Paris Agreement: after climbing a great hill, many more to climb

Late on Saturday 12 December, a new Climate Agreement was adopted in Paris. Here is my take on the key elements. Be warned, it is a longish read – but then climate is a complex, super-wicked problem. And solving it is not easy. The key points are in bold … As Nelson Mandela said on his long walk to freedom: “I have discovered the secret that after climbing a great hill, one only finds that there are many more hills to climb.” But to start with the hills that were climbed in Paris.

The Paris Agreement sets crucial goals: to limit global temperature increase, and specific goals in three areas – mitigation, adapation and finance. The long-term goal for mitigation is 2 °C strengthening to 1.5 °C guides the Agreement; there is a global goal adaptation includes increasing adaptive capacity and resilience; and a finance goal to increase post 2020 from $100 billion per year. Finance flows will have to balance adaptation and mitigation.

The temperature goal of holding the increase of temperature to well below 2 °C is included, even adding the direction of pursuing efforts to limit to 1.5 °C. The temperature goal is clearly put in the context of sustainable development and poverty eradication. The accompanying decision indicates that emissions need to be reduced from 55 Gt to 40 Gt in 2030, a massive gap of 15 Gt.

The Paris package comes in the form of a decision by the Conference of the Parties (COP), to which the legally binding instrument, the Paris Agreement, is annexed (download here).

The long-term goal for mitigation derives from the temperature goal, and aims at peaking “as soon as possible” – a little later for developing countries – and rapid reductions to balance emissions and sinks. This reformulation came in at the very end, and is more the language of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) scientific reports, than political concepts used in earlier versions – such as decarbonisation, climate neutrality or emissions budgets. The uncertainty about the extent to which global sinks remove carbon from the atmosphere may be an issue in future. This is balanced, however, by the clear numbers on the emissions gap in the decision text. And the IPCC is invited to produce a new special report on the climate impacts of 1.5 °C and the action needed to close the emisisons gap. The emissions gap is defined in the 2015 UNEP emissions gap report as the difference between getting to 2 °C in a least-cost way and the current intended nationally determined contributions (INDCs). .

The global goal for adaptation, which the African Group had strongly promoted, is part of the Paris Agreement. The goal includes enhancing adaptive capacity, strengthening resilience and reducing vulnerability to climate change. This is put in the context of sustainable development and the temperature goal.

The finance goal of $ 100 billion is not in the Agreement, but in decisions, this scale of annual climate finance is indicated as a floor, or minimum level. The negotiations tried to balance continuing commiments by developed countries to provide finance, with recognitioin the developing countries are voluntarily mobilising resources.   A ‘new collective’ finance goal – greater than $100 billion per year – will be set; but it is noteable that it will be collective, rather different to Copenhagen, where developed country leaders agreed developed countries would ‘jointly mobilise’ the $ 100 billion up to 2020 – though they fudged the sources. Despite this high-level political commitment, developed countries exerted great pressure for developing countries to join the donor pool. Unsuprisingly, the finance negotiations were among the most bitterly contested.

The Paris Agreement fulfilled the Durban promise of a ‘regime applicable to all’ under the Convention. We have moved beyond a bifurcated world – of two clear groups, the developed and developing countries. Yet Paris reflects differentiation, acknowledging that the world is not homogenous either. It expresses differences in more nuanced ways: in general, in mitigation and finance.

Differentiation is expressed in general, with language originally agreed by the US and China in a joint Presidential statement. The Agreement will be implemented to reflect “equity and the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities, in the light of different national circumstances.”

Mitigation differentiates the form of mitigation contribution (as distinct from the number or stringency). Developed countries should continue with the form of economy-wide absolute emission reduction targets, and developing countries encouraged to move to a similar form over time – without the “absolute”, though further negotiation on features that is likely add back “quantified” to the form for all mitigation contributions. Article 4.4 also states that “developed countries should continue to take the lead …” – which was ‘corrected’ from“shall” in the version presented to the final plenary, significant because ‘should’ is not legally-binding.

Once again, the US was appeased in a way afforded to no other Party; everyone inside the room understood this to be a redline for the US. Yet other ‘non-negotiable’ redlines such [as no funding for adaptation explicitly mentioning] Africa’s funding for adapation were ignored,– and verbal assurances by France that the COP Presidency would address this concern. Seems that some ‘mistakes’ are more equal than others.

Differentiation in finance related to who provides finance. The Paris Agreement ended restating the obligations of developed countries to provide finance to developing countries under the Convention, and encouraging others to provide support voluntarily. The donor pool is in fact broadening over time, but some who provide money for South-South cooperation do not want this turned into an obligation. While this seems realistic, one should also note that in 2009, developed country leaders had made a political commimtnet to “joint mobilise” (among developed countries, though from vague sources) the $100 billion. Language of mobilising finance is included. Scaling up financial flows from $100 billion per year in 2020 was included – not in the Agreement, but in the decision A higher goal for post-2020 finance remains to be set later.

