Has the Paris Agreement for Climate Change failed?

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The Paris Agreement, also known as the Paris Climate Accord, is a United Nations international treaty on climate change that was adopted by 196 countries at the twenty first Conference of the Parties (COP21) in Paris, France, on 12 December 2015. It entered into force on 4 November 2016, twenty four years after the United Nations Framework on Climate Change (UNFCCC) was set up to provide international cooperation to combat climate change by limiting average global temperatures.

It had taken several decades of research to convince a vast majority of the global community that human activities could alter the earth climate and these were responsible for the catastrophic events including extreme heatwaves, rising sea levels, intense hurricanes, severe droughts, loss of biodiversity, among others.

The Paris Agreement’s overarching goal is to hold the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels. To achieve this goal, countries are required to submit their national climate action plans, known as Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs), and update them every five years with increasing ambition. The NDCs embody efforts by each country to reduce national greenhouse emissions, also refereed to as mitigation measures, and to adapt to impacts of climate change.

Since adoption, the Paris Agreement has faced many criticisms, both from within and outside the climate community. Some of these criticisms include the effectiveness of the NDCs, the insufficiency of financial, technological transfer and capacity building support available to developing countries, the role of national and global politics on the treaty, and the inability for a common position on the elephant in the room which is the question of natural gas, oil and coal.

The effectiveness of National Determined Contributions

According to the UN Environment Programme, the current NDCs are far from sufficient to meet the 1.5°C or 2°C targets. The emissions gap between the projected emissions in 2030 and the levels required to limit warming to 1.5°C or 2°C is estimated to be 15 gigatons of CO2 equivalent (GtCO2e) and 32 GtCO2e, respectively. This means that countries need to increase their ambition and actions by at least threefold for the 2°C target and more than five-fold for the 1.5°C target.

At the opening of this year’s COP28 in Dubai, UAE, James Skea, the Chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) – the United Nations body for assessing the science related to climate change – warned that without “immediate and deep emissions reductions in all sectors, we will not meet the goals of the Paris Agreement.” He further warned that the world is headed to 3°C warming.

A recent analysis by Climate Action Tracker shows that every one of the world’s leading economies, including all the countries that make up the Group of 20, are failing to meet commitments made in the Paris Agreement in order to stave off a climate catastrophe. The analysis finds that almost every country is falling woefully short of their commitment, and the world is barreling towards calamitous climate impacts

This is mainly because the Paris Agreement relies on a bottom-up approach, where countries set their own goals through NDCs and report on progress through Biennial Transparency Reports (BTR). The Paris Agreement Implementation and Compliance Committee (PAICC) which was established under article 15 of the Agreement, assists parties with implementing and complying with the provisions of the Agreement. But because this is a non adversarial and non punitive body, this means the treaty relies on the Parties’ peer pressure and public and media scrutiny to promote compliance.

The question of national sovereignty and geopolitics

Another criticism of the Paris Agreement is that it is not immune to global and national politics. On November 4, 2020, for example, the United States under President Donald Trump, officially left the Paris Agreement. This withdrawal impacted the global climate change governance as the US is one of the biggest financiers, being also the second largest emitter historically.

While the United States rejoined the agreement under President Joe Biden, the question lingers over what happens when “climate deniers” are elected into governments or major contributors leave. Brazil, a G20 member, under President Jair Bolsonaro, also threatened to leave the agreement. With global tensions ongoing between the western world and Russia because of the war in Ukraine, and China because of Taiwan, there is no guarantee that this could not affect multilateral agreements such as the Paris Agreement.

Financial, technological transfer and capacity building insufficiency

Another criticism of the Paris Agreement is the insufficiency of financial, technological and capacity building support available to developing countries. This is particularly for countries that are most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. The provision of such support has been slow and inadequate. For instance, the developed countries pledged to mobilize $100 billion per year by 2020 to help developing countries cope with climate change, but the delivery of this pledge has not been met.

