Your top 5 questions about the Paris climate agreement answered

Last week in Paris world leaders agreed to work together to tackle climate change in a strong agreement that commits countries, big or small, rich or poor, to pursuing all efforts to limit global warming.

International agreements like these are often packed full of jargon and muddied by media commentary, and in the wake of the Paris agreement we’ve received many questions about what this historic agreement really means. We’ve cut to the chase and answered some of your top questions below.

1. Is this climate agreement really such a big deal?

To some, it may have seemed like negotiators were high-fiving a little too enthusiastically on the weekend as the Paris climate talks drew to a close. Is the agreement really such a big deal? Are paper pledges going to slow our rapidly changing climate?

Christiana Figueres not pictured.

The agreement is both a huge step forward and entirely insufficient.

It is a huge step forward for at least three reasons:

  • The Paris agreement is a universal agreement involving over 190 countries around the world, and that alone is no small feat. Importantly the world’s biggest polluters, the US and China, have been central players. Together they have agreed to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels. Almost all nations have submitted pledges to reduce their emissions over the next 10-15 years and have committed to continually review and strengthen their emissions reduction targets.
  • The Agreement will fundamentally alter the global economy. The implementation of countries commitments prior to the Paris conference means that renewables will make up 78% of new power generation investment to 2030 in major economies. This will drive down the cost of renewable energy. Delivering this will require major reforms to electricity markets, business and financing models.
  • The final agreement also includes the provision of finance (at least US$100 billion per year) from developed countries to support developing countries in the transition towards low greenhouse gases and climate resilient development. And by 2020, developed countries are strongly urged to scale up their financial support in order to meet this target.

And lets not forget the incredible announcements during the talks, like:

  • 1000 mayors and local leaders from cities including Paris, Las Vegas, Vancouver and Stockholm announced that they would go 100% renewable.
  • Indian Prime Minister Modi and French President Hollande together launched the Global Solar Alliance between over 100 developed and developing countries, as well as industries, laboratories and institutions.
  • 500 institutions with a collective $3.5 trillion in net worth committed to divestment of some form from fossil fuels.

However, whilst Paris is a major breakthrough and will drive enormous change it remains insufficient, and we can’t start breaking out the champagne just yet.

A number that’s been getting thrown around a lot is 2.7°C. The climate pledges submitted to nations by the UN would still result in warming well above the agreed 1.5°C target, with climate action tracker putting global warming at 2.7°C by 2100 if all governments meet their pledges.

The Paris agreement does acknowledge that current targets are not enough, and this is why it requires the formal review and updating of targets every five years starting in 2023, with a facilitative dialogue in 2018.

So momentum is underway and the agreement is an important framework for how we are going to tackle climate change. But now it’s down to every country, every state and every city to work out how they are going to contribute, and governments will need to continually ramp up their targets in order for it to be sufficient.

2. What is the 1.5°C target and aren’t we going to overshoot it anyway?

Recently the world passed an unenviable milestone: the planet has warmed 1°C above pre-industrial levels. A warming climate has already brought serious impacts with it, from increasing bushfire risk to rising sea levels.

In Paris, countries were tossing up between how much more we can realistically afford to let the planet warm – and the decision was between 1.5°C and 2°C. For the first time, nations acknowledged that we should do everything possible to limit global warming to below 1.5°C. This is critical to the survival of Pacific Island nations and other vulnerable countries, as well as the Great Barrier Reef. The 1.5°C limit is an acknowledgement from nations that our climate is changing more rapidly and with greater and more damaging impacts than previously thought. This means emissions will have to come down more and more rapidly.

It’s great to acknowledge the 1.5°C target, but is that really achievable?

1.5°C is undoubtedly an extremely challenging target. We’ve already warmed the planet by almost 1°C. And the latest Global Carbon Budget, released during the Paris climate talks, shows that we are still emitting massive amounts of carbon dioxide annually – around 36 billion tonnes from fossil fuels and industry alone. We cannot afford to delay drastically cutting our emissions. But that’s not to say there isn’t hope. As action ramps up and the cost of renewables plummets it's hoped that this temperature cap will be increasingly within reach.

