Achieving the Goals of the Paris Climate Agreement – The Road Ahead of Us

Thomas Hirsch

Founding Director of Climate & Development Advice (Germany)
Limiting global warming to 1.5°C as a prerequisite for achieving the SDGs
The world is at crossroads. Awareness is growing rapidly that overshooting the aspirational goal of the Paris Agreement (PA) to limit global warming to 1.5°C would severely jeopardize the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), making the poor poorer, and causing increasing inequalities, conflicts and humanitarian catastrophes.

According to the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Special Report Global Warming of 1.5°C (2018), even a 1.5°C world comes with high risks and severe losses for people and nature. But a temperature increase that goes beyond this threshold would unjustifiably increase the risk of huge and partly irreversible impacts. These include a potential climate catastrophe for the world’s coral reefs which are home to at least a quarter of the world’s maritime biodiversity. The IPCC argues that these species would very likely be doomed to extinction in a 2°C world. This could endanger the livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of people living along tropical coastlines and on atolls. However, humanity will suffer many more severe consequences from heatwaves and erratic rainfall to storms, floods and droughts, but also due to sea level rise and biodiversity loss. This would put large populations, particularly in Small Island Developing States (SIDS) and Least Developed Countries (LDCs), at risk of being left behind in terms of development.

The good news is that it is still possible to limit global warming at 1.5°C if vigorous and immediate action is taken. It is worth it to pursue every effort to stay at 1.5°C, since failure to limit global warming to 1.5°C would not only lead to large changes of our climate and the environment we rely on, it also implies massive threats to lives, livelihoods, societal well-being, peace, security and economic development aspirations. The key promise of the Agenda 2030 and its SDGs, that no one will be left behind, and that the SDGs will be achieved no later than 2030, depends on staying at 1.5°C. Equity and justice, including gender justice and inter-generational justice, would be severely violated in a 2°C world, and the goals of the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction (SFDRR), to reduce mortality and economic losses caused by natural disasters, very likely would be out of reach, too.

Taking climate action by strengthening the NDCs and by setting up and implementing the 2050 LTS for climate-resilient, zero-emission, sustainable development for all countries is without alternative, if the goals of the Paris Agreement, the SFDRR and the SDGs should be achieved.

Despite the commonly agreed goals of the Paris Agreement, the world is still ‘off-track’. If the current annual level of emissions is not cut down fast and steeply, the remaining carbon budget (i.e. the level of carbon dioxide emissions that can still be emitted without causing the climate to pass this temperature goal) will have already been used up by 2030. The IPCC, therefore, is very clear about the fact that governments from across the world must significantly increase their level of ambition with regard to the Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) now. Hence, it is not only important to agree by when to transform our societies and economies. It is even more important, to agree to start now and to avoid any further delay, since the remaining window of opportunity to achieve the 1.5°C is closing very fast. The big shift has to take place in the next five years, and the course has to be agreed before 2020.

The achievements of COP 24
According to the Paris Agreement’s implementation roadmap, COP 24 in December 2018 in Katowice was tasked with finalizing the Paris Agreement Work Program, with the adoption of the so-called ‘Paris rulebook’. But did it add up to an adequate response to the IPCC’s Global Warming of 1.5°C special report?

One of the lowlights of COP24 was the fact that only the ‘timely completion’ of the special report was welcomed in the COP outcome document, and not the report itself. This wishy-washy compromise had become necessary because of the opposition of Kuwait, Russia, Saudi-Arabia and the U.S. to welcome the report, and thus, also opposing aspirations of lifting mitigation ambition as a matter of highest urgency and relevance.

Despite these incidences, the rulebook, as main deliverable, could finally be agreed, with the exception of rules for market and non-market mechanisms (so-called cooperative approaches, article 6 of the Paris Agreement). It is expected that this missing element will be added at COP25 in Chile.

