On December 12, 2015, after two weeks of intense negotiations at the 21st United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP21), 195 countries adopted by consensus the Paris Agreement. Often described as historic, the Paris Agreement is the only accord on record committing all of the world’s countries on issues of climate change. The commitment of 195 countries to gradually phase out fossil fuels is indeed nothing short of historic.
Hopes raised by the Paris Agreement…
For the first time in history, an agreement sets forth the objective to hold the increase in the global average temperature to “well below 2 degrees Celsius and to drive efforts to limit the temperature increase even further to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.” These ambitious goals are a powerful signal of the necessity to make a just transition away from fossil fuels towards energy models that would impact the environment to a lesser degree.
The preamble of the agreement also mentions human rights, the rights of indigenous peoples, climate justice, and food security. The reference to these notions calling into question the current development model is very encouraging. However, in the binding portion of the agreement, these terms are absent or have been replaced by others. The substantive section of the text no longer refers to the concept of “food security” for instance but to “food production,” which has an altogether different meaning and weakens the progressive aspect of the Paris Agreement.
… and many challenges.
A closer examination of the text reveals that several parts of the agreement depend on the good will of policymakers. Limiting the increase in global temperatures “well below 2°C” is laudable but considering the national pledges to greenhouse gas emission (GHG) reductions made in Paris, a temperature rise between 2.7°C and 3.4°C can be expected by 2100. If we are to reach the stated target, all countries, including Canada, must rapidly re-evaluate their GHG reduction objectives. True, a process of review and revision every five years has been established. In addition, countries cannot scale down their commitments during revisions. However, this process will only begin in 2023 and the agreement contains no constraints or sanctions measures for countries that fail to meet their objectives.
Climate finance issues also lag behind. Developed countries barely reiterated existing financial commitments to mobilize US$100 billion per year starting in 2020 and to identify a new finance goal for 2025. Public funds give way to private sector commitments that dedicate a larger part to GHG emissions reduction projects than to adaptation, despite the fact that adaption needs are high. One of the agreement’s positive aspects is the recognition of loss and damage in an entire section, negotiated up to the last minute. The Warsaw mechanism (COP19, 2013) was made permanent, but no financial compensation for loss and damage has yet been planned for the years to come.
We could continue this close reading of the Paris Agreement, and in so doing risk not seeing the forest for the trees. It is likely the best possible agreement within the limits of the United Nations framework, but the crux of the matter is the link between the current economic system and climate change.
The agreement puts forward technological and market solutions without calling into question the model of development as we know it. Linking the carbon market to land and territory for example, considered as carbon sinks in the agreement, is a direct threat to food sovereignty and peasants’ access to land, in particular in the Global South. Article 4 even states that achieving the temperature control goal rests on “a balance between anthropogenic emissions by sources and removals by sinks of greenhouse gases in the second half of this century.” In other words, it is not necessary to reduce GHG emissions if we find means of sequestration and capture of carbon.
In his encyclical letter Laudato Si’, Pope Francis, approving the demands formulated at major events and mobilizations before, during and after the Paris Conference, highlights the problems related to unlimited economic growth and our current models of production and consumption. He reminds us of the pitfalls of technology and our irrational confidence in progress, as if ecological concerns could be resolved without consideration for moral and ethical issues.(60) The Pope invites us to look further than the symptoms of climate disturbances and calls on us to address their causes, namely current models of production and consumption.(26) He also advocates access to clean and renewable energies for all.(26)
The Paris Agreement is an international framework, constitutes a clear political signal, and shows the way forward. It will be subject to many negotiations and interpretations in the years to come. The world’s policymakers, including those in Canada, must now be ambitious in its implementation. Meeting the climate challenge requires the current development model to be brought into question. We will remain very vigilant to ensure that the direction we take is towards a no-carbon economy and a temperature increase that does not exceed 1.5°C, while addressing the concerns of the world’s most vulnerable people.