The Paris Conference was indeed successful. Since the 1992 Climate Change Convention, the adoption of the Paris Agreement commits all countries ‘to strengthen the global response to the threat of climate change’1.
The Paris Agreement is a political agreement. It includes important elements never before agreed under the Climate Change Convention: the collective action by all countries to reduce GHG emissions and to adapt to the changing climate. It also includes the commitment by developed countries to jointly mobilize US$100 billion a year by 2020 to assist developing countries reduce GHG emissions and adapt to the changing climate.
Its predecessor, the 1997 Kyoto Protocol and its 2012 amendment, established GHG emission reduction targets for industrialized countries 2. In contrast, the Paris Agreement establishes a ‘pledge and review’ system, based on pledges submitted by all countries –the Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs) —to be reviewed every five years. These pledges, however, are not legally binding.
The goal of the Paris Agreement is to hold ‘the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels’3. This is because a 2ºC increase in global average temperature was considered as the upper limit beyond which the risks and negative impacts of the changing climate are expected to increase rapidly4.
To achieve its goal, the Paris Agreement set a long-term GHG emission reduction target –to achieve a ‘balance between anthropogenic (or man-made) emissions by sources and removals by sinks (the oceans, trees and plants) of GHGs in the second half of the century’5. This is in line with the IPCC’s most recent analysis, the Fifth Assessment Report (AR5), which concluded that net zero GHG emissions will be required to stay below 2ºC well before 21006. Because significant emission reductions would be required to achieve its goal and long-term target, the Paris Agreement recognizes that a maximum level (or peak) should be reached ‘as soon as possible’. However, it acknowledges that ‘peaking will take longer for developing countries’7.
The IPCC concluded that middle income countries, where more than 70 percent of the world population live8, are currently responsible for 54 percent of global GHG emissions9. The top ten largest emitters, in descending order of total emission levels, are China, the United States, the European Union, India, Russia, Indonesia, Brazil, Japan, Canada and Mexico10. Of the ten, five –China, India, Indonesia, Brazil and Mexico— are middle income countries. The others are high-income countries, where 18 percent of the world population live11 and have the highest per capita emissions.
Allowing developing countries to take more time to reduce GHG emissions may seem as a fair outcome of the Paris Agreement for some. However, it may enable some developing countries, currently categorized as middle income countries by the IPCC, to continue delaying climate action.
In addition, international aviation and shipping were not included in the Paris Agreement, thus also allowing these sectors to postpone action to reduce emissions. International travel and trade currently accounts for two percent of global GHG emissions12.
Only industrialized countries were required to reduce GHG emissions under the Kyoto Protocol. Although some industrialized countries actually met the emission reduction targets set by the Kyoto Protocol, these efforts were offset by increasing emissions by most countries, industrialized and developing.
In addition, political and sectoral interests have contributed to delay collective efforts to address climate change. The changes required to take decisive climate action may have been perceived by many as incompatible with economic development. Some incorrectly believe that economic development and growth can only be achieved in the business-as-usual way –by burning coal, oil and gas. The costs of implementing actions to reduce GHG emissions were considered as prohibitive compared to the costs of continuing to use fossil fuels. Also, pressure from sectors benefiting from the use of fossil fuels has also halted climate action.
As a result, and despite overwhelming scientific evidence, climate action has been delayed and global GHG emissions have continued to steadily increase –from 38 Gigatons of carbon dioxide (CO2) equivalent (GtCO2-eq: unit to measure all GHGs combined) in 1990 to 49.5 GtCO2-eq in 201013. Currently, annual global GHG emissions are 54 GtCO2-eq14.
1. Paris Agreement, Article 2 (2015) ↩
2. The 1997 Kyoto Protocol commits developed countries to reduce GHG emissions by at least five per cent below 1990 levels in the period 2008-2012. A second commitment period was agreed by the Protocol’s 2012 Doha Amendment, with emission reduction targets of at least 18 per cent below 1990 levels in the period 2013-2020. ↩
3. Paris Agreement, Article 2 (2015) ↩
4. United Nations Advisory Group on Greenhouse Gases (1990); IPCC, Fifth Assessment Report (AR5), Synthesis Report (2014) ↩
5. Paris Agreement, Article 4 (2015) ↩
6. IPCC, AR5, WGI Summary for Policymakers (2013) and Synthesis Report (2014) ↩
7. Paris Agreement, Article 4 (2015) ↩
8 World Population Prospects: The 2015 Revision, United Nations Population Division (2015) ↩
9. IPCC, AR5, WG III, Chapter 1 and Chapter 13 (2014); and Emission Database for Global Atmospheric Research (EDGAR). European Commission, Joint Research Centre/PBL Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency (2014) ↩
10. UNEP. The Emissions Gap Report 2015 (2015) ↩
11. World Population Prospects: The 2015 Revision, United Nations Population Division (2015) ↩
12. Emission Database for Global Atmospheric Research (EDGAR). European Commission, Joint Research Centre/PBL ↩
13. IPCC, AR5, Working Group (WG) III, Chapter 1 (2014) ↩
14. UNEP. The Emissions Gap Report 2014 (2014) and Emission Database for Global Atmospheric Research (EDGAR). European Commission, Joint Research Centre/PBL Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency ↩