The main features of the rulebook can be summarized as follows:

  • Regarding the content of NDCs, it was agreed that Parities shall provide the information necessary to ensure clarity, transparency and understanding; While it is mandatory to provide such information on greenhouse gas mitigation, information on adaptation can either provided in the NDC, or the adaptation communications.
  • There is only one set of rules for both developed and developing countries, not upholding the static differentiation in Annex 1 and Non-Annex 1 countries, as applied under the Kyoto Protocol. There is certain flexibility, however, for those developing countries which need it, to provide information, and use other than IPCC GHG emission accounting rules, ‘as applicable’.
  • Countries will provide Biennial Transparency Report (BTR) accounting for their emissions and mitigation policies, also following a common set of transparency arrangements, with some mandatory elements but again with a certain flexibility regarding other reporting features (e.g. frequency) for developing countries which need it.
  • In terms of defining common NDC timeframes (five or ten years), a final agreement is still to be found, hopefully in 2019, and applicable as from 2031 onwards.
  • Public registries for NDCs and adaptation communications will be established in 2019.
  • Loss and damage may be taken-into-account in NDCs and by the global stock-take.
  • Common rules for biennial communications on climate finance, to be mandatorily provided by developed countries, were also agreed, but with certain flexibility.
  • The global stock-take will consider mitigation, adaptation, and means of implementation, and may cover loss and damage; It will be conducted in a three-step-approach, starting with information collection, followed by a technical assessment, and concluded by a series of high-level events to consider the output. This cycle will be conducted every five years, with the first cycle starting in 2022 and ending in 2023, in order to inform the ratcheting-up process of NDCs.
Altogether, the compromises that were finally found on the rulebook reflect an honest attempt to maintain the integrity of the Paris Agreement, as a multilateral framework for common action against climate change in a world of increasing challenges for international policies. The political will to find common landing zones, and to show flexibility where needed, demonstrated by a vast majority of states, indicates a firm believe that there is no other path to overcome the climate crisis than multilateralism. The tough struggle that had to be fought to adopt the rulebook, however, also indicates that the world is alarmingly far away from massive joint efforts cutting down emissions by almost half by 2030, as needed, according to the IPCC, to avoid overshooting 1.5°C. Thus, many observers in Katowice noted with great concern a feeling of leaden tiredness that may replace the so-called “Paris spirit” in climate politics. If this is true or not will become clear in the second half of 2019, with the UN Secretary General’s New York Climate Summit and the run-up to COP 25: The benchmark will be if a significant amount of states, particularly G20 members as the biggest emitters, indicate to lift up climate targets in their NDCs.

Expectations on the 2019 UN Secretary General’s Climate Summit and COP 25
To maintain a minimal chance to stay at 1.5°C, countries must respond to the findings of the IPCC Special report in 2019 by coming forward with more ambitious NDCs, preferably at the UN Secretary General’s Climate Summit in September 2019 in New York, or at COP 25, but no later than 2020. Ratcheting up NDCs should build on results of a national level analysis of existing gaps in current NDCs, with a view to switch to 1.5°C-consistent pathways in terms of mitigation, adaptation, loss and damage and (in the case of developed countries and other capable countries) the provision of financial and technical support. The degree to which states show political will to review and ratchet-up their NDCs is the real litmus test for climate ambition. Now, with the agreements achieved in Katowice, and the clearity provided by the IPCC, there is no excuse not to do so.

If taken seriously, this process could lead to conflicting interests, and bring equity and just transition concerns to the forefront: Transformational change is at least partly disruptive, and social concerns have to be taken-into-account, in order to avoid massive social unrest. It is thus recommended to develop, by 2020, fast-start flagship projects that reflect national climate action priorities, that contribute directly and to the fast achievement of enhanced targets and that are designed in a way to mobilize important co-benefits between mitigation, adaptation and sustainable development.

While the NDCs set short-term climate targets for the next five years, countries are also called upon to come forward by 2020 with a long-term climate strategy for low-GHG development by mid-century in line with the Paris Greenhouse Gas Neutrality (GHG) climate target. By the end of 2018, only ten countries have complied with this request. Many G20 countries should follow in 2019 – 2020, including China.

