Beijing and Washington have ratified the global agreement of 12th December on climate, which thus increases its chances of being put into effect before the end of the year.
The Paris agreement, signed on 12th December 2015 by 195 nations and institutions at the conclusion of COP21, is a feat of diplomacy that contrasts strongly with the stinging failure of the Copenhagen conference in 2009. It marks the first successful negotiation under the aegis of the UN since the beginning of the 21st century. It has worldwide significance. Having the legal status of an international treaty means that it can be applied as domestic law. And, for the first time, civil society is mobilized alongside nations to commit to fulfilling the objectives that have been set: to limit the temperature increase throughout the world to 2°C, and if possible to 1.5°C, as compared to its preindustrial level; to ensure “greenhouse gas emissions neutrality” as from 2050; to establish levels of national contributions which will be reviewed every five years.
The reverse side of the coin of the consensus obtained in the Paris agreement is that there are major loopholes. FIrst of all, it is not binding. National contributions remain objectives and not obligations. No supervisory system has been provided for. Only non-auditable guidelines are given concerning the efforts to be made by countries in the South, and the engagement of developed countries to provide finance for the adaptation of developing countries to the tune of at least 100 billion dollars a year as from 2020 is just as conditional. Finally, because of the veto of Saudi Arabia and Venezuela, any global pricing of carbon has been excluded.
In all, the Paris agreement provides for few concrete actions to be taken before 2020, even if 190 countries make contributions. Furthermore, the sharp fall in oil prices has not created a favorable context. It is thus not surprising that climate deterioration has continued to accelerate ever since the signing of the agreement.
2016 has beaten all records for warmth, and the average temperature is 1.3°C above preindustrial level, i.e. almost the target level set for the end of the century. There has been a proliferation of extreme climate phenomena: drought in China, California and Australia; forest fires (notably at Fort McMurray in Canada); floods in Louisiana, India and France; and torrential rains in Russia.
Nevertheless, several positive developments have happened since COP21 which confirm that it has marked a turning point.
The first is a diplomatic breakthrough in the way the Paris agreement is to be put into effect. it is dependent on its ratification by 55 nations that represent at least 55% of greenhouse gases. I80 nations signed it, but, until recently, only 24 had ratified it, making a total of only 1.08% of emissions. But now the game has changed with the announcement by China and the USA on 3rd September that they would bring ratification into effect. They are the two countries with the highest emissions (20% of world emissions for China, 18% for the USA). These two giants have thus chosen climate as a means of showing their ability to cooperate: Barak Obama is looking toward his record with regard to the environment whilst taking the opportunity to score off Donald Trump; Xi Jinping is reacting to China’s new middle class and their exasperation with the degradation of living conditions.
In this way, China and the USA are giving an important signal which should unblock ratification by 34 other countries, including Japan (3.8% of world emissions), Canada, Indonesia and Iran. The only ones still lagging behind are Russia (7.5% of world emissions), India (4.1%) and… the European Union (10%). According to Ban Ki-moon, the Paris agreement is well on its way to being put into effect before COP22, to be held in Marrakesh in November 2016. This is remarkably quick.
For the agreement to be really effective, the price of carbon must be fixed on a planetary level. Organizing a market for the right to emit is preferable to taxation, because the former is less easy to be manipulated by nations and is easier to apply universally. A score or so of carbon market systems have been set up, covering about 12% of world emissions, which is a positive first step.
However, the speediest change is coming from the economic players. Under pressure from the authorities and from consumers, companies have engaged themselves in energy transition. A major change is on its way with regard to investment in the energy sector. Although China has authorized the building of 150 power stations this year, investment in renewable energy reached 286 billion dollars in 2015 – including 103 billion for China – whilst investment in the oil industry has fallen by half. The cost of solar installations has fallen by 80% since 2009 and will fall by 60% more between now and 2025. At the same time, clean technologies have made spectacular progress in key energy sectors, in transport and in construction. Finally, 170 major companies have already committed themselves to reducing their emissions by 2°C and the financial sector has undertaken to set up a system for measuring and checking climate risk.
COP21 has triggered off a dynamic of global environmental change. Although this is fired by companies and markets, the latter are acting under pressure from public authorities and the general public. This is why we must continue to plead for a world carbon price and for the suppression of grants for energy consumption in exchange for a lowering of social contributions in employment and for aid by developed countries to emerging nations for energy transition. And this is why it is highly desirable that the G20, which represent 85% of world GDP and 75% of world trade, take the climate issue on board. And this is why all of us should take up the cause, so that the environment, whether it be the air or the oceans, be recognized and protected as the most important of humanity’s joint assets.
(Column published in Le Point, 8th September 2016)