'It always seems impossible until it is done." Thus spoke French foreign minister Laurent Fabius, quoting another author of the impossible, Nelson Mandela, when announcing that a climate deal had been done.
There are reasons for cautious optimism. The Paris agreement binds all countries to reduce their emissions for the first time. It sets highly ambitious objectives of keeping global temperature to “well below” 2 degrees above pre-industrial levels and of “pursuing efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5C”.
There is an unimpeachable moral case for 1.5-degree target. Even at this level of warming, many small island states and countries such as Bangladesh will be inundated.
Yet the tragic reality is that limiting warming to 2 degrees would require a herculean global effort and drastically reduced emissions by 2030. Going beyond this and trying to limit warming to “well below” 2 degrees or 1.5 degrees may require developed countries to reduce their emissions to zero by 2020. For this reason, most experts consider the lower-range targets almost unreachable.
However, there was also an excellent political and strategic case for the EU and the US to call for this lower target. It allowed the developed world to make common cause with many of the world’s most vulnerable. Very poor countries and small island states had been the primary advocates of the 1.5-degree target for years. The so-called “coalition of ambition” negotiating group that emerged was a primary driver of the strong agreement.
The rising economies of China, India, Brazil and South Africa were noted holdouts against the 1.5 degrees, as were oil producers such as Saudi Arabia and Venezuela. Importantly Brazil defected from the group in the final day of the talks.
National pledges to take climate action are at the heart of the Paris agreement. But there is a contradiction here. As the text itself acknowledges, “much greater emission reduction efforts will be required” than is contained within current pledges. Where will this extra effort come from?
The litmus test of this agreement was always the extent to which it could bind countries into a process of increasing pledge ambition over time. A robust “ratchet mechanism” was what the EU really wanted. The early drafts of the agreement had done little to reassure in this respect, but the final text delivers.
A “facilitative dialogue” will take place in 2018 to review collective efforts in light of the new long-term goal. This is as early as could have been expected.
Every country must communicate a new pledge by 2020 and every five years thereafter. Crucially each pledge must be “a progression” and “as ambitious as possible”. Pledges tend to use inconsistent and messy language, which makes understanding and comparing them challenging. This problem would not appear to have been fully resolved.
But will pledges be implemented or will climate fall off the agenda as soon as leaders return home? History tells us that grandiose plan after grandiose plan for decarbonisation are shelved, generally for fear of alienating one or other special interest group.
While parties are required to pursue domestic mitigation in line with their pledges, the international community has few tools at its disposal to intervene in national affairs. The text states that efforts to ensure transparency on national implementation will be “facilitative, non-intransitive and non-punitive”, while respecting national sovereignty. It is clear that nation states, not the UN, are in the driving seat.
Parties to the agreement must try and achieve a "peak" in emissions "as soon as possible". In a positive for Ireland, countries can use "sinks" such as forestry to balance emissions from other sources.
Developed countries are required to take the lead on reducing emissions, but developing countries are also required to eventually move to emissions peaking and reduction “in the light of different national circumstances”. This is key to reassuring these countries that their stage in the developmental pathway will be respected.
Putting money on the table was also important. Developed countries have reiterated their commitment to mobilise €100 billion to support the actions for developing countries in the period to 2020, and this commitment was extended to 2025. Beyond 2025, further finance will be provided “with a floor” of €100 billion.
These are just some of the headlines from the agreement. The big question is how it will affect investor sentiment and the investment plans of countries and companies. Will it spur the development of new technologies and the deployment of low-carbon technologies we have already? The jury is out.
Whatever we do now, the world is on a pathway for a lot of climate pain, as recent flooding events in the UK and Ireland demonstrate. It is to be hoped this agreement will do enough to prevent the most disastrous futures from becoming reality, but it is only a first step. Joseph Curtin is research fellow at the Institute of International and European Affairs and at University College Cork. He is a member of Ireland's Climate Change Advisory Council