A just climate settlement in Paris?

14th Dec 2015

This weekend saw a historic agreement to limit global emissions. But is it enough to avoid the worst impacts of climate change? Katharine Knox weighs up the issue.

On Saturday, the world made history and a global agreement was secured to address climate change after massive efforts from 195 nations. For the first time, China and the USA have also agreed to limit emissions, making this a particularly historic moment.

Amongst the points agreed is a critical statement around the global temperature limits countries will work towards.  Article 2 states the objective as:

‘Holding the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2 degrees C above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 degrees C above pre industrial levels, recognising that this would significantly reduce the risks and impacts of climate change’.

The recognition that an increase of 1.5 degrees will have major impacts is very significant, and is particularly important for those countries at the sharp end of climate impacts, including many island states, but also globally, as extreme weather hits other countries – both the UK and India were suffering extreme floods as the talks were held.

However, critically, there is no clear timeframe to which the aspiration is applied. Scientists are also questioning whether the goal is achievable.  The individual nationally determined contributions (INDCs) currently set by each state will not add up to what is required to hold emissions below 2 degrees C, let alone 1.5.

Climate scientist Professor Kevin Anderson from the Tyndall Centre argued emphatically in Paris that it is now nigh on impossible to reach 1.5 degrees considering both scientific possibilities and fair sharing of responsibilities across nations. He suggests that even having a 50 per cent chance of achieving warming of 2 degrees will require us to go on a ‘war-like footing’ to mitigate carbon emissions and to peak global emissions imminently.  

There will need to be massive carbon-reduction efforts to reach the global goal. The agreement recognises we will also need to remove greenhouse gases through ‘sinks’, such as carbon capture and storage. However UK policy has been moving in the opposite direction recently, with policies like zero carbon homes dropped and an ambiguous future for carbon capture and storage.

A major sticking point in the agreement was how it would address the ‘common but differentiated responsibility’ of different nations. The developed nations’ history of industrialisation has caused the greenhouse gas emissions that are driving climate change. However, since 1992 there has been a shift in the emissions picture, with well over half of emissions now coming from developing nations. China is now responsible for more emissions than any other country, with the US following a close second.

The agreement does rightly suggest that developed countries should take the lead in emissions reductions .The questions of recognising historic responsibility for emissions alongside the opportunities for future growth are an issue of climate justice. There will also need to be massive support to deliver climate finance to developing nations to underpin the transitions needed, support both mitigation and adaptation, and recognise the loss and damage that climate change impacts will create.

There is no doubt that the Paris agreement is a defining moment for the world. We need to ensure that it is a call to action both in the UK and internationally to deliver on the ambitions set, which recognises the severity of this issue for all our futures.