.
  • Its goal is to limit global warming to well below 2, preferably to 1.5 degrees Celsius, compared to pre-industrial levels.
  • To achieve this long-term temperature goal, countries aim to reach global peaking of greenhouse gas emissions as soon as possible to achieve a climate-neutral world by mid-century.
  • It is a landmark process because, for the first time, a binding agreement brings all nations into a common cause to undertake ambitious efforts to combat climate change and adapt to its effects.

Key points of the agreement

The action plan

  • Implementation of the Paris Agreement requires economic and social transformation, based on the best available science.
  • The Agreement works on a 5- year cycle of increasingly ambitious climate action carried out by countries.
  • By 2020, countries submit their plans for climate action known as nationally determined contributions (NDCs).

Five years after: Where are we now?

All states have submitted their national contributions to mitigate and adapt to climate change. Distant hypothetical targets are being set. Seems like we are still speeding in the wrong direction or we are lagging far behind.

(1) Unclear targets and response

The world is still unclear since five years as to how the net-zero pledges will translate into shorter term targets. Few of the countries that have announced ambitious long-term goals have implemented national policies to reach them in time.

(2) Degradation isn’t stopped

Meanwhile, we continue to destroy the world’s carbon sinks, by cutting down forests – the world is still losing an area of forest the size of the UK each year, despite commitments to stop deforestation – as well as drying out peatlands and wetlands, and reducing the ocean’s capacity to absorb carbon from the air.

(3) Countries aren’t scaling up their targets

Although 151 states have indicated that they will submit stronger targets before December 31, only 13 of them, covering 2.4 per cent of global emissions, have submitted such targets. While states have been slow to update their national contributions for 2025-2030, several have announced exaggeratedly high “net zero” targets in the recent past.

Issues in setting up targets

A chasm between aspirations and emissions remains, as does the continued economic gap between developed and developing countries.

(1) Credibility of the commitments

  • The credibility checks; Are these long-term net zero goals aligned with short-term actions, policies and measures? And we know very well.
  • Many net zero goals have not yet been embedded in national contributions and long-term strategies under the Paris Agreement.
  • Current national contributions are not on track for such a fall.  For many there is a mismatch between short-term actions and long-term commitments.

(2) Fixing accountability

  • In any case, accountability under the Paris Agreement is limited. States are not obliged to achieve their self-selected targets.
  • There is no mechanism to review the adequacy of individual contributions. States are only asked to provide justifications for the fairness and ambition of their targets.
  • The transparency framework does not contain a robust review function, and the compliance committee is facilitative and limited to ensuring compliance with a shortlist of binding procedural obligations.

(3) Fairness of climate action

  • The principles of equity, justice and fairness are fundamental to understanding and addressing the challenges of global climate change.
  • These principles are legally side-stepped in the Paris Agreement.
  • This is because the problem has been caused by the emissions of the rich countries for several centuries but will primarily impact the poorest people and poorest countries.

Analysis: A success in making

(1) Political resilience: A no mean achievement

The accord itself has proved remarkably resilient. Bringing together 196 nations in 2015 was not easy. The failure, discord and recriminations of those decades were left behind as delegates from 196 countries hugged, wept and cheered in Paris.

(2) All emitters concurred

The agreement has proven to be inclusive and at scale, with the participation of countries representing 97% of global emissions. It gave a powerful signal of hope in the face of the climate emergency.

(3) Clean energy shift

Renewable energy will make up about 90% of the new energy generation capacity installed around the world, according to the International Energy Agency. That massive increase reflects rapid falls in the price of renewable energy (ex. solar tariffs in India) now competitive or cheaper than fossil fuel generation.

(4) Worldwide quests for net-zero emissions

Many nations led the way in adopting net-zero targets. In September this year, China surprised the world by its pledge to achieve net-zero emissions in 2060. US president-elect Joe Biden has also pledged to adopt a target of net zero emissions by 2050. That puts more than two-thirds of the global emitters under a commitment.

(5) Normalizing 1.5C

One of the biggest surprises of Paris was the inclusion of 1.5C as an aspirational limit on global temperature rise. Official recognition of 1.5C did not make it any less of a long shot. But it shifted the onus away from proponents of 1.5C having to defend its feasibility, to proponents of 2C having to defend sacrificing vulnerable communities.

(6) Institutional change

The Paris Agreement has no central enforcement mechanism. That does not mean it is unenforceable. Institutions ranging from financial regulators to city authorities are embedding the deal’s targets and principles in their policies, creating new avenues for accountability.

A caution: For the world to be serious again

Any sense of optimism about the progress driven by the Paris deal must be tempered by the harsh reality of how far there is to go. Here is what has yet to change.

(1) Rising emissions

Global greenhouse gas emissions have continued to grow, with a billion tonnes of CO2 added to annual figures between 2015 and 2018. The trend is dominated by emerging economies in Asia, as incumbent energy industries meet a hunger for development by any means. Advanced economies are not cutting emissions fast or consistently enough to offset growth elsewhere.

(2) Rising temperatures

As emissions rise, so too do temperatures. 2020 is set to be 1.2C warmer than pre-industrial times and among the three hottest years on record. Droughts and floods are confounding subsistence farmers the world over. The atmosphere will keep serving up new records for generations. Temperatures will not stabilize until emissions reach net-zero, because carbon dioxide builds up in the air.

