Was the Paris Agreement on Climate Change a success?

The Paris Climate Change Summit, also known as COP21, took place from November to December 2015. The deal unites nearly all the world’s nations in a single agreement on tackling climate change for the first time in history. The Paris Climate Change Summit is a successor to the Kyoto Protocol and the Copenhagen Conference and is currently being seen as the most appropriate response to date. However, to be able to assess whether Paris is a success or failure would depend upon what the aim was, for example, some view the Summit merely as a step in a longer process, whereas others may view the Summit as an agreement which should bring about radical change and solve the unprecedented levels of global warming the world is experiencing.

On one hand, many praise COP21 for bringing 195 countries together, adopting the first ever universal, legally binding global climate deal. There are two main aspects of the summit which are legally binding within the United Nations framework. The first of which being the regular review and submission of emission reduction targets. The second of which being the $100bn fund from developed economies to help emerging and developing nations to decarbonise their energy mix. This is viewed as a great success, as Kyoto and Copenhagen both mainly failed because they were not legally binding. According to Hardin’s Tragedy of the Commons theory it suggests that nations will always act in their self-interest and will carry on overusing and exploiting the land as long as it is beneficial for them to do so. As Hardin famously said, ‘freedom in a common brings ruin to all’. Therefore, a legally binding agreement such as Paris, will overcome this by reducing nation states’ sovereignty, therefore implying that it will be a success. Liberals would support this argument as they believe that the world can be made less anarchic through international laws and institutions which are above the state.

Others, however, may disagree. Only parts of the summit are legally binding. The emission targets themselves will not be legally binding, these will be determined by nations themselves. Realists believe that nation states are sovereign and that there is no international law but just what states think of it. They are more concerned with survival in an anarchic world rather than sustainability which suggests that no agreement that attempts to be above the nation state will succeed. This illustrates how difficult worldwide consensus over such a global issue is. Trump is expressing views that he wishes to pull America from the agreement, one of the biggest polluters accounting for 20% of emissions but only 4% of the population, out of the agreement which would damage the entire agreement, and give others the incentive not to commit as well. Scott Pruitt the EPA administrator and open climate denier called it ‘a bad business deal for this country’. Additionally, Trump has 16 climate change sceptics in his cabinet, signifying the type of environment policies that are going to be pursued over the coming years. Trump has already ordered to repeal rules regarding coal leases on federal lands and offshore fracking, and is preparing executive orders aimed at curtailing Obama’s policies on climate and water pollution. He also wishes to repeal and rework Obama’s Clean Power Plan. It could then be argued if the leader of the free world is not showing any consideration for environmental issues, then no other state will and Paris will fail.

The Paris Climate Change Summit is often praised for its realistic, appropriate targets. The main target resulting from the summit is to limit global warming to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels. The ideal is 1.5°C since this would significantly reduce the risks and impacts of climate change, but the summit acknowledged that this would be too idealistic and unrealistic. The limit of 2°C is what scientists regard as the dangerous and irreversible level of climate change, therefore Paris’ aim is very appropriate. It is also the first agreement with a clear and specific temperature rise target, others such as Copenhagen did not have this, whereas it is central to the Paris agreement. The deal is often seen as an accomplishment as it signifies a new way for the world to achieve progress, without it costing the earth. Paris is often seen as a step in a longer process. Reformists would agree that this is the best method of tackling climate change and that it is a gradual process. China’s chief negotiator, Xie Zhenhua said that the deal was not perfect but that it does not prevent us from marching historical steps forward.

Nevertheless, the targets of Paris are greatly criticised. An assessment was published which suggested that the emission reduction currently outlined in the INDCs submitted would only limit global temperature rise by 2.7° C, not 2° C, which is classified by scientists as the tipping point. The tipping point is the point at which anthropogenic global warming becomes irreversible. This begs the question why the targets themselves are not legally binding under international law. Therefore, the summit could already be viewed as ineffective and a failure. Moreover, the world has already reached 1°C above pre-industrial levels and so limiting global warming to only 1°C is simply unrealistic and unachievable. It is also often argued that Paris is no different from the Kyoto Protocol of 1997 in which the US pulled out and others failed to comply. Realists would argue that the lack of state compliance is inevitable because states will always act in their self-interest and retain sovereignty so Paris is doomed to fail. COP21 has also been described as ‘woolly’ because some of the targets were scaled down during the negotiations suggesting it is insufficient to tackle the environmental issues the globe is faced with.

A key success of the Paris Climate Change Summit has been the involvement of both the developed and developing. Nearly 200 countries took part in the negotiations, making it the closest to a truly global solution to climate change. The chairman of the group representing some of the world’s poorest countries claimed it was ‘the best outcome we could have hoped for’. This illustrates how the Tragedy of the Commons and the free rider problem has been overcome and so there should not be any reason why Paris is a failure. Liberals would subscribe to this view as they recognise that the world is not a zero-sum game and that all states can win as they have a ‘harmony of interests’, this is also reflected in Cosmopolitanism beliefs. The developed have agreed to contributing $100bn a year in climate finance for developing countries to cope with climate change, demonstrating common but differentiated responsibilities between the developed and developing worlds. Observers say that the attempt to impose emissions targets on all countries was one of the main reasons Copenhagen failed because at the time the developing countries were unwilling to sign up to an agreement that would damage their prospects, but the latest negotiations managed to avoid such an impasse by developing a system of INDCs. Furthermore, China’s change in attitude towards the environment has been revolutionary. China is building 35 wind turbines a day, when just 7 years ago they had none and are the largest hydropower producer in the world, accounting for half the world’s total. They are the leaders of the green revolution and have realised their role in dealing with the environment is vital. At the moment, they are planning to curb their emissions by 2030, illustrating that there is no longer any tensions or disagreements regarding responsibility between the developed and developing. Additionally, the EU has also taken a prominent role in tackling environmental issues. The EU has an aim to become carbon neutral by 2050, and also has many more specific targets such as to cut energy use to levels 20% below business-as-usual projections by 2020. There is an overwhelming consensus that the environment is an issue high on states’ agendas.

There are some who believe that the Paris Climate Change Summit has not been a success as it has not comprehensively dealt with the differences between the developed and developing. Nick Dearden, director of Global Justice Now said ‘it undermines the rights of the world’s most vulnerable communities’. Many would also support this view and argue that a 1.5°C target should have been set as a 2°C target is simply not beneficial to low-lying countries that are already facing unsustainable sea level rises in a warming world. Radical ecologists would support this viewpoint because they believe profound action is required to make meaningful progress, for example they believe that the world must move away from the economic and ideological forces that shape capitalist modernity for effective action to be had, not merely setting emission restrictions. The $100bn figure that is set out is helpful, but remains 8% of worldwide declared military spending each year, suggesting that the environment is not in fact seen as a prominent global issue. This suggests that Paris will not be a success as countries are still not fully committed to the issue.

In conclusion, it is clear that the Paris agreement is a step in a longer process of combatting global warming. The advances that it has made upon its predecessors such as Kyoto is impressive and should be applauded. Getting the large number of states it has to give up parts of their national sovereignty should be seen as a success. It cannot be denied that the agreement has its drawbacks, but it could be argued that the agreement has produced the best possible outcome at this current time. It is too early yet to be able to assess the impacts of the agreement, especially as it does not come into force until 2020, but the agreement itself should be viewed as a success.

Tess Willliams

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