Messner, D. 2016. Paris Agreement - Gateway to a decarbonised global society. GREAT Insights Magazine, Volume 5, Issue 3. May/June 2016.
The Paris climate agreement marks a momentous breakthrough and a civilising milestone in the history of the international community. It provides the gateway to a decarbonised global economy and society, sets ambitious goals for climate change mitigation, and yet its success is not a foregone conclusion. Significant efforts will need to be undertaken at local, national and international levels in the next few years and decades for effectively phasing-out a fossil fuel-driven economy.
The Paris Agreement stipulates that global temperature rise should be held below 2°C, if possible at 1.5°C, to limit unmanageable, irreversible consequences of climate change, which pose a particular threat to vulnerable groups, regions and countries. Keeping global warming below 2°C will require enormous efforts, a fact that the climate treaty does not hide. The document states the need to transition to a climate-neutral global economy during the second half of the 21st century. The burning of coal, oil and gas, which has driven economic development and prosperity since the earliest days of the Industrial Revolution, must be phased out.
This Agreement represents a historic milestone in international politics. Based on science and research findings on the future risks of global warming and the recognition of these risks by an increasingly large number of citizens and governments worldwide, the international community has decided after 21 years of tough climate negotiations to make a u-turn in global economic policy. With the goal of averting risks and making provisions for the future, a strategy of preventive climate change mitigation against the manifest self-interest of powerful fossil fuel-driven industrial sectors are pursued. It is necessary to leave in the ground a large proportion of the fossil resources that have already been identified in order to keep global temperature rise below the 2°C guardrail. Even growing sectors of the private sector have started down this path in recent years. After two decades of difficult negotiations and painstaking educational work in many societies, in Paris the rationality concept (of averting verifiable and large scale risks to the planet and to current and future generations) were enforced against the powerful ‘cartel of immediate interests’ (which sees climate change mitigation as a potential threat to prosperity). The Paris Agreement formulates the core principles of a new global social contract: we will only achieve economic development, prosperity and poverty reduction if we recognise the biophysical guardrails of our planetary ecosystem. If we exceed these limits, then we put human civilisation as a whole at risk. Agreed upon by almost 200 nation states in Paris on 12 December 2015, this “planetary imperative for human development” is comparable to the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the United Nations on 10 December 1948.
In the Paris Agreement, all states commit to play their part in global climate change mitigation efforts. The old distinction drawn by the 1997 Kyoto Protocol between industrialised nations with a duty to commit to mitigating climate change on the one hand and developing countries and rising powers with no obligation to make any such binding commitments on the other has been removed. This represents an acknowledgement of the fact that greenhouse gas emission levels of the rising powers in particular, and especially those of China, have been rising rapidly for two decades and that, without efforts to mitigate climate change in these countries, it will not be possible to keep to the 2°C guardrail even if industrialised nations immediately ceased to produce any emissions. At the same time, the Paris Agreement recognises that poor developing countries must also work to establish development pathways that do not require the burning of fossil fuels. Otherwise, it will be impossible to achieve a climate-neutral, decarbonised global economy. For their part, industrialised nations and a number of rising powers have pledged to support poor countries in their climate change mitigation efforts. They approved the Green Climate Fund, which will make US$100 billion available annually in order to assist developing countries with implementing climate-friendly development pathways and adapting to the consequences of global warming.
In the Paris Agreement, the signatory states commit to developing national roadmaps for the decarbonisation of their economies and to submitting these road maps for regular review as part of the UNFCCC’s climate process. The precise mechanisms of this review process are still to be operationalised. The goal is to readjust the climate change mitigation plans of all countries if it becomes evident that the efforts being undertaken are insufficient for achieving the common goals.
The Paris Agreement is ambitious in its system of targets, far more ambitious than the Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs) presented by the signatory states in Paris. If the countries were to follow through on all the voluntary commitments they have already made, which is by no means a given, then they would only achieve around 30% of the greenhouse gas emissions reductions required to stabilise global warming around the 2°C mark. The currently committed reductions would still translate into a global temperature rise of between 2.7 and 3.5°C. 70% of the climate change mitigation target is still to be addressed. Each state needs to take quick and drastic action to expand its climate change mitigation proposals if the 2°C guardrail is to be observed. There are no reasonable grounds for countries to rest on their laurels in Paris.
The Paris Agreement has another significant blemish in 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 sanctions mechanisms (such mechanisms would imply a serious infringement of the sovereignty rights of states) 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. Consequently, the climate accord affords greater autonomy to its signatory states than the World Trade Organization (WTO) does to its members, for example. The WTO’s Dispute Settlement Body investigates instances of failure to comply with regulations and can even impose penalties. It remains to be seen whether or not the ambitious goal of decarbonising the global economy can be achieved by means of soft control mechanisms such as mutual reporting and reviewing of national decarbonisation roadmaps.
