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GREAT insights Magazine

From climate commitments to action: Editorial

May 2016

Bilal, S., Knaepen, H. 2016. From climate commitments to action: Editorial. GREAT Insights Magazine, Volume 5, Issue 3. May/June 2016.

To coincide with Earth Day, the Paris Agreement, adopted last December at the 21st Conference of the Parties (COP21) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), opened for signature on 22 April 2016 in New York. The Paris Agreement aims at greenhouse gas emissions mitigation, adapting to climate change action, and mobilising climate financing and technology. It is a major achievement, a clear sign of the collective resolve of humanity to seriously tackle one of the most critical challenges of our time. Together with the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development adopted last September 2015, it marks a tremendous success for multilateralism, while the WTO round of trade negotiations has been less successful. It resulted from aligning expectations from a range of stakeholders, and a convergence of various coalitions, involving not only governments, but also business and civil society actors, as well as the scientific community. It was pushed by a strong new US-China alliance, an active European Union, a number of developing country coalitions, including the Group of African, Caribbean and Pacific countries, and very effectively coordinated by France. Most of all, the Agreement is meant to be a people agenda, a partnership with global and local actors, public and private.  

Yet, there is no place for complacency. Time is running out, and unless decisive steps are taken to speedily walk the talk and translate ambitious global commitments into concrete actions at global, regional, national and local levels, the Paris Agreement will fail to deliver and sufficiently reduce climate change.

All country leaders have not only to sign and ratify the Paris Agreement, they must also identify concrete action plans to achieve the climate change goals, by submitting Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) (as elaborated on by Tosi Mpanu-Mpanu). This requires a comprehensive approach based on policy coherence and coordination. Most importantly, it involves some fundamental shifts in our production and consumption patterns, and approaches to our future. The Paris Agreement is only a small step in this process, which can only lead to a giant leap for humanity if such shifts in the paradigm are taking place.

In practice, the NDCs should include: mitigation targets regarding global temperature rise; consensus to support adaptation to climate change and; in the case of developed countries, commitment to provide climate financing to developing countries which, taking the example of climate-vulnerable Africa with its high dependence on the agricultural sector, stand to lose a lot more (see article by Estherine Fotabong). Many African policy-makers are taking fate into their own hands: initiatives to mainstream climate-smart measures into their agricultural policies and practices are emerging. This is a work in progress, challenged by limited knowledge, finance and institutional coordination. Yet, the Green Climate Fund, the upcoming UNFCCC meetings and the countries’ NDCs that refer to the importance of agriculture, show that there is hope, as argued by Hanne Knaepen.

Despite its ambitious targets, there is some disappointment in the Agreement given that it does not provide for sanctions to be imposed upon those who fail to honour their climate change mitigation commitments and comply with the agreement. The abandonment of sanction mechanisms was the price that had to be paid to ensure that countries such as the United States and China ratified the Paris climate agreement in the first place (as discussed by Dirk Messner) but it remains to be seen whether requiring parties to engage in adaptation planning processes and submit and update adaptation communications every five years will be enough to achieve the ambitious goal of decarbonising the global economy.

Climate finance and investment is also a major pillar of the required climate action. One of the cornerstones relates to carbon pricing, which is still undefined. Market forces will probably be too slow to emerge on time to tackle climate change ambitions. Public interventions, in the form of significant carbon taxes and others, will likely be required to alter incentives in the short term. Beyond climate mitigation, which still accounts for the bulk of finance action, more emphasis also needs to be put on financing climate adaptation, building on business opportunities and positive public action. This includes not only disinvesting from environmentally damaging operations, but also fostering incentives for reallocation of capital in climate friendly endeavours, as increasingly promoted by international financing institutions (see article by Nancy Saich). In financing as well, paradigm shifts and innovations, as with the recent decision by the French President to issue sovereign green bonds, are most needed.

This issue of GREAT Insights brings a range of perspectives on some of the challenges, but also opportunities, of translating the Paris Agreement into concrete actions, from a broad perspective, or focusing on more specific issues, such as agriculture, trade, conflict or finance. This is a concern not only for environmental experts but for all of us.


This article was published in GREAT Insights Volume 5, Issue 3 (May/June 2016).

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