Let’s hail the Paris Agreement and get to work

Paris COP 21


December 12, 2015 7:17 pm

Jeffrey Sachs


The Paris Agreement and the supporting decisions are a diplomatic triumph. They are an act of true global co-operation of historic significance. Yet it is crucial to distinguish between diplomacy and implementation. The diplomats have done their job: the Paris Agreement points the world in the right direction, and with sophistication and clarity. It does not, however, ensure implementation, which necessarily remains the domain of politicians, businessmen, scientists, engineers, and civil society.

Global agreements are necessary for global problem solving and collaboration around a shared goal. The Paris Agreement stakes out a global commitment to keep warming “well below 2-degree C” and to pursue efforts to limit warming to 1.5-degrees C. This is serious and wise: the target has been improved (from the previous “below 2-degree C”) in light of scientific evidence on the grave risks of a massive sea level rise. The parties also aim to reach the global peaking of emissions as soon as possible.

Nor is the grim truth hidden from the view. The voluntary intended nationally determined contributions (INDCs) at the heart of this agreement do not yet add up to a 2-degree limit, much less a 1.5-degree limit. The parties note that, “much greater emissions reductions will be required.” This is not a sham agreement: it is diplomats telling the world the truth: We should aim high, but are not yet doing so sufficiently.

The agreement covers the important bases: common but differentiated responsibilities; the need for financing (including the much debated $100bn per year by 2020, now noted as a floor for post-2020); the need to develop and disseminate technologies; the need for capacity building in many parts of the world; and the need for new institutions to help support all of this.

The text is balanced, smart, comprehensive, and encouraging. Real issues are discussed. A timeline for review and upgrading of commitments every five years is agreed, and a first stocktaking is proposed for 2018 — before even the entry into force of the agreement.

The cynics will say that the agreement is unenforceable. They are right. The cynics will imply that the agreement is therefore irrelevant, or doomed to fail. In this they are wrong. Agreements such as these appeal to our better angels, as well as to national self-interests. They strengthen resolve, clarify pathways, spur global responsibility, promote initiatives, and generally make it more likely to avoid the free riding that has so often stymied global co-operation.

As President Kennedy famously said about such goal-setting, in the context of nuclear non-proliferation and a ban on atmospheric testing of weapons: “By defining our goal more clearly, by making it seem more manageable and less remote, we help all people to see it, to draw hope from it, and to move irresistibly toward it.”

The 2-degree C upper limit is feasible, but just barely. The Deep Decarbonization Pathways Project (DDPP), working in 16 countries accounting for over 70 per cent of global emissions, has demonstrated economically and technologically feasible pathways to low emissions by 2050. The 1.5-degree C upper limit is likely to be breached in the coming decades but could possibly be regained later in the century through large-scale net negative emissions through biological and geological carbon storage.

One of the notable commitments in the Paris Agreement builds on the DDPP by calling on all countries to prepare “long-term low greenhouse gas development strategies.” These should aim for low emissions by 2050, and should be submitted to the UNFCCC Secretariat by 2020. This will be a major spur to clear thinking about the deep transformations of energy and agriculture that are required for the 2-degree C and 1.5-degree C limits.

The diplomats have done their job. French Minister Laurence Fabius, the President of COP21, is a diplomatic genius. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has made a historic contribution through years of steadfast, patient, quiet, and urgent diplomacy with the world’s political, business, and scientific leaders. Three politicians deserve special praise: President Obama, who has braved the madness of a corrupted Republican Party owned and operated by the oil lobby; President Xi Jinping, who has steered his country realistically towards a breathable future; and President Hollande, who took on the political risks of this conference, and managed brilliantly even as his country was reeling from terrorism. The technical leaders, notably UNFCCC Executive Secretary Christiana Figueres and French Climate Envoy Laurence Tubiana, deserve special recognition.

The urgent, long overdue challenge of implementation now begins. This is not the job mainly for diplomats, but for business leaders, engineers, financial managers and politicians. Yet now we have the legal framework and shared vision to move us irresistibly towards our goal.


The writer is director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University



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