“Atmospheric concentrations of the long-lived gases adjust only slowly to changes in emissions. The longer emissions continue to increase at present day rates, the greater reductions would have to be for concentrations to stabilize at a given level.”
This statement could be taken straight from the Paris Agreement on climate change which celebrates its fifth anniversary this year. However, it actually came from the first IPCC assessment report (p. 63 to be precise), issued to decision-makers thirty years ago. It was at this time that climate change negotiations truly began.
So, we are marking this double anniversary at the end of 2020, but there is a familiar feeling about all this: Why do initiatives often take off to a flying start, only to abruptly stall and then plod along at a snail’s pace? How can this fate be avoided in the fight against climate change?
The Paris Agreement and the IPCC: promising beginnings
Initially, the climate change negotiations progressed at a brisk pace. Created in 1988, the IPCC released its first assessment report within two years. It paved the way for the Framework Convention on Climate Change, adopted in 1990 at the Rio Summit. The central focus of the organization’s work, this convention came into force in 1994 and COP (Conference of the Parties), its sovereign body, met for the first time in Berlin in 1995. It took two years to produce an implementation decree defining the precise terms of the convention. It was thus mission accomplished in 1997, with the adoption of the Kyoto Protocol at COP3. And this was less than ten years after IPCC’s creation.
Source : Report no 4068 PBL Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency, The Hague.
In 2018, The three largest emitters of GHG, together accounting for 47%, globally, are China, the United States & the European Union. The rest of the world represents 53%, what contributed the most to the increase in world emissions during the last decade.
Progress with the Paris Agreement was equally fast, the implementation decree of the 1992 Convention which succeeded the Kyoto Protocol. Adopted on December 12, 2015, at the end of COP21, there were a sufficient number of ratifications by various countries, including the United States, for the agreement to enter into force on November 6, 2016, the eve of COP22 in Marrakesh. A multilateral convention ratified in less than a year? This was unprecedented for the United Nations.
The rest of the story is rather less exciting. Unlike the international effort to prevent the destruction of the ozone layer, successfully coordinated by the Vienna Convention (1985), the implementation of collaborative international climate action would prove to be fraught with difficulty.
International climate action: slow progress and a defunct protocol
The United States, the biggest emitter of CO2 at the time, was the first to strike a blow to the Kyoto Protocol’s implementation. For a country to implement an international treaty, it must be ratified by its parliament. But the Kyoto Protocol was never presented to the US Senate for ratification, not by the Clinton administration, nor by an even less enthusiastic President Bush, who officially withdrew the country from the treaty shortly after taking office at the White House in 2001.
Between 2001 and 2005, the COPs’ main challenge was to salvage the situation as far as possible. This led to the entry into force of a defunct protocol which only regulated greenhouse gas emissions from industrialized countries (excluding the United States) for the period between 2008 and 2012. From 2005 onwards, negotiations focused mainly on preparing a “post-Kyoto” agreement.
The European attempt to expand the Kyoto Protocol after 2012, by getting the United States and emerging countries to rejoin, failed at the Copenhagen COP in 2009. As a result, the negotiations took a new direction, with a shift toward a bottom-up approach in which each country makes its own contribution to a shared kitty. This strategy was a departure from the binary global view on which the Kyoto Protocol was based, where non-industrialized countries were excluded from making commitments so that priority could be given to their development.
Since the Paris Agreement, progress has stalled
This change in tack resulted in the Paris Agreement, which is based on a three-pronged approach:
- achieving the common goal of “climate neutrality” or “zero net emissions” as quickly as possible, before the end of the century;
- breaking-down this target into intermediate objectives through national contributions which are re-evaluated every five years;
- developing a collaborative financial aid program to assist countries most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change.
Since COP22 in Marrakesh (2016), where the announcement of the US’s withdrawal from the Paris Agreement had a sobering effect, the negotiation process seems to have ground to a halt yet again. The only, and very slight, breakthrough made was at COP24 in 2018, with the adoption of the “Katowice Rulebook”, which codifies the rules for practical implementation of the agreement, but does not refer to two essential articles, due to a lack of agreement between the parties: Economic Instruments (Article 6) and International Mechanism for Loss and Damage (Article 8).
Little progress has been made with reassessing national contributions, which had been expected to result in an expanded global effort in December this year. Only the EU-27 and the UK are on track to table commitments for 2030 which exceed those pledged in 2015. Amid the health crisis, the negotiations seem to have fallen by the wayside. Initially scheduled for December 2020 in Glasgow, COP26 has now been postponed for an entire year. For this reason, the fifth anniversary of the Paris Agreement will be celebrated by negotiators via a remote meeting.
Three potential drivers to accelerate international climate action
Anniversaries are not just about reflecting on the past, they’re also a time to plan for the future. Must we thus resign ourselves to this painfully slow race toward climate change action? Not necessarily; thirty years on from the first IPCC report and five years after the Paris Agreement was signed, the long-awaited, rapid acceleration in progress may finally arrive. Three factors have come into alignment which may help to advance this process.
Firstly, the global energy sector is undergoing a major shift. Since the beginning of the 20th century, fossil fuels have always won out in terms of relative cost. However, certain major innovations in the first two decades of the 21st century are currently changing the game: with falling production costs of wind and solar energy, combined with lower electricity storage costs and smart grid management, renewable energy sources are becoming more competitive with each passing day. They are now considered a credible alternative to fossil fuels. In the least-developed countries, access to energy can therefore be provided faster without having to go down the fossil fuel route.
Secondly, the results of the American election are also an important factor. Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris Agreement may just have been a passing phase. Elected on a promise to reboost the coal industry, his administration did nothing of the sort. Joe Biden has already committed to rejoining the Paris Agreement the moment he takes office. The major challenge for Biden’s administration will be to take its environmental approach to another level by kick-starting the country’s withdrawal from the oil and gas industries. In doing so, he would make a significantly more important national contribution in 2021 than the effort by Obama’s administration in 2015. The credibility of America’s return will be judged on the extent of this contribution.
Finally, the American comeback may well have a knock-on effect elsewhere. Europe has already made its trade-offs with the Green Deal and, therefore, is not likely to be greatly influenced. The same goes for China, whose President has committed to a carbon neutrality target for 2060, with the next five-year plan setting out its medium-term objectives. The main issue lies with the rest of the world, which is now the main driver of increasing emissions (see our graph below).
America’s return could encourage other major fossil fuel producers to begin the energy transition and revamp their own energy infrastructures. It should also result in a massive increase in resource transfer to the least-developed countries, thus encouraging a shift toward low-carbon development.
Climate change skepticism and pandemic denial
Is it likely that these three drivers of accelerated climate action will be canceled out by the COVID-19 health crisis which has devastated the world?
In 2021, no government will be able to ignore the two major priorities of the fight against the global pandemic and the need to reboost their economies. Hence why many activists fear that climate change will once again take a back seat to short-term emergencies and that the economic recovery will result in a “rebound effect” of increased emissions.
In the recent US election, this was demonstrated to the point of farce: the candidate who made the least effort to fight the pandemic, also denied the risks of the climate crisis. As we have analyzed before in more detail, climate skepticism and pandemic denial go hand in hand.
Climate change action and the fight against health epidemics are mutually-reinforcing processes. It would be possible, therefore, to get the global economy back on track by increasing our resilience to both the risks of epidemics and global warming. This could be seen as a bit idealistic, or even completely out of touch with reality. See you next November at COP26 in Glasgow to find out more!
The opinions expressed on this website are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official position of their institutions or of AFD.