The Paris Agreement encodes a more bottom-up approach. If Kyoto’s ‘targets and time-tables’ was top-down, a defining feature is that nationally determined contributions will add up to the “global response”. Proposal to take global emissions budgets and divide them across countries were rejected.

Early on, the Agreement says that “nationally determined contributions to the global response to climate change” must be communicated, citing Articles on   mitigation, adaptation, finance, technology, capacity building and transparency. Together, this is seen to achieve the purpose of the Agreement – which includes the global temperature goal. “Progression” means that countries will need to increase their contributions in each round.

Adaptation and Loss and Damage are much more prominent in the Paris Agreement than previous climate agreements. This include not only the goal, but plans for action, increased information flows and a more creative space.

Adaptation has been gaining in prominence for some time, but the Paris Agreement seems to have established greater parity of adaptation and mitigation. The global goal for adaptation has been included alongside one for mitigation, as described above.

Financial institutions are given clear guidance for a balance of funding for adaptation and mitigation. The GCF Board has already decided to on a 50:50 split, now the guidance is broader to all donors.

Adaption plans are mandatory, with a clear emphasis is on implementation. Countries should produce adaptation communications, which could be different forms of official information provided by Parties to the UNFCCC. Prior to Paris, 88% of INDCs included adaptation; and the US and EU (with 28 member states) submitted adaptation undertakings. Together, plans and communications will significantly strengthen the information base on adaptation. Support is crucial – as WWF commented: “the finance for adaptation, loss and damage and scaled up emission reductions should be the first order of work after Paris”.

A separate Article on Loss and Damage was included. While the provisions on Loss and Damage are relatively weak, acknowledging that there are issues beyond implementation is important to the most vulnerable countries and communities.

Mitigation in the Paris Agreement inclues a long-term goal, mitigation contributions that are obligations of conduct, require domestic measures to achieve objectives and will be strongly reviewed. Reporting and review is strengthened at individual country level, and the global stock-take will inform further mitigation targets. Longer term strategies from all Parties are encouraged.

On mitigation, Article 4 starts with a long-term goal: Linked to the temperature goal, the aim is to peak as soon as possible, though developing countries will peak later, given they are still addressing basic needs. The long-term goal, supririnsgly, was not of the formulations discussed – decarbonisation, climate neutrality or emissions budgets, but a more scientific version of “net zero” GHG emissions, namely a balance between emissions by sources and removals by sinks. This is standard language in IPCC, but the uncertainly on global sinks might have created problems; fortunately, the decision provides a very clear statement of a 15 Gt gap to be bridged by 2030

Mitigation nationally determined contributions (NDCs) are obligations of conduct. Each Party must communicate what it “intends to achieve” (for the US), but also mandatory to have domestic measures to achieves the objectives. Progression in mitigation means the next NDC has to be better than the previous one. While the mitigation NDCs are not obligations of result, the requirement of progression, taken with mandatory reporting and review, make these strong requirements. Principles of mitigation accounting are part of the Agremeent.

Future mitigation NDCs will need to take account of the global stock-take, that is, what everyone else is doing.

For my part, I’ll certainly keep working on mitigation in developing countries. We’ve been working with other developing countries over the last five years, see our brand-new Massive Open Online Course on Climate Change Mitigation in Developing Countries – sign up for free here.

Differentiation in mitigation was expected to be a big battle. However, intensive discussions at all levels meant that this issue was resolved before the end, with developing countries moving towards the form of economy-wide emission reduction or limitation targets, over time. Support and flexibility are to be retained, at least for Least Development Countries and Small Island Developing States. Africa was not included in listings among developing country groupings that is given flexibility – and even more significantly, not named as receiving support for adaptation. Information requirements are mandatory in the Agreement; the decision lists the same information as in Lima, with provision to define further information.

Common time-frames, that is 5-year implenetation periods, were not agreed. The decision fixes the ‘anomaly’ that some countries brought INDCs for 5 year periods, and others over 10 years. It should have been possible to agree common 5-year implementation periods for post-2030, but this opportunity was one that slipped away. More work will be needed to fix common implementation periods and make sure that first NDCs are submitted at the same time.

The Paris Agreement says that all countries should strive to formulate long-term low GHG emission strategies. SA has a ‘peak, plateau and decline’ trajectory range in its national policy, and put forward mitigation NDCs for 2025 and 2030 in Paris. In the next round, it will now be expected to include longer-term goals, even if aspriational, for 2050.

A global stock-take will consider mitigation, adaptation and support every five years, based on equity and science – to inform what more needs to be done.