This would soon come to a boil in Egypt at COP27 in 2022, when Low and Middle Income Countries “disrupted” the business as usual annual stock-take by making Loss and Damage an important part of the financial agenda, in which the countries argued that they need to be compensated for the actions of richer countries who have been historically responsible for climate change.

The Conference of the Parties would therefore agree to set up a Loss and Damage Fund and on the first day of COP28 in Dubai, UAE, the the Fund was actualized with pledges of 450 million USD made from different countries the same day. At the time of writing this article, the fund had grown to 700 million USD.

While this has been welcomed, these funds are deemed too insufficient, according to the Loss and Damage Collaboration (L&DC) group, which brings together climate policy and art and cultural practitioners, researchers, activists, lawyers, advocates and decision makers from across the world.

According to an article in The Guardian, the costs of loss and damage caused by climate change are already several USD billions far behind and about 2 trillions will be needed each year by 2030 to assist developing nations in reducing their greenhouse gas emissions and managing the impacts of climate breakdown according to a report that was commissioned by the Governments of United Kingdom and Egypt and presented at COP27 in Egypt.

The question of oil, coal and natural gas

Finally, the inadequacy of the Paris Agreement can be seen in the struggle to get the countries to agree on how to deal with the elephant in the room, or the question of oil, gas and coal. The contribution of oil, gas and coal to the climate crisis is significant and alarming. According to the United Nations, fossil fuels – coal, oil and gas – are by far the largest contributor to global climate change, accounting for over 75 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions and nearly 90 per cent of all carbon dioxide emissions.

This question has been a subject of debate at all Conference of the Parties. At COP26, in Glasgow, Scotland, the final text only reiterated the decision to phase down unabated coal power and phase out inefficient fossil fuel subsidies, and added a vague reference to low-emissions energy, which could be interpreted to include some forms of fossil fuels. At COP27, in Egypt, the European Union and its member states, the United States, India, and some other developing and small island nations advocated for a phase out of fossil fuels. These countries supported a proposal by India to include a commitment to phase down all fossil fuels, not just coal. This proposal was opposed by some oil and gas-rich nations, such as Saudi Arabia, Russia, and Australia, and was ultimately dropped from the final text of the COP27 agreement. The final text only reiterated the COP26 decision to phase down unabated coal power and phase out inefficient fossil fuel subsidies, and added a vague reference to low-emissions energy, which could be interpreted to include some forms of fossil fuels.

The EU is now pushing for a global deal on phasing out fossil fuels at COP28 summit and this is being supported by more than 100 African, European, Pacific and Caribbean countries who are calling for a phase-out of unabated fossil fuels.. This is supported by former U.S. Vice President Al Gore, who has stated that an Agreement to phase out fossil fuels would be huge for humanity, while slamming COP28 President Sultan al-Jaber, and head of the UAE’s national oil company ADNOC, who has been accused of using his position at this COP to negotiate for oil deals as well as being a climate denier for claiming in a November 2023 interview that there is ‘no science’ behind demands for phase-out of fossil fuels.

In an Op-ed piece prior to the start of COP28, The UN Climate Change Executive Secretary, Simon Stiell, has called for a phase-out of fossil fuel subsidies, which amounted to over $7 trillion in 2022, and divert the money to improving health care, building infrastructure, and expand social programs to alleviate poverty. He said that “done responsibly, a phase-out of such subsidies would actually help the poorest and improve the economies of the countries now dependent on them”.

That may, however, not be enough for the Vatican, the World Health Organization, the European Parliament, 100+ Nobel laureates, 100+ individual Parliamentarians, and over 3000 academics, researchers, and activists, and a growing list of civil societies from around the world who now view a Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty as the solution to the climate crisis. Led by the states of Vanuatu and Tuvalu, the demand for the treaty has now been signed by Tonga, Fiji, Nieu, East Timor, Solomon’s Island, Antigua and Barmuda, Palau and Colombia as well as 100+ cities. At COP28, the countries are demanding for a negotiating mandate for the treaty.

