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The Paris Agreement (Part I): Landmark or COP-out?

26 Nov 2015

The Paris Agreement (Part I): Landmark or COP-out?
As 2015 draws to an end, the 21st Conference of Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), COP21 in short, marks the concluding milestone in a series of potentially game-changing international agreements aimed at transforming our world towards sustainability.

Dunja Krause is an Associate Expert at UNRISD. Her research interests include social vulnerabilities in relation to natural hazards and risks, metrics of risk, and climate change adaptation, the latter in particular with regard to the evaluation of competing approaches.

Why COP21 is critical

COP21 is critical for several reasons, first and foremost because of the dire need for a new climate deal that can limit global warming to levels that avoid dangerous interference with the climate system. Our time to tackle climate change is running out and its unavoidable impacts become more severe the longer we wait. COP21 could be a much needed landmark agreement that gets parties on track when it comes to shifting to low-carbon economies, and it might be our last chance to come close to reaching the goal of limiting global warming to an increase of 2°C above pre-industrial levels. A strong agreement is crucial to protect people from unbearable impacts associated with high levels of global warming. Increasing risks from extreme weather events and the uneven regional distribution of the impacts of climate change are serious cause for concern and, already today, require strong adaptation commitments to support affected nations and people in adjusting to a new normal.

COP21 is also critical as it will test the effectiveness of a somewhat new approach to climate governance. When COP15 in Copenhagen fell apart and failed to deliver a notable outcome, the climate change community—be it scientists, diplomats or activists—was disillusioned if not defeatist about the prospects of developing a legally binding successor to the Kyoto Protocol. In the years since, the UNFCCC, under its new Executive Secretary Christiana Figueres, has managed to put the negotiations back on track and introduce a couple of noteworthy innovations. First, the negotiations have adopted a more inclusive approach, slowly building up to the new agreement. Focusing on both urgency to act and opportunities and benefits that could arise from climate action, the negotiations have involved states, businesses, scientists and civil society representatives in the process of shaping the Paris Agreement. Rather than confronting diplomats with a proposed agreement, the UNFCCC has been looking for greater buy-in and consensus-building in the run up to Paris. Yet some people think that this approach may yield too little too late. Critical voices, often of scientists and civil society representatives, point to the gap that remains between mitigation pledges and the emissions reductions needed, and they are increasingly voicing their concern about the growing influence of private interests. They argue that the continued focus on market-based approaches is problematic as these have yet to deliver any significant emissions reductions and have often been linked to negative social impacts. The critics also lament the considerable likelihood that insufficient progress and few commitments will be made in Paris as the negotiation document in its current state remains full of brackets and options on which consensus has not yet been reached. Many people thus remain very concerned that Paris will be a cop-out that won’t lead to the necessary transformative change.

But at least two positive aspects are noteworthy: First, parties to the convention have already committed to signing a universally applicable and legally binding agreement by the end of this year. Second, the introduction of Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs), in which states have pledged their intended emissions reductions prior to COP21, is the first attempt to put relatively concrete plans on the table. Although these are not yet sufficiently ambitious and leave plenty of room for improvement, they are an important step towards climate action. They also serve to illustrate that the combined intended efforts would still lead to approximately 2.7°C of warming and can be used to push for an assessment of how much more action is needed to stay below 2°C. In the best case scenario, INDCs could spark international cooperation for more ambitious mitigation measures and contribute to much-needed debates on fair mitigation shares.

COP21 can also be seen as the first touchstone of the recently adopted Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Some of the innovations in the 2030 Agenda, such as the universality principle and the greater sense of ownership (see the recent blog post by UNRISD Director Paul Ladd), will also be crucial for the success of COP21. It could be argued that universality is even more important in the case of climate change, which due to its global nature cannot be addressed by nations individually.

What is the link to social development?

At first sight, COP21 is an extremely technical and painfully slow negotiation process that deals with carbon budgets, emissions accounting and identifies solutions for transitioning to low-carbon development. But it also reveals the political nature of climate change and its interlinkages with uneven development outcomes. Whereas the blame for climate change is usually placed at the door of early industrializers, it is low-income and low-emitting countries that face the most severe consequences. This inequality between countries has been a stumbling block in past negotiations. Impacts are also skewed within countries where the most vulnerable people are often the poorest and most marginalized, those who contribute least to the problem. This double injustice runs the risk of turning into a triple injustice, if climate change is addressed in a way that leaves poor and vulnerable people behind (Cook et al. 2012).

It is therefore crucial to ensure that a social perspective is brought into the picture. Mitigating climate change will lead to significant changes in economies around the globe. Making sure that this transition towards zero-emissions doesn’t punish people already living in poverty means ‘unskewing’ the responses by thinking about winners and losers in the transition, as well as vested interests. Making sure that climate change is addressed in an inclusive way that leaves no one behind but supports sustainable development requires both the participation of civil society and the adoption of integrated public policies. A strong international agreement is needed to provide the enabling environment for national action. And social development is needed to bring everybody on board and ensure equitable outcomes and justice.

How UNRISD work relates

UNRISD work analyses responses to climate change from a social policy angle. Our research has highlighted the importance of adopting a social lens approach to ensure not only green but also fair transitions towards sustainability. Engaging with researchers at the national and subnational level, UNRISD’s research work can be used to assess whether climate mitigation and adaptation pledges are followed and backed by actions that foster transformative social change. Supporting the voices of people in vulnerable situations and bringing their perspective into international research and policy debates is crucial to bring about a fairer distribution of risks and benefits associated with climate change. Avoiding the triple injustice is key if we do not only want to stay within the planetary boundaries, but also achieve social development and justice.

Read the follow-up blog posted after agreement at COP21 was reached:
        The Paris Agreement (Part II): The First Step on the Long Road Ahead

        Last weekend, the world witnessed a historic success in international diplomacy. Years of international negotiations on a follow-up agreement to the Kyoto Protocol culminated in the adoption of a universal climate agreement at COP21 in Paris. Tireless efforts of a diverse range of stakeholders, including member states, the UNFCCC Secretariat, civil society and scientists seem to have finally exorcized the ghost of Copenhagen.

        In the closing plenary, country representatives time and again pointed out that the agreement is not perfect, but overall they celebrated and commended its adoption and welcomed it as an unprecedented success in climate diplomacy. Many questions remain open, especially... read more


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This article reflects the views of the author(s) and does not necessarily represent those of the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development.