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11 December 2020

Five years after the Paris Agreement, is the world on track?

Why the “Paris Effect” gives cause for optimism on tackling the climate crisis.  

By Tom Rivett-Carnac

This weekend marks exactly five years since I stood in a jubilant hall in Paris and watched the green gavel fall on the Paris Agreement, the first unanimously agreed international treaty on climate change. With science as a bedrock, the 195 parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change could now begin working towards a common long-term goal (net-zero carbon emissions by 2050) that would direct short-term decisions and shift finance.

Since then, countries have not moved quickly enough. We’ve seen mainstream media coverage of a resurgence in climate denial, outright irresponsibility in the form of rollbacks of environmental safeguards under Donald Trump in the US and Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, and the tragedies of a warming planet – destructive fires, horrific floods – across the globe. We’ve also witnessed the anger of youth faced with an uncertain future.

[see also: Three ways that the case for Brexit overlaps with climate scepticism]

But this is not the full story by any means. The Paris Agreement is quite ingenious in its design – with hundreds of “architects”, led by national governments, but very much expressing the roles and priorities of the private sector, regional government and citizens. It is a roadmap and like all such instruments, a major characteristic is that it is directional, not prescriptive, and recognises that it takes time to set national and sub-national policies, to shift financial flows and public opinion. Where the map begins is a long way from where it is meant to finish.

In 2015, the individual national efforts submitted were not sufficient, when aggregated, to meet the demands of science. Yet every country left Paris with a commitment to regular reporting periods, each within an electoral cycle, that would get us closer to a secure future.

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The central tenet of net-zero emissions by mid-century at the very latest (the 1.5°C pathway) is a brilliant unifier. Everyone can measure and cut emissions transparently, whether a company, a country, a city, a business or a citizen. Our trajectories may differ, but we can all aim for this goal, not so much as a target but as a threshold. A target implies you will merely meet it – but it’s entirely possible that we can even exceed it, if we move further and much, much faster.

[see also: Covid-19 has underscored the urgency of the climate crisis]

Furthermore, the real economy is already decarbonising – and this is what is described in one report as the “Paris Effect”. This indicates that even without the full implementation of national policies, the momentum in the markets towards decarbonising has “moonshot” potential. In 2015, not one sector was significantly decarbonising. Today, low-carbon solutions, particularly solar and wind, are transforming the electricity sector (responsible for 25 per cent of carbon emissions) and, with the correct signals from national policy and the finance sector, can scale up in the 2020s to cover renewable power, food and transportation – creating up to 35 million jobs and covering about 75 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions.

According to Climate Action Tracker, as a result of the momentum we have seen in just five years, if optimistic statements are converted into national policies including president-elect Joe Biden’s plan for the US and President Xi Jinping’s commitment to bring China’s emissions to net zero well before 2060 – the projected global temperature rise by 2100 is 2.1°C, rather than the 3°C that current agreed or “inked” government policies and commitments would produce.

[see also: The best reason to root for Joe Biden and celebrate if he wins? Climate change]

There is no doubt that we need to convert promises and statements into determined and consistent action. We need corporate demand and buying power, citizen pressure, and public and private finance to follow the roadmap set by the Paris Agreement at a more rapid pace. The scale of change required is unprecedented and our focus on what we can achieve within this decade is paramount: in order to reach net zero before 2050, we must halve emissions by 2030. But we have everything to gain by setting ourselves on this pathway, particularly in the wake of the current global economic crisis.

Tom Rivett-Carnac is a partner at Global Optimism, the organisation he co-founded with Christiana Figueres, former executive head of the UN Convention on Climate Change. Together they wrote “The Future We Choose” and co-present the weekly podcast, “Outrage + Optimism”. He also served as chief political adviser to Figueres at the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change while the Paris Agreement was negotiated and adopted.