Five years ago, as negotiations for the Paris climate agreement ran into overtime, lights on the Eiffel Tower cut through the fog, signaling the urgency of reaching an accord: No Plan B, they cautioned.
Five years later, the global pact, signed by 197 countries, is still the only plan on the table, barring a wholesale move to another planet. It formally recognizes the serious threat of global warming and identifies solutions to prevent the worst-case outcome by capping warming at close to 1.5 degrees Celsius.
That would require decarbonizing global energy, transportation and food systems by 2050, a monumental challenge. But the agreement is more than just a nuts and bolts instruction manual. At its best, it’s a broad social contract for change, with a transformative vision for a healthier and more just future global society, where everybody wins. It’s also become a rallying point for people seeking climate justice in various courts or petitioning their governments for climate action.
Yet five years after the Paris pact was signed, the heady wine of global climate collaboration has been soured by rogue nations backsliding, and in the case of the United States, even withdrawing from the agreement. And effective climate action has been hampered by continued fossil fuel propaganda and attacks on science and facts, as well as by related economic policies like fossil fuel subsidies. Not least, a deadly global pandemic has stalled global climate talks.
At the same time, the urgency to implement the deal has grown, as the impacts of global warming have become more evident and more severe. In the five years since the agreement was signed, humans have emitted another 200 gigatons of greenhouse gases. The five hottest years on record have all occurred since 2015, and dozens of studies have shown clear links between warming and deadly climate extremes.
Under the Paris agreement, 2020 was supposed to be a milestone year, with a deadline for setting more ambitious targets to cut emissions. The scheduled 2020 Conference of the Parties has been delayed for a year because of the coronavirus pandemic, With the Glasgow COP26 now set for December 2021, some climate policy experts say the delay could be an opportunity to boost climate action by investing in a green recovery.
An online Climate Ambition Summit held on Dec. 12, the fifth anniversary of the Paris accord, showed that, despite challenges, there has been some progress. Some of the big industrial countries that account for the bulk of global emissions have upped their promised cuts, some banks are ending financing for fossil fuel projects and expanding climate action movements in many countries reflect increasingly widespread public concern about global warming.
Climate has also become a key issue in national and regional elections—President-elect Joe Biden’s campaign included a promise that, if elected, he would rejoin the agreement early in his term. And even without strong national climate policy, a network of states, cities and businesses called America’s Pledge has managed to keep the United States within striking distance of its own initial pledge under the agreement, before President Donald Trump withdrew from the deal.
But the chasm between aspirations and emissions remains, as does the continued economic gap between developed and developing countries. And the agreement is a living document, a work in progress, so any assessment is a snapshot, set against a moving target.
What happens next will depend on the choices the countries make.
“The future is up to us and will always be up to us,” said Heidi Steltzer, a mountain scientist at Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colorado who co-authored a recent global climate report for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. “International agreements are a stepping stone towards the future we want, one that is very much in our hands and our hearts.”
Signs of Change
Some climate experts are hopeful that the world will still be able to meet the Paris targets. Zeke Hausfather, a climate scientist with the Breakthrough Institute, said that, despite the global pandemic pause, momentum carried over from the agreement has spurred key countries like Japan, China and South Korea to push for full decarbonization by 2050.
“We know we’ve succeeded in plateauing global emissions,” he said. “We knew going in the commitments under the Paris agreement were woefully inadequate, so we’re still on track for 3 degrees Celsius of warming. That’s starting to change with longer-term commitments.”
Yet the big question, Hausfather said, is whether and how the net-zero pledges of the major emitters will translate into shorter term targets. Few of the countries that have announced ambitious long-term goals have implemented national policies to reach them in time, he added.
He said energy markets will play the largest role in driving down emissions. And the global climate accord provides the needed framework for measuring that progress.
“The Paris agreement is really the only game in town,” Hausfather said.
Some Reasons for Hope
“The good news is that global emissions have started to flatten out over the five years since Paris,” said Michael Mann, a climate scientist at Penn State. “The bad news is that this is not nearly enough. We need to bring them down by about 7 percent a year every year for the next decade if we are to remain on a path for stabilizing warming below the dangerous 1.5 level.”
Somewhat surprisingly, the biggest surge toward more ambitious climate targets came in the last six months, even as the world focused on tackling the deadly pandemic, said Niklas Höhne, a climate scientist with the University of Wageningen and the New Climate Institute, who helped develop a Climate Action Tracker that shows how countries are measuring up to their goals under the agreement.
“It’s getting better,” Höhne said, adding that for a long time “it looked like nothing was moving.” But now, he said, “It’s shifting and maybe we will make the turn in time.”
Most hopeful recently was China’s announcement to reach carbon neutrality by 2060, he noted. “A country like China doing something like this was unthinkable just a few years ago,” Höhne said.
