The Paris summit was a success because the world is now left in no doubt that a low-carbon planet is an inevitability

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A climate change activist in Paris following the announcement of the Paris Agreement, showing her love for the planet.

It’s not perfect, we know that. It’s built on voluntary pledges, which at present are woefully insufficient to get us anywhere near a limit of 2°C, never mind the aspirational 1.5°C. Also, as George Monbiot points out in his typically cynical analysis on Saturday: “While earlier drafts specified dates and percentages, the final text stated only to ‘reach global peaking of greenhouse gas emissions as soon as possible’.”

But it’s a solid foundation on which we can build. As Ban Ki Moon said: “The current level of ambition is the floor and not the ceiling”.

The reference to a 1.5°C goal demonstrates the unexpected power and influence of the vulnerable countries in rooting the agreement in the realities they face. Even Monbiot conceded that the “aspirational limit of 1.5°C of global warming, after the rejection of this demand for so many years, can be seen within this frame as a resounding victory. In this respect and others, the final text is stronger than most people anticipated.”

Transparency

The common transparency and rules that provide trust between countries have been outlined, but need more work. Although this reporting issue – the need to shine a light on what governments are doing – might, to an extent, be taken out of the hands of governments, because private groups like Climate Tracker and the World Resources Institute are doing their own calculations and increasingly governments have nowhere to hide.

John Niles teaches greenhouse gas accounting at the not-for-profit Greenhouse Gas Management Institute. In Paris he launched an international partnership with similar trainers around the world called the Carbon Institute. They’ll educate a generation of greenhouse gas accountants who can do the work in every country the Paris agreement demands. And if countries can’t or don’t report properly, or try to hide what they are really doing, Niles says the same accounting skills can reveal the truth anyway“Of course we can check on governments,” he says. “Satellites can check CO2 in the atmosphere … they can measure the size of a forest and take multidimensional pictures … they can create a pretty good picture of what a country is doing,” he says.

Climate Finance

In addition, there is a framework for new finance, providing poor countries with access to investment needed to leap-frog dirty energy and accelerate access to renewable energy as well as funding to adapt to the impacts. Rich countries have promised that by 2025 they will set a new goal for climate finance “from a floor of $100bn per year”, the figure first pledged at the Copenhagen climate talks six years ago. However, the commitment was offered as a non-binding decision that accompanied the binding text.

Finally, the agreement includes efforts to address the impacts of climate change and deal with irreversible damages. This was a big concession made by the US in the end and should be applauded. This ought to mark a turning point in how the international community prepares for and responds to extreme weather events.

The Long Term Goal

Crucially, the Paris Agreement contains a clear and science-based long-term goal. This is given teeth by a mechanism that ramps up ambition every 5 years, starting in 2018. These 5-yearly reviews are the only real teeth the agreement has, because the targets themselves have to sit outside the legally binding part of the document (so the deal doesn’t have to go to the US Congress where it would inevitably be scuppered). Also, any failure in terms of the implementation of emissions reductions won’t lead to any sanctions. Instead, the whole idea is that peer pressure holds countries to account and builds the trust that would hopefully lead them to agree to deeper cuts over time.

Far from ideal of course, but there is no doubt the the Agreement sends a strong signal to business and investors that there is only one direction of travel. It makes clear that developed countries should continue to lead, but shows that the world is acting together. There is the sense that we now all share a common direction, but with an acceptance that countries will travel at different speeds.

The long-term goal itself is ‘to reach a balance between anthropogenic emissions by sources and removals by sinks of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in the second half of the century.’  This effectively means net zero GHG emissions, whereby anthropogenic (human-caused) GHG emissions will be reduced to the maximum amount possible whilst simultaneously driving towards the removal of greenhouse gases from the atmosphere until such at time that emissions are low enough to be absorbed by carbon sinks (for example, creating carbon sinks through reforestation programmes).

This is way beyond expectations. Personally, I would have liked to have seen an interim goal of net zero carbon emissions by mid-century written into the agreement (in line with the Avaaz campaign for 100% clean that I’ve been actively involved in), but this longer term goal that has been adopted covers all GHG emissions and is consistent with protecting the planet from dangerous global warming.

In any case, by also including an ambitious temperature goal (limiting warming well below 2°C and trying to limit to 1.5°C), we can infer certain other goals. For example, scientists have established the following:

To have a likely chance of limiting warming to below 2°C:

  • Carbon dioxide emissions will have to drop to net zero between 2060 and 2075 (80% clean energy by 2050 compared to the current level of 30%)
  • Total GHG emissions need to decline to net zero between 2080 and 2090

For a likely chance of limiting warming to below 1.5°C:

  • Carbon dioxide emissions have to drop to net zero between 2045 and 2050 (100% clean energy by 2050)
  • Total GHG emissions need to decline to net zero between 2060 and 2080

So fossil-fuel-based electricity generation without CCS will need to be phased out by mid-century if we are to limit temperature rises to 1.5°C. Transformation of other sectors and enhanced carbon storage like that achieved by increased landscape restoration will also be required to offset other emissions, especially if removals are to be maximized.

