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Five steps for the Paris Agreement

There have been many surprising developments in the Paris Agreement on climate change. The most recent was its entry into force on November 4 2016, setting new records for the speed of international diplomacy.

That happened after 55 countries covering more than 55 percent of global emissions, including the USA, China, Canada, India and Germany ratified the deal. The European Union then followed suit. Now, as negotiators and ministers meet at COP22, the United Nations climate conference in Marrakesh, Morocco, it’s time to look at the small print, or the 20 pages of decision text that supports the Paris Agreement.

These, to me, are the critical pages. They are effectively the instruction manual for the Agreement. They invite nations to act, recommend courses of action, decide on dates for delivery and ensure nations honor commitments. There is no room for interpretation and changes. The instructions are there to ensure that the necessary mechanisms and pathways for reducing emissions actually work.

Of all the steps that need to be taken, for me there are five that stand out. To keep the deal on track, these should all be delivered in the near term, or before 2020.

Promises must become hard numbers

The decision text notes that the combined actions to reduce emissions specified by the 196 nations in their INDCs and submitted to the UNFCCC before they gathered in Paris falls far short of the goals of the agreement itself, to limit  warming of the climate system to well below 2° Celsius. That means that governments should take stock of their collective actions in 2018, and assess their progress. This will involve considerably more than a simple review. While the Paris agreement demonstrated a new political consensus on climate change, the same countries now have just two years to turn their promises into hard numbers.

No more vagueness. Deadlines must be set

After this initial collective stock-take in 2018, the pressure to deliver will only intensify. By 2020, nations will have to reformulate their actions. This will require prompt and probably challenging discussions on a national level. It isn’t just that the combined national actions falls short of the Paris agreement. Today, barely a single one of the plans appears in line with the ambitious goal that emerged on December 12 2015. Only Costa Rica comes close with its landmark proposal to be carbon-neutral by 2100.

Precise numbers have to be clarified

The Paris agreement moved the global goalposts when negotiators agreed to limit warming to well below 2° Celsius. But there could be more to come. The agreement offers a so-called stretch goal to limit warming to 1.5° Celsius and gives the science community just two years to establish how that might be achieved. Such a goal requires emissions to fall dramatically over the next 30 years. It could even mean the establishment of industries in the second half of the century that remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

Countries must develop their energy transition timetables

The parties to the agreement have just four years to formulate how they will develop economy-wide strategies for lowering carbon emissions through to the middle of the century. These strategies must take into account the goals of the Paris agreement and therefore should draw on the work outlined above, which is not due until 2018. Even for the most advanced economies, plans that stretch over decades outlining the direction of energy systems are a tall order, given the uncertainties historically surrounding energy planning.

It’s time to talk about government-led carbon pricing systems

Arguably, the single most important step that governments can take to achieve the goal of the Paris Agreement is to implement public policy that places a cost on carbon dioxide emissions. Some may think of this as the business of national or regional governments. But it’s worth thinking about how national currencies work. They are exchangeable around the world according to clear global rules. Article 6 of the Paris agreement offers the opportunity for similar rules for government-led carbon pricing systems, bringing much-needed alignment between the various systems. But Article 6, like the rest of the agreement, is brief. The negotiators now have to turn this into a functioning trading mechanism. This is no small task. But it is a vital one

As COP22 got going this week, some of the historic divisions began to resurface, such as the different approaches that developed and developing countries should take. Nevertheless, the discussions on implementing the Paris Agreement in full got underway and the national negotiators began working towards a successful conclusion to the COP by next Friday evening.

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