F.Five years ago, at the Le Bourget conference center on the outskirts of Paris – an airport that has become a congress hall – more than 150 heads of government gathered for an unprecedented demonstration in support of global action to combat climate change. In the crowded room, the guides posed for photos and made lofty speeches.
Behind the scenes, Laurence Tubiana, France’s then climate ambassador, worked hard in a nearby office, working with a handful of others to develop the careful language of a deal that could win the support of 200 countries. The resulting Paris Agreement was both ambitious and delicate: it called on countries to do their best to reduce emissions in order to meet the goal of keeping global temperature rise “well below 2 ° C”, but it did contained no authoritative language, no mechanism to become unpredictable countries in harmony. “It was a bet,” says Tubiana, now CEO of the European Climate Foundation.
Now, with the agreement’s fifth anniversary on December 12, Tubiana spoke to TIME about the turbulent past five years – from the withdrawal of US President Donald Trump from the agreement to the growth of a mass movement in support of aggressive climate action. “What has happened in the past five years has been the change in mindset,” she says. “The Paris Agreement [became] the norm, the reference so everyone knows where to go. “
The impending battle against climate change will determine the future of the planet and human life on it for centuries – and the Paris Agreement will be at the heart of it all.
The way to Paris
From the moment it was added to the public lexicon in the 1980s, climate change had the potential to become the world’s greatest collective problem of action. Every country relied on fossil fuels to fuel its economic growth. Developing countries insisted they can consume fossil fuels, just as their wealthier counterparts had done in the previous century. Some rich countries – obviously the US – insisted they wouldn’t commit to abandoning fossil fuels without developing countries doing the same. And so a kind of stasis developed for more than two decades. The Kyoto Protocol, a 1997 global climate agreement, fell apart after critics in the US claimed it was too restrictive and harmed the US economy. More than a decade later, the global talks in Copenhagen in 2009 fell apart for similar reasons.
In view of these failures, Tubiana cut out her work for her in the run-up to the Paris Talks in 2015. In contrast to previous attempts to mandate emission reductions, countries would bring their own voluntary commitments to the Paris talks and determine for themselves what measures they could reasonably take to reduce their emissions. In October 2015, research by Climate Action Tracker showed that countries’ voluntary commitments ahead of the talks would prevent warming of nearly 1 ° C.
The idea was brilliant in many ways: As soon as the heads of government saw their colleagues take action, they would be more likely to agree to a global agreement. However, the challenges remained. Tubiana and a handful of close associates needed to create a system that would add up the disjointed obligations of each country to more than the sum of their parts. To achieve that goal, they structured the deal to include a global goal that each country can work towards together. It created a system according to which the countries should offer a new and improved climate commitment every five years and hold a dialogue about their progress.
“The philosophy I had in drawing up the Paris Agreement was [to think] “How can we change expectations?” Says Tubiana. “You don’t have a coercive mechanism, you can’t have a government that punishes someone. The only thing people believe is that this is going to happen. “
It wasn’t long before critics across the spectrum began asking if this system would work. The biggest test came a year after the treaty was signed, when the US voted for Trump, who had vowed to leave the Paris Agreement on the campaign trail. Within months of taking office, his government declared a virtual war on the deal – not only pledging to withdraw, but trying to undermine it with allies. The US even tried – with limited success – to mine coal at United Nations climate change conferences.
But in the end, the US wasn’t “very good at it,” says Tubiana. Indeed, Trump’s attempt to end global cooperation to combat climate change had sparked a powerful countermovement. After Trump announced the US withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, American cities and states began to get involved in climate protection measures to represent the US on the international stage. An impressive youth movement has also sprung up across Europe and the United States to hold countries accountable for their commitments. “It was five very difficult years: ups and downs,” says Tubiana, describing her own emotional journey, which oscillates between “deep depression” and optimism.
As the world battles the coronavirus pandemic, global momentum to combat climate change has increased over the past year, and some of the world’s largest economies have stepped up their emissions reduction commitments. Japan and the European Union are committed to eliminating their carbon footprint by 2050 and China by 2060. On December 11th, EU heads of state and government also agreed to cut emissions in the bloc by at least 55% by 2030. An analysis by Climate Action Tracker found that countries can meet their ambitious emissions reduction commitments, which would require significant new policy-making in those countries – the planet will have warmed about 2.1 ° C between the industrial revolution and 2100.
A warming to 2.1 ° C would be a tremendous global achievement in many ways, reflecting ambitious commitments by nations around the world. But even from a scientific point of view, it is nowhere near sufficient. Reaching 2.1 ° C of warming would be catastrophic and potentially trigger what is known as a turning point, an irreversible line where the effects of climate change accelerate dramatically very quickly.
What happens next when even ambitious goals are not enough?
The way to zero
Part of the answer is that countries need to set even more ambitious goals, says Tubiana. Countries are expected to release their new plans ahead of a UN climate change meeting in Glasgow in November 2021. (They were originally scheduled to appear before the 5th anniversary this year, but have been postponed due to COVID-19.) “There will be strong demand from youth and citizens to say what are you really doing?” says Tubiana. “This is completely new.”
The next phase of the Paris Agreement, however, will also depend on the extent to which the agreement is embedded in the functioning of the world economy. Already now, major global investors with trillions of dollars of assets under management are working to benchmark investments against Paris Accord compliance and threaten to discharge them without a decarbonization plan. The European Commission – the EU’s executive body – has announced that it will make Paris compliance a central part of future trade deals, and the panel is pushing for the bloc to introduce a border tax.
If the Paris Agreement – and its objectives – continue to weave into the mechanisms of the world economy, other countries will have no choice but to follow suit. “That’s no surprise,” says Tubiana. The Paris Agreement is “not just an environmental agreement; it is related to all economic elements. “
Globally, countries are increasingly approaching climate change as part of economic policies, from pledging hundreds of billions of euros to the EU to transform their economies to take climate change into account, to China’s attempt to become a clean energy superpower. In the US, President-elect Joe Biden has promised to mainstream climate change into his administration’s policies, but it remains to be seen how much he can achieve, given the country’s other pressing challenges and a divided Congress.
Ultimately, says Tubiana, piecemeal efforts will not be enough for any country. “There is no wonder decarbonizing the economy,” she says. “You have to do a certain number of things that everyone has to do, and each country has to define its own Green Deal.” If the countries move up, Tubiana’s bet wins.
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