In order to have a good chance of keeping global temperature rise below the 2°C mark, global, energy-based greenhouse gas emissions must be reduced to zero between 2050 and 2070 (WBGU 2014). To make this possible, there is a need to massively expand the use of renewable energies worldwide, an area in which there has been some significant progress. A decade ago, over 75% of new energy sector investments globally were made in fossil fuels; since 2013, new investments in renewable energies worldwide have accounted for over 50% of total investments. The old fossil fuel-driven business model is becoming less relevant as renewable energy systems are coming to the fore. At the same time, there are still many fossil fuel-based energy producers operating within the grid, and new coal and gas-fired power stations are being planned and built. We must now develop and implement phase-out strategies, especially for coal-fired power stations, that are equally as ambitious as our expansion plans for renewable energies.
It would seem that hopes of being able to remove a large proportion of greenhouse gas emissions from the atmosphere through carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) are failing to materialise. So far, no large-scale technologies have emerged for using CCS in conjunction with coal and gas-fired power stations to transform the latter into climate-friendly energy producers within a reasonable period of time. CCS could play a limited role in the decarbonisation of the global economy if it is able to generate negative emissions in future in combination with biomass-based energy production, which also has limited potential. CCS could also serve as a transition technology as part of restructuring work to make strategically significant industries with high greenhouse gas emissions, such as the cement and steel industries, more climate friendly.
In addition to decarbonising global energy systems, major efforts are required to make cities and urban areas climate neutral (WBGU 2016). Over 70% of energy-based greenhouse gas emissions are linked to urban infrastructures, primarily heating and cooling mechanisms in buildings and mobility systems. The urban population is expected to double from a good three billion at present to six billion by 2050. This mega trend presents significant opportunities to make these new urban areas climate neutral from the outset. Failure to exploit this window of opportunity would lead to the development of high-emission cities with enormous path dependencies. It would then be impossible to keep global warming below the 2°C mark. This is a major international challenge that can only be tackled through global cooperation – the Habitat III Conference in Quito at the end of 2016 could be a chance to move the urbanisation shift into a sustainable direction. The aforementioned urban boom is primarily concentrated in Asia and Africa. It is necessary to begin work immediately in these continents to pave the way for climate friendly cities. In the ‘old cities’ of the OECD world, the main priority is to build on the energy transformation initiated in many countries by transforming mobility systems and retrofitting housing stock to make it climate friendly. Creating ‘climate-friendly cities’ in the context of the largest urban revolution in human history is a global task of Herculean proportions; as a topic, it is not as mainstream within the political climate discourse as the energy transformation, which already enjoys general acceptance globally.
What sort of toolkit is needed to ensure the decarbonisation of the global economy? There are four key building blocks. First, in a market based economy price signals are essential for companies and consumers. Undesirable economic activities must be made more expensive in order to support alternative ones, which is why emissions trading systems and greenhouse gas emissions taxes are key instruments of climate change mitigation. Duties on greenhouse gas emissions, ideally on a worldwide scale, would provide incentives for reducing emissions. Low global oil prices provide a good opportunity for successively introducing increasing duty levels for greenhouse gases. The resulting revenue could be used to ease the tax burden on citizens in other areas, such as employment. Second, technology development must be supported and advanced in areas in which greenhouse gas-neutral solutions do not yet exist. Storage systems need to be developed further for renewable energies and high-performance batteries are required for electric mobility systems to facilitate the decarbonisation of the transport and mobility sectors. It is also essential to invest in the development of climate-neutral aviation fuel. Additionally, developing climate-friendly building materials to successively replace energy-intensive concrete, steel and aluminium production could help to link the global urban boom to climate change mitigation efforts.
Third, decarbonisation roadmaps must be developed worldwide in all sectors of the economies to point the way towards achieving zero emissions between 2050 and 2070. Efficiency standards, price signals, new technological developments, and the training of future engineers and workers in climate-neutral business practices all form part of such sectoral transformation strategies. Fourth, all of these efforts need to be undertaken at local, national and global levels. Decarbonising the global economy will be impossible without international cooperation. Global research cooperation and development policy, transnational collaboration between cities, and the orientation of international development banks towards the transition to climate-friendly business practices and lifestyles are important building blocks of the ‘Great Transformation’ towards sustainability (WBGU 2011).
WBGU (German Advisory Council on Global Change). 2011. World in Transition – A social contract for sustainability, Berlin.
WBGU (German Advisory Council on Global Change). 2014. Climate protection as a world citizen movement, Berlin.
WBGU (German Advisory Council on Global Change). 2016. Humanity on the move – Unlocking the transformative power of cities, Berlin.
About the author
Dr. Dirk Messner is Director of the German Development Institute (DIE) and Co-Chair of the German Advisory Council on Global Change (WBGU).
Photo: A smog filled Beijing. Credit: Lei Han, flickr.com.
This article was published in GREAT Insights Volume 5, Issue 3 (May/June 2016).