Diarmuid Torney: COP21 a step in right direction still a long way to go

Real problem is not that we will not have binding targets, but that governments have not yet fully internalised need to take rapid action to respond to climate change

High-level climate talks in Paris are entering the home straight today. It is clear that the emerging agreement will not by itself be enough to put the world on the path to a safe level of climate change. Critics are right to be deeply disappointed at this outcome, but the Paris conference has given important momentum to the long-term process of decarbonising the global economy. While the conference has brought climate change to the centre of the government agendas around the world, much remains to be done and countries around the world will have to ramp up their climate action over the coming years.


The pressure to reach a deal in Paris today or over the weekend will be intense. France has staked its diplomatic reputation on a successful outcome. No country will want to be seen to have brought down the deal. It is highly unlikely, therefore, that the conference will end in acrimony in the way the 2009 Copenhagen conference did.

The outlines of an agreement are already visible. Although final details remain to be hammered out, the agreement looks set to include binding rules to monitor countries’ greenhouse gas emissions and actions to combat climate change. It is also likely to include a mechanism to “ratchet up” the ambition of countries action over time through a requirement to review national pledges every five years.

Key remaining differences centre on the issues that have dogged these negotiations for the past 25 years. First, the overall goal of the agreement: should the limit for warming be 2 degrees above pre-industrial levels, or 1.5 degrees as many vulnerable countries want, and what do we need to do to get there?


Second, how much financial support should be provided to the poorest and most vulnerable countries to respond to climate change, and who should be required to contribute? Third, how should the agreement take account of the differences between rich and poor countries that have vastly different levels of responsibility for causing climate change and capacities to respond?

Judged against the metric of “solving” climate change, Paris cannot be considered a success by itself. The cumulative effect of all countries’ pledges submitted prior to Paris are projected to add up to between 2.7 and 3.5 degrees of warming by 2100. By contrast, a “business-as-usual” scenario is forecast to result in 4 degrees of warming. This is of course a disappointing outcome, but it has been clear for some time to close observers that Paris would be a small step in the right direction rather than the end of the journey.

No binding targets

Critics of the process will argue that a key deficiency of the talks is the absence of legally binding emissions targets for countries. It has been clear for a long time that an agreement with such legal provisions would not be ratified by the US Senate, currently controlled by Republicans.

If only, critics argue, we could set a global cap on carbon emissions and allocate it equitably among countries of the world, we would get to where we need to be. This largely misses the point. Successful international environmental law typically does not punish states for non-compliance, but instead supports states in achieving what they agreed to do. International environmental agreements cannot force states to do what they fundamentally do not want to do.

We know this from the Kyoto Protocol experience. Agreed in 1997, it set binding emissions reduction commitments for developed countries. The result was that the United States never ratified and Canada, having previously ratified, formally withdrew.

The unfortunate fact of world politics is that we live in a world of sovereign states that lacks strong “sticks” to force states to comply with international environmental law against their wishes. Short of completely re-engineering the world states system, there are limited opportunities to move beyond this reality.

Real problem

The real problem is not that we will not have binding targets, but that governments around the world have not yet fully internalised the need to take rapid action to respond to climate change.

We know this from our own experience. The Taoiseach’s remarks to the media in Paris last week were spectacularly ill-timed. Choosing a meeting involving the world’s many impoverished countries to announce that Ireland is too poor to take action on climate change was breath-taking.

Importantly, however, the global picture is changing, due to extreme weather events but also significant changes in the real economy. The cost of alternative energy sources has declined rapidly in recent years. According to recent reports, wind energy is now cost-competitive without supports with fossil fuels in multiple countries around the world, and solar energy is closing the cost gap.

As governments increasingly wake up to the realities of a changing climate over the coming decades, and as the cost of clean technologies continues to fall, they will be prepared to step up their response to climate change. This is why the “ratchet” mechanism set to be included in the Paris agreement is important. It will bring climate action back to the centre of the political agenda every five years.

Climate finance will also be critical. Even if developed and emerging economies such as China and India radically decarbonise their economies over the coming decades, the growth of emissions from the rest of the world-which has done the least to cause the problem-will tip us into the danger zone. These countries need financial support to develop on a low-carbon trajectory as well as to respond to the impacts of climate change.

Whatever agreement is reached in Paris this weekend will not be the final word on climate change. There is plenty to be pessimistic about, but the upside is that the Paris agreement is set to agree a framework to progressively build ambitious climate action over the coming years. The agreement that is materialising provides a step in the right direction, but the real work lies ahead.

Dr Diarmuid Torney is a lecturer in the School of Law and Government at Dublin City University and author of European Climate Leadership in Question: Policies toward China and India (MIT Press, 2015).