(3) Rising fossil fuel production

The phrase “fossil fuels” do not appear in the Paris Agreement. Nor do the words “coal”, “oil” or “gas”. To meet the Paris goals, the vast majority of hydrocarbons need to stay in the ground — but that was too blunt a reality to concede for countries economically reliant on them.

(4) The vulnerable continue to suffer

Within and between countries, it is poor and marginalised people who are most exposed and continue to suffer the climate crisis. The Paris Agreement has failed to acknowledge that some people will experience loss and damage that cannot be mitigated against or adapted to.

(5) Climate finance is still meagre

Climate finance flows from rich governments have increased on the face of it. But the majority is delivered as loans, not grants, adding to the debt burden of developing countries.  There is no compensation for victims of climate disaster, only talking shops and insurance schemes they must pay the premiums for.

Global scene

(1) US retreat

  • The US – the world’s second-biggest emitter began the process of withdrawal from Paris, under President Trump in 2017.
  • The Kyoto 1997 protocol fell apart after the US signed but failed to ratify the agreement, leaving climate negotiations in limbo for a decade.
  • However, the president-elect Joe Biden announced the US’s return to the Paris Accord, accompanied by a battery of measures vide his election mandates.
  • Biden has also announced his support for a carbon border tax, a mechanism that the European Commission also wants to put in place.

(A carbon border tax is a tax on carbon emissions attributed to imported goods that have not been carbon-taxed at the source.)

(2) Chinese over-ambitions

China surprised the world with a pledge to make itself carbon neutral by 2060. With this, China has an opportunity to assert its global leadership on climate before Biden takes an ambitious green agenda to the White House. China committed to values compared to 2005 levels:

  • Reduce carbon intensity by over 65% by 2030 (compared to its initial commitment of 60-65%)—it was at 48.1% at the end of 2019;
  • Increase non-fossil energy to around 25% by 2030 (compared to 20% in their current target)—it was at 15.3% at the end of 2019;
  • Increase forest stock volume to 6 billion cubic meters by 2030 (compared to 4.5 billion in their current target)—it was approximately 4.5 billion cubic meters at the end of 2019; and
  • Increase the total installed capacity of wind and solar to 1,200 gigawatts by 2030 (no previous target)—it was at 415 gigawatts at the end of 2019. 

India and the Paris Agreement

India has achieved 21% of its emissions intensity reduction target as a proportion of its GDP in line with its pledge to a 33-35% reduction by 2030.

(1) Clean energy

India, the world’s fourth-largest renewable energy market, has been one of the leaders in this transition. India has grown its renewables capacity by 250% in just the last five years and plans to expand it by another 500% to reach 450 gigawatts by 2030.

(2) CO2 emission reduction

The Emissions Gap Report has stated that India’s per capita emissions are actually 60% lower than the global average. Also, emissions in the country grew 1.4% in 2019, much lower than its average of 3.3% per year over the last decade, the report said.

India was the only major G20 country that was on track towards keeping to its nationally determined commitments to halt runaway global warming.

Climate Diplomacy and India

  • India has not caused the climate change crisis and, unlike developed nations, but it is meeting its obligations under the Paris Agreement. India is one of the few overachievers in terms of meeting the NDCs.
  • We cannot make lofty promises as China or the US does.
  • Climate negotiations potentially are more far-reaching for our polity, economy and society.
  • Several are suggesting that our best option is a “No” to more ambitious commitments.

Going beyond coercive environmentalism

China’s vigorous mobilization of state power to enforce new environmental norms in the last few years has helped China on climate issues. This has been hailed as the model for “authoritarian environmentalism” which has been more effective than the “liberal environmentalism”

  • The urgency of addressing climate change is likely to intensify in the immediate term with regime change in the US and overambitious Beijing.
  • India’s ability to influence the new geopolitics of climate change will depend a lot on its domestic political resilience (as in case of stubble-burning).
  • The question of penalizing stubble burning that chokes the cities of north-western India during the early winter months is only one of the issues in the larger argument.

Gearing up for uncertainties

  • India needs to be cognizant that some are preparing tools of coercive climate diplomacy. EU is eyeing a carbon border adjustment mechanism by 2021.
  • The Biden administration will also look to favour a carbon tax with border adjustments, although whether it can get through such legislation remains uncertain.
  • Caution needs to be our watchword. For a sui generis state such as ours with varied interests, to gather allies with similar climate goals is not easy.

Way forward: The grounds for optimism

  • The Paris agreement still provides the best hope of avoiding the worst ravages of climate breakdown: the question is whether countries are prepared to back it up with action, rather than more hot air.
  • Renewing the shorter term commitments is the best way ahead.
  • Making promises for the 2050s-60s is one thing, but major policy changes are needed now to shift national economies on to a low-carbon footing.
  • None of these (net zero) targets will be meaningful without very aggressive action in this decade. Diplomacy is inevitably a tool in global climate action.

Conclusion

  • For many, there is a mismatch between short-term actions and long-term commitments. A credible short-term commitment with a clear pathway is the key.
  • Not all states will be in a position to pledge net-zero targets, nor should they be expected to.
  • All states, including India, can, however, pledge actions that are credible, accountable and fair.
  • Our real test on climate change is on building a new domestic consensus that can address the economic and political costs associated with an internal adjustment to the prospect of a great global reset.
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Nagesh
Nagesh
10 months ago

Excellent article..thanks a lot for it