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OPINION: COP21 draws to strong end with adoption of 1.5 degree goal

A landmark global agreement on climate change was adopted in Paris last night. Mairi Dupar, Global Public Affairs Coordinator, Kiran Sura, Head of Negotiations Support, and Sam Bickersteth, Chief Executive take stock of the Paris agreement and what comes next.

Leaders from the world’s most climate-vulnerable countries today saw their determined efforts to avert climate catastrophe bear fruit at United Nations climate talks in Paris. Governments struck a deal that commits countries to limiting long-term global warming under 2 degrees Celsius and targeting a more ambitious 1.5 degrees. The Paris agreement omits some of the supporting measures which the Least Developed Countries (LDCs) and Small Island Developing States (SIDS) were eager to include, such as specific measures for Parties to decarbonise their economies. Nonetheless, the deal is far more ambitious than many had thought possible two weeks ago.

Significance of 1.5 degree target

Advances in scientific research in the run-up to the Paris summit revealed that two degrees of warming could be far more dangerous than previously thought, triggering widespread irreversible impacts. Johan Rockström, director of the Stockholm Resilience Institute, has warned that a two degree world “contains significant risks for societies everywhere” such as melting Arctic ice that would accelerate warming and the release of methane from tundra. Rockström and fellow scientists have called 1.5 degrees “much more scientifically justifiable.” They also find that two degrees of average warming would lead to sea level rise of some 2.7 metres, which would spell the end for low-lying atoll countries.

Although they are already experiencing harsh impacts at current levels of warming, the 1.5 degree target offers a lifeline to Small Island Developing States. It also gives hope to Least Developed Countries, which are home to some of the most at-risk groups: people with few economic assets can be more vulnerable to climate-related shocks and stresses. Human-induced climate change has already driven average global temperatures 0.9 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.

The Least Developed Countries (LDC) Group has welcomed the adoption of the new climate agreement. Giza Gaspar Martins, Chair of the Least Developed Countries Group said: “We are living in unprecedented times, which call for unprecedented measures. Nothing that has gone before compares to this historic, legally binding climate agreement. The COP Presidency and all parties worked hard to deliver this accord which will move the world to a 1.5 degrees goal, while aiming to leave no-one behind. It is the best outcome we could have hoped for, not just for the Least Developed Countries, but for all citizens of the world.”

Climate action is grounded in sustainable development

The Climate and Development Knowledge Network (CDKN) works in partnership with a range of low and middle income countries to plan and deliver more climate compatible development; CDKN also provided financial support during the climate talks to negotiators from some of the most climate-vulnerable countries. Sam Bickersteth, Chief Executive of CDKN, applauded negotiators for the numerous references to sustainable development in the final Paris text:

“The Paris agreement frames future economic development pathways for the least developed and most climate vulnerable countries as an element of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Critically, it will increase the flow of additional public and private finance for vulnerable countries for both low carbon and climate resilient investments. Ambition, including the pathway towards a possible 1.5 degree limit and five-yearly reviews, will be played out through the national climate plans.”

He added, “Implementation will need to begin immediately and ramp up. The agreement today is encouraging but if ambition does not continue to increase in future years, then the achievement of a 1.5 or even a 2 degree target – and many of the SDGs – will be in danger.”

Unequivocal signal for the private sector

The agreement’s temperature target implies public and private actions far above and beyond what has been committed in countries’ Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs). These pledges to curb emissions, tabled by 186 countries before the Paris talks, represented a shift from business as usual . However, they still added up to a two-thirds chance of 3 – 3.5 degrees of warming. Clearly, the headline target agreed in Paris overshoots these bottom-up commitments. Now countries, companies and individuals will have to make up a significant gap.

Professor Myles Allen, professor of Geosystem Science at the University of Oxford, said stabilising global temperatures at 1.5 degrees is “possible but not straightforward”. Such a scenario involves “a substantial element of industrial CO2 disposal” he said – not only cutting emissions precipitously but also removing CO2 from the atmosphere. Society will also have to tackle short lived climate pollutants such as methane, which contribute to warming.

Negotiators’ great achievement in Paris is that they have sent an unequivocal signal to the private sector. The private sector is left in no doubt as to the future scope of governments’ policies and regulations.  As the gavel goes down on these extraordinary talks, investors and firms receive a blueprint for how they can position themselves competitively in the decades ahead. John Kerry, US Secretary of State, told the conference: ““When 186 nations say we need to move in low-carbon direction that’s a powerful signal to business – it will move investment.”

Masterly handling

Momentum built in favour of high ambition over the course of the two weeks of talks, as the LDC Group of negotiators and Alliance of Small Island States put aside differences with the European Union and United States of America to form a ‘High Ambition Coalition’ in favour of the 1.5 degree target. Tony de Brum, the Marshallese grandfather – and foreign minister –became a voice of conscience and a natural spokesperson for the coalition.

The coalition was joined late in the day by Brazil – and this held great significance as Brazil is one of the ‘BRICS’ (rapidly growing, high emitting countries) that has historically taken a more cautious line. News reports also talk of last-minute bilateral diplomacy on the part of US President Obama with this Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping. By helping to cement an ambitious agreement, Obama helps to secure his presidential legacy a year before he steps down.

Notably, the talks were managed in a masterly fashion by Laurent Fabius, the French foreign minister and COP21 President who diffused tensions by dismissing the plenary and calling bilateral talks among Parties at ‘crunch’ moments. In a nod to African cultural traditions, he called an ‘Indaba’ (‘meeting of elders’) on Friday night which lasted well into the small hours of the morning; this allowed negotiating groups to tease out possible compromises on difficult issues such as climate finance, which developing countries view as essential to helping them meet development needs in a climate-compatible way.

‘Long walk has not ended’

In the end, the final deal establishes a floor of US$100 billion per year in climate finance to flow to help developing countries achieve their mitigation and adaptation aims. Establishing the precise next steps on delivery for climate finance, as well as the detail of transformative mitigation measures, will take a lot more hard graft in the years ahead. Edna Molewa of South Africa perhaps captured our collective challenge best, by quoting Nelson Mandela, who said we all “dare not linger – my long walk has not ended”.


*Here Dean Bialek of Independent Diplomat provides a longer explanation of the Paris Agreement’s legal status.

Image: credit UNFCCC

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One response to “OPINION: COP21 draws to strong end with adoption of 1.5 degree goal”

  1. Justice Zvaita says:

    Great job.

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