Given that the sum of INDCs is insufficient to keep us on track for 2 °C, a means of increasing ambition is crucial. The stock-take will consider what more can be done in relation to equity and science. The outcome of the stocktake will inform countries next actions, support and international cooperation.

The global stock-take (GST) is comprehensive, focused not only on mitigation, but also adaptation, means of implementation and support.

The GST will make its assessment “in the light of equity and the best available science”. South Africa introduced language on equity in October, and it s a pleasant surprised that this made it into the Paris Agreement. It means that ratcheting up can consider how much is needed, and whether bottom-up country contributions are fairly distributed.

There was much debate whether the GST can determine what countries need to do. It cannot – no country will sign upfront to the unknown outcome of a negotiation. But the GST “shall inform Parties in updating and enhancing, in a nationally determined manner, their actions and support in accordance with the relevant provisions of this Agreement, as well as in enhancing international cooperation”. Given that the whole problem could not be solved at once, the Paris Agreement defines a process to improve over time. Of course it must deliver on that potential. With that in mind, Paris decided to take stock initially in 2018, in a facilitative dialogue – and not wait for the first global stock-take in 2023. The regular review has potential to increase ambition over time.

Transparency is, in my view, the strongest feature of the Paris Agreement. The framework applies transparency to both action and support, with the latter needing work. While moving to common modalities, it will allow flexibility for those developing countries that have less capability, to improve reporting and review over time.

The transparency framework will build on what has been established over the last eight years. Much more progress had been made on mitigation, there is now a better balance of information flows. The Paris Agreement lays out clear purposes and the information to be provided by Parties regularly: inventories and emissions projectsion on the mitigation side; ‘ information on impacts and adaptation; and information on support provided and received

The new transparency framework will also include reporting on adaptation. Hence the information flows on adaptation are crucial. And more work will need to be done on methodologies to quantify impacts – and the needs and costs associated with those impacts

Transparency of support will be improved. Developed countries have been reporting, but methodologies espeically in relation to finance, remain contested. But developing countries will have to report more on support received.

A major advance is on “review” at the individual country level. The previous transparency framework had not been able to agree ‘reporting and review’ for developing countries. A signficant shift is that all Parties will undergo a technical expert review. This can only be helpful, and the Agreement explicitly indicates that capacity-building needs for developing countries can be identified by experts.

Paris also launched a capacity-building initiative, anchored in the Agreement with details in the decision.

The Paris Agreement is a treaty in all but name. Its overall form is that of a legally binding agreement. The obligations within the treaty differ, some are binding and others not. Individual financial contributions by developed countries are not binding. Mandatory review of obligations is what is expected to strengthen action over time, together with obligations of conduct and achieving objectives – in the case of mitigation.

The Paris Agreement is a treaty in all but name. It will be equivalent to a treaty under the Vienna Convention, so legally binding overall. Some provisions within the treaty, such as mandatory reporting and review, are themselves also legally binding (“Each Party shall …”). Notable exceptions are individual mitigation and finance targets. The US could not accept legally binding obligations on either. However, one should remember that even commitments that were legally binding under the Kyoto Protocol could not, in the end, be enforced. Canada when it could not achieve its commitment simply walked away. Part of the shift from Kyoto to Paris is a greater emphasis on broad participation – INDCs were submitted by 188 countries. The individual mitigation obligations themselves include the word “shall” twice – once to prepare, communicate and maintain, and again to take domestic measures to achieve the objective – of the nationally determined mitigation contribution. So there is an obligation of conduct and an obligation to have measures (meaning policies, laws, any economic or regulatory instruments) to achieve the objective or outcome. All of that will be reviewed, internationally. Seems pretty strong to me.

Bringing in more actors into more creative spaces, ensuring a catalytic function for the Convention and perhaps changing it internally. Paris takes further processes complementary to text-based negotiations – linking with multiple actors in more creative spaces. This means the Agreement might enable action – at national level, with many other actors and international cooperation on cleaner energy.

The UNFCCC has been a fraught process, delivering negotiated text very slowly.

Paris launched a TEP-A, or technical examination process for adaptation. The TEP for mitigation had brought more actors into a more creative space, in part by simply not negotiating text. The TEP-A has huge potential to mobilise a wide range of actors on adaptation.

The Paris Agreement explicitly gives a greater role for non-state actors.The package in Paris included a section dedicated to ‘non-party stakeholders’. This signals a movement to add to the central focus of a multi-lateral negotiation, which is among State Parties. The explicit recognition that civil society, the private sector, financial institutions, cities and other subnational authorities play an important role sends a positive message.

Parties will continue to negotiate text. Meanwhile, those who implement action are welcomed, rather than excluded. More work is needed to bring multiple actors into the process, including the TEP-M and TEP-A, the ‘non-state actor action zone’ and lunch-time events. The UNFCCC has just started being less inward looking, this ‘catalytic role’ should be developed much more strongly. It also remains to be seen whether the more positive energy outside the process can be brought back into the text-based negotiations among countries.

