Honouring the Paris Agreement Goals: A way forward
Environmental Activists Call for “State of Climate Emergency” during COP 21 in Paris on 12 December 2015
While clean tech progress narratives dominate, less attention is being given to adaptation, resilience and finance for climate vulnerable countries, writes lawyer and activist Farhana Yamin
Hundreds of People Evacuating from Louhajang, Munshiganj, Bangladesh as Monsoon-Induced Flood Situation Worsened with the Rise of Padma River on 23 July 2020
The closing days of 2020 saw a frenzy of reports and announcements tabled for the Climate Ambition Summit held on 12 December to mark the fifth anniversary of the 2015 Paris Agreement. But a month on, what’s the real tally on climate action? Is the global economy accelerating towards the goals of the Paris Agreement? Or are we timed out, and now on a collision course with global ecological collapse?
The three Paris goals are set out in Article 2, paragraphs (a), (b) and (c) of the Paris Agreement. A lot of attention is given to the first goal of holding temperatures to well below 2C and nearer to the globally safer 1.5C limit. Various Paris and national mitigation provisions translate the temperature goal into the net zero emissions by 2050 target.
But arguably less attention has been given to the second Paris goal, in paragraph (b), which requires enhanced adaptation and resilience, with Article 7 explicitly stating ‘Parties hereby establish a global goal on adaptation’. That means reducing vulnerability, not threatening food production and strengthening resilience. The same goes for the third Paris goal in paragraph (c) to make financial flows consistent with low greenhouse gas emissions and climate-resilient development. This goal is given further specifications in Article 9 and various decisions relating to delivery of a historic commitment – made by richer countries in COP15 back in 2009 – to mobilise at least $100bn by 2020 with a balanced split between adaptation and mitigation.
Unfortunately, much analysis now emerging of climate diplomacy achievements throughout last year, including the December 2020 Climate Ambition Summit, sadly show we are completely off track on all three Paris goals. It is important to give credit for vast progress made, especially by companies and business leaders stepping up to accelerate carbon reduction, but the scale of effort needed is falling short by a colossal amount. This truth is hard to bear, but it is being deliberately downplayed or hidden from mainstream narratives because a strategic messaging and communications war is taking place in the climate community. It is a war which risks splitting the climate movement at a time when it needs to unite ahead of the COP26 Glasgow Summit in November 2021.
The better funded, mainly Northern hemisphere-based think tanks and comms experts believe news about irreversible tipping points and loss and damage generates ‘gloom and doom’, so we should focus more on the solvable problem of reducing emissions, stressing the concept of hope and the potential for rapid change. Stories must affirm the Paris Agreement is working, that renewables are outcompeting fossil fuels, and that momentum is unstoppable, arguing it is only a matter of time before 2050 strategies and net zero initiatives correct market failures. A powerful example of this positive narrative is the excellent report last month by SYSTEMIQ – The Paris Effect – boosting the signal being sent by the Climate Ambition Summit. Underpinned by robust analytics, the report demonstrates how the global
economy is being reshaped with huge progress in low carbon solutions and markets, including solutions that are already today competitive in sectors representing around 25 per cent of global emissions. That figure could rise to 70 per cent by 2030, it projects, generating resilience and millions of jobs.
Meanwhile, the less well-funded, more activist and Global South-orientated side believes telling the truth about negative impacts, especially their devasting human consequences, is a more effective way to engage and mobilise. They believe the ‘progress is around the corner’ narrative has lulled people into complacency, and that people will only rise to the challenge of the multiple crises we are now facing if they first realise that societal and ecological collapse are at stake. Taking this route will help everyone tap into the sense of sacrifice, solidarity and behaviour shifts needed to support system-wide change, they argue.
This latter group rightly point out that climate chaos is already a reality for billions of vulnerable people, and that diminishing or erasing this lived experience is an additional injustice. The leaders of vulnerable countries representing billions of people spoke at the Climate Ambition Summit of their climate truths, highlighting for example rising global emissions despite the brief remission from Covid-19, the fact that global temperatures are increasingly likely to breach the 1.5C target, and the increasing famine, debt and displacement of significant populations facing their countries. To face these threats, such countries require urgent climate finance for both adaptation and loss and damage. Yet these issues are still not getting as much media traction because they do not fit the positive ‘race to zero’ narratives.
A recent report by the World Resources Institute (WRI) – State of the Climate Action: Assessing Progress to 2030 and 2050 – provides a stark picture of failing global ecological systems. The report came out just before the December 2020 Climate Ambition Summit, but it was considered so gloomy that its main findings were not widely covered.
WRI’s president and CEO Andrew Steer concluded: “To get on track, the world must accelerate the pace of adoption of renewable energy six-fold; coal phase out five-fold; and electric vehicle uptake 22-fold compared to current rates. When it comes to addressing deforestation and curbing emissions from agriculture the situation has sadly been getting worse, not better. We need to make a U-turn, and fast.”
However, the flurry of new national Paris Agreement plans – Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) – by countries last month sadly do not yet suggest such a U-turn is in the making. The UK and EU have enhanced their climate ambition, putting them among the 74 parties (39 per cent of the 189 signed up to the treaty) which have complied with the Paris Agreement’s ‘ratchet mechanism’. The Climate Vulnerable Forum, which comprises 48 of the world’s most vulnerable countries, has assessed the new NDCs under its Climate Survival Leadership Barometer. The 74 countries that submitted NDCs represent 23 per cent of global CO2 emissions, but that figure is just 13 per cent if you take out the four larger and richer countries that have not enhanced their ambition or indeed gone backwards (Brazil, DRP Korea, Japan and New Zealand). Over 60 per cent of Paris Agreement parties have yet to submit their new NDCs at all, meanwhile.
So how can we reconcile the reality that Paris is failing so profoundly, and yet go forth in 2021 to accelerate the positive progress spelt out in The Paris Effect report?
The answer is simpler and more doable than we think. The Covid-19 stimulus packages being drawn up every government around the world must rapidly become climate positive, in addition to prioritising historically-marginalised communities which are already facing climate devastation. Going net zero must go hand-in-hand with honouring the financial, adaptation and humanitarian realities facing vulnerable countries and communities. Cherry- picking one of the Paris goals is disingenuous and unhelpful.
There is now a glimmer of hope that the US will lead the way on uniting the climate and social equality agendas, maintaining the fine balance between hope and despair many of us feel right now. The confirmation that Joe Biden and Kamala Harris will bring the US back into Paris Agreement fold on 21 January is sure to boost climate action, especially since the Senate election results from the state of Georgia last week mean the Democrats now have control of the entire legislative branch in Washington for the first time since 2011. This provides an opportunity to enshrine an ambitious 2050 net zero target into US legislation, and to fast-track the ambitious green stimulus package the US is now committed to adopting domestically in the two years before the new administration faces mid-term elections.
All eyes are on the US to do its fair share of all three Paris goals, and to push its friends and allies worldwide to address the consequences of delay.