The 1.5°C target also sends a strong signal to business that the age of fossil fuels is well and truly coming to an end, as the world moves to rapidly replace coal, oil and gas with clean energy sources. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has been tasked with investigating pathways for limiting global warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, and this will be key for giving guidance to nations to strengthen their efforts over time. The Paris Agreement also outlines that nations will come together for a formal review and updating of targets every five years, so that emission reduction targets can continually be reviewed and hopefully improved.

3. Is the agreement legally binding, how are countries going to be held accountable?

Parts of the Paris agreement are legally binding and parts are voluntary – the agreement strikes a balance between being broad enough to allow all countries to sign on, with legally binding elements to encourage compliance. There is a legal requirement that nations will publicly monitor and report on their emissions levels and reductions, as well as publicly updating their emissions reduction plans. The Paris agreement also delivers an enhanced transparency and accountability framework, which you can read more about here. There is however no legally binding requirement for nations to cut emissions at specific levels, as this would have scuppered the opportunity to get all nations to sign on and ended the possibility of reaching an agreement before negotiations had even begun.

This does not mean that countries will shirk their responsibilities, indeed as Climate Nexus point out, the Paris Agreement is legally binding in that each country’s pledge represents a domestically binding policy. For example, currently the US does not have a binding 2020 target, but its implementing policies that have legal force at a domestic level to achieve this target, through the regulation of emissions from vehicles and power stations. As Lord Stern stressed grounding the process in the laws and promises that countries undertake by themselves is a better model and that "[an agreement] will be enforceable and deliverable through the arrangements and laws in the countries themselves”.

Let’s also not forget that fierce peer pressure from other nations, state and local governments, communities, business and citizens will also play an important role in holding countries to their promises. Pledging one thing on the world stage and failing to deliver at home is a risky move, the bar has been set and now governments will be held to account by a variety of actors.

Peer pressure will play a role in holding nations to their promises.

4. Does this mean new coal mines in Australia will continue to go ahead?

Let’s look at the science here. If the Australian government is serious about limiting global warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, as it has just pledged in Paris, there is no way we can invest in developing any new fossil fuel projects. That includes coal, oil and gas. We’re going to have to phase out existing fossil fuel projects too, starting with retiring Australia’s ageing and inefficient coal-fired power stations.

Developing new coal mines will not be in vogue if we’re going to limit global warming to 1.5°C.

Transforming Australia’s electricity sector sounds like a big deal, but as was noted recently, Australia’s future prosperity will not be found at the bottom of a coal mine. Australia is one of the sunniest and windiest countries in the world and is very well placed to take considerable advantage of the renewables boom. In fact Australia can become a renewable energy powerhouse, and has enough renewable energy resources to power the country 500 times over.

5. What does the agreement mean for animal agriculture?

It's considered very significant that of the 160 countries that submitted emission reduction pledges to the Paris summit (known as Intended Nationally Determined Contributions, or INDCs), 80% included agriculture in either reduction targets or specific actions, and 64% noted the importance of adaptation in agriculture. In the preamble of the final Paris agreement food security is included, although food security and agriculture are not in the main body of the text. From here, its down to nations to follow through on their pledges and implement policies that will help mitigate the effects of the agriculture sector as well as assist the agricultural sector to be more climate resilient and better adapted.

This momentum will likely accelerate – the organisers of the next climate summit, to occur in Marrakech, Morocco, in 2016, have already confirmed an ongoing focus on feeding the world.

The focus on animal agriculture and climate change won't blow over.

Farmers around the globe are ready and willing to play a role in combating climate change impacts. Agriculture is a dynamic and constantly evolving industry, and as such many that work in it are innovative, adaptive, and have a great passion to look after their land, livelihoods, and communities. There's great potential for agriculture to play a larger role in renewable energy production, carbon sequestration, landscape restoration and biodiversity conservation.You read more on this here.


Want to read even more about the Paris climate talks? You can check our more of our Paris coverage here:

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