Keep them in the ground

By way of further criticism, Mombiot claims that the “UN climate process has focused entirely on the consumption of fossil fuels, while ignoring their production.” He alleges  that “delegates have solemnly agreed to cut demand (by focussing on reducing emissions from burning fossil fuels, rather than keeping them in the ground in the first place), whilst at home still seeking to “maximise supply.” His prime example of course being the UK government’s legal obligation, put upon itself under the Infrastructure Act 2015, to “maximise economic recovery” of the UK’s oil and gas.

Mombiot’s point being that until governments “undertake to keep fossil fuels in the ground, they will continue to undermine the agreement they have just made.”

He’s right of course. The role of government in the modern economy is to set long-term goals and then put the right policies in place to give the market the steer it needs. Something the UK Government is failing to do with its proposals to review – and essentially bring to an end – support for rooftop solar through the Feed-in-Tariff (FiT).

To my mind, governments will have a choice now. They can either lead the way or be dragged along. Either way, we can now expect a significant shift away from fossil fuels and towards renewable energy. As Paul Polman, CEO of Unilever puts it:

“The consequences of this agreement go far beyond the actions of governments. They will be felt in banks, stock exchanges, board rooms and research centres as the world absorbs the fact that we are embarking on an unprecedented project to decarbonise the global economy. This realisation will unlock trillions of dollars and the immense creativity and innovation of the private sector who will rise to the challenge in a way that will avert the worst effects of climate change.”

Even the UK’s main business lobby group, the CBI, is calling on the UK Government to review it’s policies. Director-general, Carolyn Fairbairn, said the agreement “heralds an exciting opportunity for business” and called on the UK Government to do more to back clean technology:

“Businesses will want to see domestic policies that demonstrate commitment to this goal and none more so than in the UK”

As Simon Howard, chief executive of the UK Sustainable Investment and Finance Association said:

“This is a better than expected deal which is really encouraging. It shows the world united, committed to beating climate change. The need now is for Governments and regulators to set consistent long-term policies on which investors can rely.”

Putting a price on carbon

One way in which governments can give businesses and investors the policy certainty they crave, is to put a price on carbon. The World Bank Group, business groups, and investors have called on governments and corporations around the world to support carbon pricing to bring down emissions and drive investment into cleaner options. Euan Munro, CEO at Aviva Investors said:

“The outcome of COP 21 is a significant step forward. There is increasing recognition among policymakers of the huge financial losses that climate change will cause. We now need real action by each country to cut emissions domestically and establish a material price for carbon. The UK government, for example, must move quickly to provide a credible plan for meeting its carbon targets.”

Picking up the pace

Bill Mckibben, writing in the Guardian following the conclusion of the Paris Agreement, believes that ‘pace’ is now the key word:

“Pace – velocity, speed, rate, momentum, tempo. That’s what matters from here on in. We know where we’re going now; no one can doubt that the fossil fuel age has finally begun to wane, and that the sun is now shining on, well, solar. But the question, the only important question, is: how fast.”

For him, that means no more drilling or mining in new areas, the Arctic will now have to be completely off limits, as will the Powder River Basin of Montana and Wyoming, the pre-salt formations off Brazil, and the oil off the coasts of north America. According to McKibben, we’ve got to “stop fracking right away (in fact, that may be the greatest imperative of all, since methane gas does its climate damage so fast)….The huge subsidies doled out to fossil fuel have to end yesterday, and the huge subsidies to renewable energy had better begin tomorrow. You have to raise the price of carbon steeply and quickly, so everyone gets a clear signal to get off of it.

“At the moment the world has no real plan to do any of those things. It continues to pretend that merely setting the goal has been work enough for the last two decades….Its governments are still listening mostly to the fossil fuel industry…”

Bill McKibben highlights a good case in point when he says that the Obama administration, even as it negotiated the new climate agreement, has been flirting with lifting a longstanding ban on oil exports, which would be the equivalent of “opening a hundred-odd new coal-fired power plants and operating them for a year.”

McKibben uses an analogy of governments as novice marathon runners who have now set themselves a goal to run a super-fast marathon and for the next few years, the  job of climate activists will be act as their personal trainers; to “yell and scream at governments everywhere to get up off the couch, to put down the chips, to run faster faster faster.”

 

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