We have an agreement. And not just any agreement – an agreement with potential, full of hope for what the future can achieve, and with a clear directive to world governments telling them that they must step up on climate action. More than anything, the agreement is indicative of a change in political will, and an acknowledgement of the fact that the planet can – and must – reduce our emissions and ditch the fossil fuels.
Here’s a breakdown of what you need to know about what actually ended up in the Paris Agreement – both the good and the bad bits.
- The bulk of the agreement is legally binding, meaning countries are required to keep to the climate action they’ve agreed to. Unfortunately, there are still “flexible” decisions, which mean some of the specifics around climate action are not binding.
- Intergenerational equity is finally mentioned in the preamble. This recognises the disproportionate effect climate change will have on future generations, and is a huge success for those who focus on issues of justice and equity.
- The global temperature goal is stronger than previously hoped; and while it still does not use 1.5 degrees of warming as a limit over 2 degrees, it does specify that we must keep temperatures “well below 2 degrees above pre-industrial levels and pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 degrees.” Despite the lack of firm commitment to 1.5 degrees, this is a recognition of the dangerous difference between 1.5 and 2 degrees, and puts us on track to keep warming as low as possible.
- Pursuant to the new focus on 1.5 degrees, the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change – essentially the most important provider of scientific evidence around climate change and its effects) is invited to “provide a special report… on the impacts of global warming of 1.5 degrees… and related global greenhouse gas emission pathways” by 2018.
- We have a specific article addressing carbon neutrality, which urges countries to peak on their greenhouse gas emissions as soon as possible, so that we are able to achieve a “balance” between emissions and carbon sinks in the second half of the century. We would prefer an explicit time limit of 2050 for eradicating fossil fuels, but this is a good indicator that countries and companies should be investing in renewables.
- We have a ratchet and review process, requiring emissions reduction targets to be increased every five years by way of a “global stocktake”. The first “facilitative dialogue” on this process will take place in 2018, which involve assessments of how countries are doing in reaching their long-term temperature goals. The first global stocktake will take place in 2023, where countries will be required to improve on their climate targets.
- Despite recognition of indigenous rights in the preamble, there is a blinding lack of reference to indigenous communities throughout the articles of the text. In particular, Article 5, which refers to “sinks and reservoirs of greenhouse gas emissions” (i.e. forests), fails to recognise the role indigenous communities have in sustainable resource management. Indigenous communities have criticised the “privatisation” of natural resources, and are concerned forests and water in developing countries are being used as “sponges for industrialised nation’s pollution”.
- Loss and damage has its own article, instead of being lumped in with adaptation, but at a cost – the concepts of ‘liability’ and ‘compensation’ have been removed, which is indicative of developed countries’ unwillingness to take responsibility for their emissions. It also relies on the Warsaw International Mechanism for Loss and Damage associated with Climate Change Impacts, which suffers from some serious equity and implementation issues.
- Due to the legally binding nature of the agreement, countries are now legally obliged to provide climate finance to developing countries. Unfortunately, the specific goal of $100bn per year from 2020 is not legally binding.
- The way emissions are tracked and reviewed will be transparent, and there will be a creation of a “transparency framework” that aims to “provide a clear understanding of climate change action… including clarity and tracking of progress towards achieving Parties’ individual national determined contributions.”
- The agreement allows countries to keep going with their carbon trading schemes, although it is not explicitly encouraged. Countries are, however, urged to be transparent – this is to stop the trading of dodgy carbon credits to meet emissions reduction targets.
So, what does this mean for New Zealand? Essentially, a lot. The Government, thus far, has shown an astonishing disregard for the agreement, appearing on Morning Report only to note that not much will change. When you consider the scope of the above points – and the overall goal we’ve committed to – it’s more than dishonest to suggest we can keep on with our business as usual approach; it’s dangerous.
Now is the time to step up and start introducing policies that will actually get us to our emissions reduction target and beyond.
There are some immediate actions we would like to see announced in 2016:
- Fast tracking the City Rail Link;
- Shifting to 100% renewable energy by 2050;
- Divesting our public funds from fossil fuels and;
- Placing a tax on carbon pollution instead of relying on dodgy trading markets are all real options.
The Paris Agreement is not a holy grail, but it opens a door that has been locked since Copenhagen – a political mandate for climate action. If anything, Paris shows what pressure from ordinary people, like those who marched all over the world just before the conference, can achieve. With this agreement, we have the opportunity to create a future for our children and to institute a climate plan to be proud of – but it’s the Government’s responsibility to step up to the mark.