What happened around the Agreement may well turn out to just as important. India launched the International Solar Alliance, with 120 countries with good sunlight. This is one area where Africa is mentioned, with the preamble of the Paris decision “acknowledging the need to promote universal access to sustainable energy in developing countries, in particular in Africa, through the enhanced deployment of renewable energy”. An African RE initiative is being supported by African leaders. Civil society generally is calling for 100% renewables and a clean energy revolution. One way the French presidency could make good on its promise to assist Africa (which was not mentioned together with LDCs and SIDS in the Paris Agreement) would be financial support to the African RE intiative.

Kumi Naidoo of Greenpeace summarised it well: “There’s a yawning gap in this deal, but it can be bridged by clean technology. We’re in a race between the roll-out of renewables and rising temperatures, and the Paris Agreement could give renewables a vital boost.”

Mayors from more than a thousand cities made the Paris City Hall Declaration,pledging support for 100 % renewable energy and 80 % reduction in emissions.

Many of initiatives are being brought into the UNFCCC process as part of the Lima-Paris Action Agenda, which has a fuller listing of the initiatives above and more.

So where does the Paris Agreement leave us overall? It is a good step in the right direction, but not enough. The Grist summarised it well in saying that “the bottom line is that the agreement gets us far closer to containing climate change than we were two weeks ago, but still far short of where we need to go. In fact, we won’t even know for years what it will accomplish.”

It is too early to tell what will be the full implications of the Paris Agreement. Kyoto tried targets and time-tables for a small group of rich countries, Paris takes a ‘nationally determined’ approach which has generated very broad participation. To solve the climate problem, we need both broad and deep solutions. The onus is all to show it work – and particularly on those who killed Kyoto softly and promoted the bottom-up, incremental approach to addresing climate change, notably the US. Yet there is no doubt in my mind that Paris created movement in the right direction.


So what created the movement ? There were many factors, but in the end, what was amazing about Paris is that it was a multi-lateral, collective solution. It was countries and many, many dedicated individuals working together than made the Paris Agreement.

Politically, once the US and China had made a joint Presidential statement in November 2014, it was clear that there was political will to have an Agreement. But it still seemed likely that the Agreement mght be weak, a lowest-common-denominator deal by the G2 with others tinkering around the edges. Certainly the two largest emitters and economies played a central role, but the agreement is much stronger than I expected, going into Paris.

Civil society played a significant role, inside and outside the Convention centre. What more creative response can you imagine to having a planned march of hundreds of thousands banned, and being unable to disagree after the terrible Paris attacks in November? NGOs simply came up with something better – climate marches all over the world, sending a message of solidarity back to Paris. Other parts of civil society worked tirelessly in the corridors, suggesting how text could be improved. NGO reactions are diverse as the movement is, with a good range of views summarised here, and many saying progress was made but more needs to be done.

Negotiators too showed that they can do text, once the pressure is strong enough and the deadline real. No single delegation can claim the credit, but I do want to reflect on what South Africa did. SA chaired the G77&China, and held that diverse group together until the final hours of Paris – a major contribution to the stability of the process and in the interest of developing countries. This effort was led by three strong women – Minister Molewa, Ambassador Diseko, and Chief State Law Adviser Sandea de Wet. South Africa can be proud of them – and the whole team, which also made contributions to the African Group and still spoke in a national capacity, building bridges where we could.

The French COP Presidency was one of the best I have seen in 12 years that I’ve been inside the process. A strong COP President was supported by a dedicated team around Ambassador Laurence Tubiana. Another strong woman, Executive Secretary Christiana Figueres, led the team in the Secretariat who worked and re-worked text tirelessly.

But in the end, no single individual or group can or should claim credit for the Paris Agreement. What was amazing about Paris is that it was a multi-lateral, collective solution to a super-wicked problem – or at least the foundations to work to a solution over time.

As one looks forward from Paris, it is worth quoting Nelson Mandela in full, and start focusing on the hills that lie ahead:

“I have walked that long road to freedom. I have tried not to falter; I have made missteps along the way. But I have discovered the secret that after climbing a great hill, one only finds that there are many more hills to climb. I have taken a moment here to rest, to steal a view of the glorious vista that surrounds me, to look back on the distance I have come. But I can only rest for a moment, for with freedom come responsibilities, and I dare not linger, for my long walk is not ended.”

3 thoughts on “Paris Agreement: after climbing a great hill, many more to climb

  1. An excellent article, Harald in terms of the level of conceptual reflection on the significance of the new climate agreement. There is hardly a point on which I would disagree with your assessment. Katia

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