Three cheers for the Paris Agreement on climate change

21 Apr 2016 - 12:27
Bron: Christophe Petit Tesson/European Pressphoto Agency

Over 150 representatives of various states are gathering in New York to reconfirm their commitment to the Paris Agreement by placing an official signature. The ceremony is necessary to keep the "spirit of Paris" alive and to enhance the chances of the ambitious intentions states agreed upon last December being implemented properly. The fact that an international climate change agreement was signed with the aim of keeping temperature rises below 1.5 degrees Celsius was remarkable after decades of stalemate. The challenge now is to turn those intentions into reality; the first hurdle is getting at least 55 countries that produce at least 55% of the world's greenhouse gas emissions to ratify, accept, approve or accede to the agreement.

The Paris Agreement certainly marks an important highpoint in the history of international climate politics, but it is still too early to tell if it will really have a definitive and long-lasting impact. There are major barriers to the uptake of technologies for decarbonising economic activities and adapting to climate change. Not all of these have to do with basic economics and the need for additional technological breakthroughs. A number of them are related to vested interests and fixed beliefs. Many people believe that abandoning the fossil-based economy will put energy security at serious risk, or that energy would become much more expensive at the very least. Belief in the potential of green growth has not yet been fully embraced, as Clingendael and the Energy research Centre of the Netherlands (ECN) are discovering with partners in a research project on the political economy of green growth and energy security. On top of this, most European policy-makers still consider providing financial resources for adaptation above all as a moral duty, not done out of self-interest to reduce the geopolitical risks of climate change.

Such factors explain why the EU is refusing to step up its emission reduction target of 40% by 2030 (compared to 1990 levels), despite it being the inventor of the so-called ratchet mechanism in the Paris Agreement. This mechanism calls for states to step up their national target levels every five years. In political speeches, climate change is frequently linked to the refugee crisis and conflicts across the globe, but little research money is being invested in really improving our understanding of how climate change influences national security. Without such evidence, adaptation will in essence continue to be seen as helping the poorest and most vulnerable communities. A lofty objective, but not one that fundamentally shifts budget allocations and one that risks adaptation becoming the next target for development aid sceptics.

But it is perhaps not necessary to place all our hopes on backtracking and unreliable governments who do not want to upset vested interests and their own electorates. The strong message sent by the Paris Agreement might be enough to reach a tipping point in the ongoing transition to a new economy. This could go much faster than anticipated if financial markets abandon their belief in the necessity of fossil fuels. If the big financial investors really start to reconsider the ethics of their fossil fuel investments, it may for instance go very quickly. Moreover, a lack of adaptation may mean that the most vulnerable people may simply get even fewer opportunities to rebel or migrate and therefore not jeopardise our national security in the short to medium term. The problem is that we just cannot be sure and might also not want to leave it entirely to the markets and to society. We have no independent and accurate measurement of the current speed of the transition, and our consciences may tell us that impoverishment in other parts of this globalised world is not only a shame, but could also backfire in unknown ways. The best thing we can do is therefore cheer loudly for the Paris Agreement and hope that it will not only come into force soon, but will also lead to real action by governments!