Paris Agreement on Climate Change: What did we get and where do we go next? – Tearfund's Policy Blog

December 12, 2015 by mattcurrey

Tearfund’s Advocacy Director Paul Cook reflects on the outcomes of the Paris Agreement reached today

On Saturday 12 December 2015 for the first time in history all the nations of the world signed up to play their part in the Paris Agreement . A global deal to tackle climate change.  But is it a good deal or a bad deal?  In particular is it a good deal for the millions of people living in poor communities across Africa, Asia and Latin America who are the most vulnerable to climate change and have done the least to cause it?

What did we get?

Nations signed up to hold “the increase in global average temperature to well below 2 degrees above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 degrees”.  This doesn’t sound like much, but it is the critical level that the science indicates we need to stay below to prevent the most catastrophic impacts of climate change.  Indeed there has been growing recognition that the science points towards limiting warming not to 2 but to 1.5 degrees.  The Climate Vulnerable Forum, a group of over 40 of the poorest countries who are most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, led the momentum in the Paris talks to see the limit strengthened from 2 to 1.5 degrees, a major victory.

In order to stay below 1.5 degrees, the Paris Agreement says we need to “achieve a balance between anthropogenic emissions by sources and removals by sinks of greenhouse gases in the second half of this century”.  Basically humans must stop emitting more greenhouse gas emissions than the planet can absorb naturally through rainforests, oceans, soils etc.  This is not the clear commitment to shift to 100% clean energy by (not after) 2050 as Tearfund would have liked.  Nevertheless, it means that for the first time ever the governments of the world have accepted that the safe level of emissions is effectively zero, and that the fossil fuel era is coming to an end to be replaced with 100% clean energy.

The Paris Agreement locks in and confirms the planned cuts to their emissions over the next few years that each country put on the table before they even arrived: their Intended Nationally Determined Contribution (INDC). Together these will reduce global average temperature rise from a catastrophic 4 degrees to 2.7 degrees.  This obviously isn’t enough given the level we need to stay below is 1.5 degrees, but it is finally a good start.

In order to close this remaining gap the Paris Agreement institutes a system whereby every five years the emissions cuts nations have planned can be reviewed and ratcheted up until we finally do get down to a level which will keep the world below 1.5 degrees.  The first window of opportunity for this is in 2018.  None of this will be easy, and each time will no doubt be a tough fight with millions of Christians and others around the world mobilising to put pressure on their governments to be more ambitious in their planned cuts.  However, there is also strong grounds to hope that the clear signal the Paris Agreement has given and the implementation of the INDCs once begun will finally be a tipping point driving huge investment out of fossil fuels and into clean energy, accelerating the progress and enabling nations to move much faster than they currently think.

Developed countries reaffirmed their commitment to provide $100 billion a year in climate finance from 2020 to help poor countries transition their economies to clean energy and adapt to the impacts of climate change.  This has now been extended up to 2025, from which point the international community will set a new goal for finance with $100 billion as a minimum ‘floor’.  However, developed nations are currently still a very long way from doing this in reality and pressure will have to be kept up to ensure they truly deliver up to 2025 and continue to do their share beyond.

Where do we go next?

So the Paris Agreement is not perfect.  It doesn’t give us everything we need to keep global average temperature rise below 1.5 degrees and provide all the financial support the poorest communities around the world need.  However, it does give us a strong start we can build on and scale up in the years ahead until we do get there.

The challenge now for all the people of the world is to bring the Paris Agreement home and transform commitments on paper into actions in reality in every nation, and to scale up that ambition in the years ahead.

The Paris Agreement was only possible in large part because so many groups were mobilised to create political pressure for a good result.  Businesses, world leaders, scientists, mayors and local authorities, ordinary people and not least faith groups all took action and spoke out.  

Ordinary Christians and churches around the world have been central to this.  They have prayed and spoken up for action on climate change.  They formed a large contingent in over 2000 marches that took place around the world involving millions of people at the start of the Paris talks.  This included over 50,000 people in London in the UK’s largest ever climate march.  Tearfund will be honoured to continue to work with ordinary Christians, churches and in coalition with organisations and individuals of all faiths and none to continue to bring pressure on governments to implement, rapidly build on and improve the Paris Agreement in the years ahead.