Beyond 2019 – The road ahead of us
Climate action in the context of the SDGs and DRR must seek to avoid unknown or high risks. The latest scientific research shows that a maximum amount of resources and multilateral cooperation must be invested if we are to keep global warming at 1.5°C. There is no alternative to a vigorous 40 – 50 percent-reduction in emissions by the year 2030 to around 25 Gt or less, including through carbon pricing and high investments in 100% renewable energies and energy efficiency. This is the only way of stabilizing global warming at 1.5°C.  A fast and deep economic transition relies on a sustainability pathway, which decouples economic growth from GHG emissions. Thus, shifting investments from ‘brown’ and unsustainable to ‘green’ and sustainable in a range of up to USD three trillion per year only in the energy sector is pivotal for success. Apart from developed countries with the obligation to provide developing countries with at least USD 100 billion of new and additional climate finance per year as of 2020, national governments, the finance sector (with multilateral development banks as World Bank, Asian Development Bank, and Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank on top of the list), and enterprises are all accountable to shift the trillions.

Furthermore, new approaches to reduce potential losses (including through disaster risk reduction, social protection and climate risk transfer/financing) are to be developed with a view to make use of the “polluter-pays principle” in the utmost possible way.

Aligning climate and development planning in the context of SDGs and the Paris Agreement is another prerequisite for staying at 1.5°C, and can mobilize synergies and co-benefits. Finally, social inclusion and ownership are essential elements of a just transition, aiming at ensuring equity, participatory processes and institutional set-ups that reflect not only a whole-of -government but also a whole-of-society approach.

The questioning of multilateralism in the current geopolitical upheaval, which began with the end of the Cold War and was massively accelerated with economic globalization, the emergence of China and other fast developing economies, and the massive increase in mobility and migration after the turn of the millennium, is not a new phenomenon. However, with the retreat of the U.S. as the global law enforcement power of a Pax Americana, and a president who promotes America First as the new ruling principle, multilateralism is currently experiencing a very severe crisis. The resulting significant threat to international climate policy and the integrity of the Paris Climate Agreement is obvious. However, it is by no means clear what the outcome of this conflict will be – and if international climate policy does not emerge from the crisis, perhaps even strengthened. So far, the US President’s hostility to the Paris Climate Agreement has not undermined the support of the other states to the Paris Agreement. This is based on the common assessment that climate change poses a considerable risk, which can only be controlled by multilateral cooperation and not by national unilateralism. Economically speaking, there is also little in favor of reversing climate policies: The triumphant advance of renewable energies on the one hand and the growing costs of climate-related damage on the other hand have become visible almost everywhere. Although it cannot be ruled out that individual governments will follow the withdrawal decision of the U.S., mass exit is unlikely. This is also counteracted by the fact that the rising world power China, but also the European Union, have an interest in filling in the gap left by the US withdrawal in international climate policy. The dynamics that will develop from this is currently not foreseeable. There is still a considerable mistrust of the EU towards China. In turn, China does not seem to recognize the EU as an equal on equal terms. In addition, there is nowhere in the world the willingness to make climate policy not only without, but possibly also against the US – for example, by introducing a global carbon price increase against their will and, if necessary, levying border adjustment levies on export products from countries that do not apply carbon pricing.

There are many indications, therefore, that in spite of the immediate pressure of action pointed out by the IPCC, in the coming years no major leaps in climate policy can be expected – although a number of countries will increase their climate targets in 2019. Deepening North-South cooperation, such as the EU with the Climate Vulnerable Forum, within the NDC Partnership, or the InsuResilience Global Partnership, is likely to happen.  China and the EU could become climate-change drivers in advancing carbon pricing, flanked by a credible climate foreign policy. At the same time, China and India could also expand their respective South-South cooperation, especially in Asia and, in the case of China, also with Africa. Thus, international cooperation can also be expanded through these formats – despite ongoing crisis of multilateralism.