Similarly, he said the fifth anniversary of the Paris agreement spurred both the European Union and the United Kingdom to set ambitious new 2030 emission-cutting targets, by 55 percent and 68 percent respectively (both compared to 1990).
And growing Asian countries, where emissions were expected to surge in coming decades, have also set ambitious new decarbonization targets. If all those countries begin implementing their plans, the emissions curve should start bending downward more sharply by the end of the 2020s, he said.
Hausfather, of the Breakthrough Institute, summed it up this way: “We’re at 1.2 degrees of warming today, and unless we get all global emissions down to zero in the next 20 years, the world is likely to pass 1.5 degrees, at least for some period of time.”
The existing net zero pledges put the world on a path of warming 2.1 degrees Celsius by 2100, he said, but the trend toward more ambitious targets “makes it a lot easier to see a pathway to staying below 2 degrees than 10 years ago.”
Still in a State of Denial
“We are still speeding in the wrong direction. Distant hypothetical targets are being set. Big speeches are being given. Yet when it comes to the immediate action we need, we are still in a state of complete denial, as we waste our time creating new loopholes with empty words and creative accounting.”
A report this month from the United Nations Environmental Program underscored the idea that the world is still accelerating toward climate disaster, because the ambitious goals have not been implemented.
“Are we on track to bridging the gap? Absolutely not,” the authors of the UN Emissions Gap Report wrote in the executive summary. The current pledges under Paris “remain seriously inadequate,” and would lead to a temperature increase of at least 3 degrees Celsius, the report concluded.
The world has also failed to make much progress toward global climate justice, another significant goal of the Paris agreement, said Saleemul Huq, director of the International Center for Climate Change and Development in Dhaka, Bangladesh.
“We’re making incremental progress while the problem is growing by leaps and bounds,” he said. “In our part of the world, the poorer part of the world, it’s about lives lost. In the language of the Paris agreement, we are living in a loss-and-damage world, and we are paying for it with our lives.”
The Paris Agreement acknowledges that emissions from highly developed countries have caused damages in developing countries with fewer resources to prepare, respond and adapt to increasing climate disasters, but it only establishes vague guidelines for addressing the damages.
Huq said that’s not enough.
“These are harmful events taking place because people have caused them to be harmful. There is a responsibility,” Huq said. “The Paris negotiations are an opportunity for polluters to accept responsibility.”
Was Paris a Step Back?
If the Paris agreement has failed to deliver on the promise of climate justice, it may be because the global community still hasn’t addressed the root of the problem, said Imeh Ituen, a social scientist at the University of Hamburg focusing on environmental justice.
Last summer’s resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement, which spread worldwide as part of a broader movement to rectify the historic injustice of colonialism, could help reinvigorate the climate justice aspect of the Paris agreement, she said.
“Colonialism and slavery were the start of these massive industrial, large-scale processes that led to increasing greenhouse emissions that cause global warming,” she said. “These processes are founded on violence toward brown and Black people. You can’t trash people without trashing the environment,” she added.
“We can’t understand the situation we’re in without looking at the past. We don’t get to the same conclusions if we don’t start from the same point, not at 1940 or 1950, but at the beginning, with slavery and colonialism.”
For some civil society climate policy analysts, the Paris agreement event marked a climate justice retreat from the 1997 Kyoto Protocol.
“There is a sense Paris represented a retrogressive step in terms of climate justice specifically,” said Chuks Okereke, a climate governance researcher at the University of Reading.
The previous agreement, ultimately rejected by the U.S., put more responsibility on high-emission developed countries, while the Paris deal moved more toward the idea that every country must do something, which places an unfair burden on developing countries, Okereke said. That sets up a double whammy for developing countries that have to deal with intensifying climate impacts and find ways to pay for decarbonization at the same time.
Five years later, Okereke said he’s feeling “optimism of the will, but pessimism of the mind.”
“I hope that something magical happens,” he said. “Hopefully people will begin to understand more and more that action on climate brings economic advantage.”
Inequities in climate financing were also to have been part of the 2020 assessment of the Paris agreement, said Liane Schalatek, associate director of the Heinrich Böll Foundation of America, an NGO focused on human rights and climate action. By this point, developed countries had promised that $100 billion per year would flow to help developing countries.
But, she said, “We’re not making progress in the right way. There’s a lot of double counting on finance, and if you look at some of the pandemic recovery plans, they’re schizophrenic, with relief for oil and gas companies, more money than dedicated to climate finance.”
Right now, it’s hard to see much light at the end of the climate negotiation tunnel, said Richard Widick, with the International Institute of Climate Action & Theory at the University of California, Santa Barbara.
”It’s clear that the climate crisis is way out in front of the U.N. process and pulling away,” he said. “My personal belief is that the U.N. process matters a great deal, but the political will of the nations is not there. Not yet.”
Then he added, “Sadly, I believe the day will come when the denial will no longer function, and then, on that day, we will learn how important the Paris process was all along.”