After COP21 the world urgently needs to walk the talk

By August 15th, 2019No Comments

Being described as an ambitious and balanced agreement, the „Paris Agreement“ adopted in the French capital just yesterday is the first major multilateral deal of the 21st century. Representatives of 195 nations set out a global action plan to put the world on track to avoid dangerous climate change by limiting global warming to well below 2°C. Yet this is worth nothing if the world does not start to walk the talk, so we better get to work – all of us.

First of all: The Paris agreement itself and all the supporting decisions are a diplomatic triumph. They are an act of true global co-operation of historic significance, after years of efforts by the international community to bring about a universal multilateral agreement to combat climate change. It is widely considered a „landmark global accord“ that is sounding the bell for the end of the fossil fuel era and paving the way to a climate-fiendly, clean and sustainable global economy.

Just five years ago, such a deal seemed politically impossible. The climate change summit in Copenhangen 2009 collapsed in acrimonious failure after countries could not unite around a deal. So by comparison to what it could have been, the 21st Conference of the Parties of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (in short COP21) is some sort of a miracle.

With elements that are both top-down (an internationally agreed global target) and bottom-up (nationally driven climate investment plans), one is inclined to think that this agreement indeed has a huge potential to encourage all actors to help governments advance their plans and mobilise the investments required – be it states, cities, provinces, investors, or businesses. Everybody should be and apparently is willing to offer partnership for climate action, has this also been a basic constitutency that helped shape this new global agreement.

But what is this „truly historic moment“, as United Nations (UN) secretary general Ban Ki-moon called it, really about? Here are the key aspects of the agreement:​

  • ​​To peak greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions as soon as possible and achieve a decarbonisation of the world economy by the middle of this century​​
  • To keep the global temperature increase “well below” 2°C and to pursue efforts to limit it to 1.5°C
  • To review progress of the countries every five years, starting in 2018 with a facilitative dialogue to take stock of the collective efforts of the countries
  • To fund climate finance for developing countries of $100 billion a year by 2020, with a commitment to further finance in the future.

Reading these, and particularly with regards to the second aspect, you immediately realize the ambition inherent in this agreement. But also the grim truth that has been widely published about by media in the run-up to the conference: On our current course, we are going for disaster.

At the heart of this agreement are the voluntary intended nationally determined contributions (INDCs) – and they do not yet add up to 2°C, even less to 1.5°C. „Much greater emissions reductions will be required […] in order hold the increase in the global average temperature to below 2°C above pre-industrial levels“ states article 17. Clearly, the amibitions are high, but so down-to-earth is the knowledge that the world is not doing sufficiently enough to reach this goal.

Global peer pressure and the actions of future governments are seen to be responsible for creating the necessary framework conditions for ambitious climate actions. And in this context it is quite encouraging that the Paris Agreement has built in a series of legally binding requirements so that member states tighten the stringency of their future climate change policies. In fact the individual countries’ plans may be voluntary, but the public monitoring, verification and reporting are legally required. This „name-and-shame“ system was designed in hopes that countries will not want to be seen as international laggards.

In general the text covers the most important aspects in the context of climate action: common but differentiated responsibilities, the need for financing, developing and disseminating technologies, capacity-building in many parts of the world, as well as the need for new institutions to help support all of this.

And at this point everyone else comes into play, because it is of crucial importance to distinguish between diplomacy and implementation, or „talking and walking“. Laurent Fabius, Ban Ki-moon, Barack Obama & Co. have done good jobs and – in a sophisticated and more or less clear manner – are pointing the world in the right direction. Now it is up to other politicians, businessmen, scientists, engineers and everyone else within civil society to play their parts in making this transition happen.

Prior to COP21, I was part of an interactive online game with my colleagues and friends. Here one was able to earn points by documenting everyday behavior that reduces one’s personal carbon footprint, and thus contributes to a low-carbon society. Wether it was having a vegan lunch or going to work by bike – the most impactful individuals have not only been rewarded with fame, but also with great prizes. We need something like that on a macro level. Of course, a single silver bullet will not be sufficient to bring about the systemic change required to hand over this planet to our children and grandchildren. We really need an armoury of silver bullets to transform how we generally produce and what we consume – day in, day out. As many say, leaving fossil fuels in the ground most certainly could serve as a central lever here.

Now as the dust settles on what diplomats called a historic milestone, for me there is following bottom line: If you want to be cynical about the Paris agreement, there are reasons. And if you want to keep on complaining about how the world missed adopting such an agreement for 20 years now after the first UN climate change conference in Berlin (COP1), just go ahead. But you could also just be hopeful, internalize the positive momentum, remember the key messages of the conference, and hold people in charge accountable by making them provide their promises in the future.

What you should take away from this? Paris and its agreement are a good start, but if we want it to be world changing, there is still a long way to go. However I am sure if we all pull together, we can really make this work.

Time to get cracking!