Climate Change

Paris Agreement turns 5: Time to demand real, drastic action NOW

The impacts of climate change have been clear every year since the landmark deal, but the necessary transformation to a new energy system is still a way away

By Sunita Narain
Published: Friday 11 December 2020

Five years ago, when physical congregations were possible, the world met in freezing cold Paris to sign the Paris Agreement on climate change. Today, when the world is locked down because of a raging virus pandemic, it is time to take stock of what was agreed and what needs to be done.

What is clear is in past five years, every part of the world has been wreaked by catastrophic weather events. So, even as the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) coma takes over our lives, the future’s uncertainty must weigh heavy on all our minds — young and old, rich or poor.

Climate change is a reality and we are beginning to see the devastating impacts, even as the global temperature rise, on average is just 1.2 degree Celsius since the 1880s — and Paris agreement or no Paris agreement, it is expected to go to 3°C or more by this century end. 

Let’s then review where we are

Paris 2015 changed the terms of the agreement on climate action fundamentally. Till then the world had set reduction targets of greenhouse gases (GHG) based on the responsibility of countries to the stock of emissions in the atmosphere. This created a framework for action — and built the foundations for the cooperative agreement.

But countries like the United States, which had been long-term historical contributors, did not want this deal — it put too much onus on them to make reductions. They wanted to erase the very idea of the past and to focus on the need for all to act and for all to take actions based on what they believed they could do.

Paris Agreement succumbed to this idea. It was an historical deal — and celebrated accordingly. 

In this way all countries threw in their targets into the ring, called the Nationally Determined Contributions (NDC); and even as Paris Agreement was graveled down, it was understood that the sum of these NDCs, would add up to at least 3°C temperature increase by century end. 

But hopes were high

The US, for once had been roped in through this compromise. The words were salutary — Paris Agreement said it would “aspire” to keep the world below 1.5°C and “well below” 2°C from pre-industrial era of 1880. 

To get this done, three things were on the table. One, to ‘ratchet’ up the NDCs — based on the fact that countries would realise the imperative of taking more drastic action as climate change impacts hit them.

Two, a global stocktaking in 2023 and then every five years to measure progress and to use this to ‘rachet’ cuts. And three, to develop market-based instruments that would allow countries to buy their way into emission reductions in the future.

Now, five years later, when the conference of parties (COP) to the climate agreement will not even meet physically, the news is not good.

Let’s not beat around the bush on this. Global emissions may have reduced marginally in the past year because of COVID-19, but this slowdown is temporary. The United Nations Environment Programme’s Emissions Gap Report 2020 finds that global GHG emissions have continued to rise in the past three years. In 2019 emissions were a record high.

It is also known that countries like the US will not achieve even the meagre voluntary commitments they have set under the Paris Agreement. US emissions in 2019 where higher than in 2016. This even as the country reduced its energy-related emissions by a whopping 30 per cent in the past decade. 

It is also clear that at the current levels of emissions, the world will ‘exhaust’ the carbon budget by 2030 for 1.5°C target. This when large parts of the world, including India, will need the right to develop — which in today’s context where coal and natural gas, both fossil fuels, remain the most competitive fuels, would mean increase in emissions.

It is clear that the transformation to new energy systems, driven by renewable, is still a way away. Even in most low-carbon advanced regions like the European Union, talk aside, coal is still as large a part of the energy system as is the new renewable technology — wind or solar.

So, it is necessary to move towards this transformation in the still emerging world, but there are no enabling conditions, that will make this happen. Talk is cheap. Transformation is not. 

But the goal-post is already being shifted

The new buzz-word is ‘net-zero’. Already many countries in the world have declared net-zero targets for 2050; China has joined the climate-emancipated to say it will be net-zero by 2060. Now the pressure is on all governments, including India, to set its future target. 

The problem is not with the ambition or intention to turn net-zero. The problem is that in most cases, this grandstanding declaration has no flesh — it is devoid of a plan to get there; or the pathway that would make greenhouse gas emissions go away.

In very few cases, countries have come up with hard targets for this decade — how to get to reductions in 2030. In most cases, this drastic reduction in the immediate is not clear; but the ball has been kicked into the future. 

This is why we need more reality checks in the climate change narrative — the impacts are certain, but as yet, action is pusillanimous. We deserve better. So, on this fifth anniversary of the Paris Agreement, let’s not allow lofty words to ring the bell; let’s demand action. Hard, drastic, real and now. 

Read Sunita Narain’s columns

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