COP28 President Sultan al-Jaber, and head of the UAE’s national oil company ADNOC, has been accused of using his position at this COP to negotiate for oil deals for the UAE

“Weak, vague, fake and fraud” criticism from observers

The criticism have led some observers to question the effectiveness and relevance of the Paris Agreement, and even to declare it a failure. Among these is a the Swedish activist and founder of the Fridays for Future movement, Greta Thunberg, who has repeatedly criticized the Paris Agreement for being too weak and vague, and for allowing countries to set their own targets and timelines. She said in a speech at the UN Climate Action Summit in 2019:

The popular idea of cutting our emissions in half in 10 years only gives us a 50 percent chance of staying below 1.5 degrees [Celsius], and the risk of setting off irreversible chain reactions beyond human control. Fifty percent may be acceptable to you. But those numbers do not include tipping points, most feedback loops, additional warming hidden by toxic air pollution or the aspects of equity and climate justice. They also rely on my generation sucking hundreds of billions of tons of your CO2 out of the air with technologies that barely exist. So a 50 percent risk is simply not acceptable to us — we who have to live with the consequences.

Greta Thunberg – Speech at the UN Climate Action Summit in 2019

Others like James Hansen, the former NASA scientist and who New York Times has heralded as the Godfather of climate science, has called the Agreement a “fraud” and a “fake”, saying that it lacked a specific carbon price or tax that would force countries to reduce their emissions.

Naomi Klein, the Canadian author and activist, has written several books on this issue and given numerous lectures. In her book “This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate”, she argues that the Paris Agreement is doomed to fail because it does not challenge the economic system that drives the climate crisis. In another book, “The Shock Doctrine”, she also links capitalism with the climate crisis.

Conclusion

In spite of all these criticisms, the Paris Agreement is still a valuable and necessary framework for global cooperation on climate change, and it has achieved some important achievements. The agreement has brought together almost all countries of the world to commit to a common goal and vision for tackling climate change. It has also raised the awareness and engagement of various stakeholders, such as sub-national governments, businesses, civil society and individuals, who have taken various roles and actions to support the implementation of the Agreement.

This means that the Agreement can not be seen as a failure given it is still a relatively young and evolving instrument that has not yet reached its full potential and impact. It is, however, undeniable that the Paris Agreement will need to face the significant challenges and gaps, especially in light of the urgency and severity of the climate crisis. The success or failure of the Paris Agreement will depend largely on the political will and leadership of the parties, as well as the pressure and support of the non-state actors and the public, to deliver on their promises and to raise their ambition and action to the level required by science and justice. END

About the Author

Betterman Simidi Musasia

Founder & Patron, Former CEO, Clean Up Kenya

Betterman is a sustainable public sanitation advocate and a pollution control evangelist. In 2015, after becoming extremely tired of seeing all the trash in Kenyan neighborhoods and hearing the authorities fake promises to clear the mess, he sold his trucking business to establish Clean Up Kenya. Today, the organization is a leading national sustainable public sanitation advocacy brand. In September 2020, he stepped down as Clean Up Kenya Chief Executive Officer and currently serves as Founder and Patron.

ABOUT CLEAN UP KENYA

Clean Up Kenya was established in 2015 to advocate for and promote sustainable public sanitation in Kenya. Since then we have become the de-facto national public sanitation advocacy brand. We are also experts in community mobilizing for cleanups. We have done numerous cleanups over the years, some of which have been attended by over 1000 volunteers on singular sites. These cleanups are meant to increase visibility on the problem of waste and it is therefore common to see our volunteers in bibs with one message, ‘Clean Up Kenya’. At the core of our work is honest and actual engagement in communities – not PR events. We also run advocacy campaigns holding duty bodies, consumer brands, green-washing NGOs, and other stakeholders to account for unsustainable public sanitation in Kenya and the global South. We receive no funding for our work but collaborate with others on projects.