The Paris Agreement surprised many, but it was only a first, albeit important, step. Along with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), it could provide the impetus for the United Nations to Deliver as One.
The twenty‐first Conference of the Parties (COP21) to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in Paris was a good COP. It demonstrated unprecedented global collaboration when divisions were deep and stakes were high. Since 1995, when COP1 met in Berlin, governments have been assembling annually in an effort to create a path toward the “stabilization of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system.” COP15 in Copenhagen in 2009 became “the low‐point in the history of the climate regime,” or the bad COP. Member states left the Danish capital with an outcome that was not adopted but rather “taken note of.”
Six years later, 195 parties unanimously adopted the ambitious Paris Agreement, which set a long-term goal of keeping temperatures “well below 2 degrees C,” articulated the intent to reduce that to 1.5 degrees, and committed countries to net zero emissions in the second half of this century. Paris was hailed as a monumental achievement and a game changer. Despite structural and political obstacles, the outcome was successful beyond expectations. The agreement is ambitious and universal; it possesses a binding, yet flexible legal nature, clear procedures for accountability, and a credible financial structure. The Paris Agreement is the first document to articulate a clear global temperature goal, which is operationalized by stating that countries aim to peak their emissions as soon as possible and to reach global net-zero emissions after 2050.5 It is also universal, with developed and developing countries alike supposed to act.
The Paris Agreement will enter into force when 55 Parties accounting for over 55 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions ratify (as the Kyoto Protocol). A two‐stage process of signature and indication of consent to join and be bound by the agreement is necessary to become a party. Domestic approval may entail the notification and introduction to parliament, as in Australia, or the consent of the Senate, as in Mexico. Fiji was the first country to ratify on 12 March 2016, when its parliament unanimously agreed to ratify even before the official signing ceremony on 22 April 2016.
Many tensions remain, however, and success will be measured by what happens in the next three to five years. What led to the shift from a bad to a good COP? What are the threats and opportunities as the world moves from making commitments to implementation?
The Road from Paris: threats and opportunities
Ultimately, the Paris Agreement is just that—an agreement. It does not ensure that goals will be met; and there are no mechanisms at the international level—legal or otherwise, for climate or other global concerns—to enforce the implementation of obligations. The universal agreement is only the first step. Next stages will include adoption and ratification by national governments and parliaments; implementation of the various provisions; and review and upgrade of the commitments. Throughout, investments will need to grow.
Three core tensions had beleaguered the climate regime from the outset: tension between responsibility for causing and solving the problem; too modest emission reduction goals; and a top‐down, rigid legal architecture. In the absence of political and personal leadership, these concerns caused stalemate and resulted in multiple COP failures. The convergence of the five factors partially overcame this but did not eliminate future shortcomings. As countries begin to move from the agreement adoption to investment, implementation, review, and upgrade, they will encounter a number of threats and opportunities.
Reaching the more ambitious goal of stabilizing temperature change at 1.5 degrees would require countries to achieve full de‐carbonization of their economies by 2050 and net negative emissions in the second half of the century. The cost trajectory of solutions, the availability and affordability of new technologies, and a favorable regulatory climate will be important.
The US Supreme Court decision to issue a stay and delay the Clean Power Plan illustrated the risk of delayed implementation and increased litigation. It is unlikely that the United States will be able to fulfill its INDC commitments without the Clean Power Plan, which aims to reduce emissions by 2030 from existing power plants 30 percent below 2005 levels. The projected reduction had been 10 percent below 2005 levels by 2025. While New England states participating in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative have already met the requirements of the Clean Power Plan, others oppose regulation. The court’s decision called into question Washington’s reliability as a negotiating partner.
Review and Upgrade
Climate challenge depends not only on countries but also UN organizations. To this end, the UN system should engage in more collaboration to enable countries to implement their current commitments and increase them. Systems for assessing, reviewing, and learning cannot be created by any one country but are the product of an integrated effort. Only then can integrative country strategies be created that combine the SDGs and climate commitments. Engaging a wide array of non‐state actors in assessments could lead to greater accountability for state and non‐ state actors alike. The Paris Agreement and the SDGs could provide the impetus for the United Nations to Deliver as One. Ultimately, COP21 was accessible and collaborative, characterized by “political will and a spirit of unity” and the resulting Paris Agreement universal, dynamic, credible, and, hopefully, enduring. It offers possibilities for imagining and implementing solutions to reduce emissions and raise resilience across countries by engaging innovatively with ecosystems, by improving efficiency, and by developing new technologies.
The December 2015 UN conference in Paris has a place in history as the good COP; it sealed the deal that Copenhagen could not. Being a successful COP, however, will necessitate ambitious government implementation and UN monitoring.
Maria Ivanova is Associate Professor of Global Governance at the John W. McCormack Graduate School of Policy and Global Studies at the University of Massachusetts Boston and director of the Center for Governance and Sustainability. She is a member of the Scientific Advisory Board of the UN Secretary-General and a Board member of the UN University Institute for the Advanced Study of Sustainability (UNU-IAS); in 2015, she was awarded an Andrew Carnegie fellowship.