The Successes, Heroes and Villains of the Paris Deal


Climate People's March, Paris, November 2015. Credit: CAFOD


The slow multilateral climate tortoise has finally crossed the finish line. To all the naysayers who had given up on multilateralism, this Paris conference invites them to think again. 

The challenging process of compromise-building among 196 parties may be tortuously slow and frustrating and sometimes fail. But when it works, as it finally has in this case, it can deliver a legitimate and therefore durable agreement with universal buy-in. 

When the final text was announced before a packed plenary on Saturday 12 December 2015, both the COP President and the official English translator fought back tears. Exhaustion and emotion were both running high. When the agreement was officially adopted later in the day, at around 7.30pm, the applause was thunderous.

The Paris agreement has set a new course that will help to carry the world beyond the age of fossil fuel

This is by no means a perfect agreement but it is an historic achievement. It is far bolder than most seasoned negotiators and observers expected.

The biggest surprise, and the signature achievement of this agreement, is the inclusion of a 1.5 degree temperature target and the long-term goal of net zero emissions as soon as possible after mid-century. The climate science has finally punched through. 

Of course, the challenge is to achieve this more ambitious target. It is widely acknowledged that 185 mitigation pledges submitted thus far for the post-2020 period will not hold warming below 2 degrees, let alone 1.5. The ultimate success of the Paris agreement will therefore turn on how quickly the parties are able to ratchet up their ambition over time. 

The agreement seeks to drive ambition forward by providing an enduring framework for states to provide periodic and enhanced commitments on mitigation, adaptation and finance to ensure increasing ambition over time. 

One disappointment is that there is no requirement that the parties must review and upgrade their existing pledges prior to 2030 (except for parties with 2025 targets), although parties may voluntarily choose to do so at any time.  

However, the worse case scenario of no ramping up prior to 2030 is unlikely. We can expect some parties to upgrade their existing contributions, and there will be strong pressure to do so. The parties are also called upon to formulate long-term emission reduction strategies.  

And there will be a facilitative dialogue in 2019 to take stock of collective effort and to inform the next cycle of the commitments. This will exert further pressure on parties to lift their horizons and lift their game.

The parties have agreed to relatively short, five-yearly cycles for successive nationally determined contributions. Most significantly, they have also agreed that each successive contribution shall be a progression beyond the previous one and reflect each party’s highest possible ambition. These provisions, taken together, provide a strong impetus to drive ambition ever upward. 

The climate science has finally punched through

Climate finance, and the issue of how much the responsibilities of developed and developing countries should be differentiated, emerged as the cross-cutting sticking points that stalked the negotiations. Developing countries wanted stronger and quantified commitments on financial support to assist with their mitigation and adaptation. Developed countries resisted quantitative targets and exerted strong pressure on major developing countries like China to acknowledge their role as a donor country.  

The compromise was that developed countries shall provide scaled-up support while other parties (code for China) are encouraged to provide or continue to provide such support voluntarily. The final COP decision called upon parties to set a new quantified finance goal prior to 2025 from a floor of US$100 billion (which was the target for 2020 that was set at Copenhagen in 2009). 

The challenging process of compromise-building [...] when it works [...] can deliver a legitimate and therefore durable agreement with universal buy-in

On differentiation, developed countries succeeded in retaining the Convention’s core principles of common but differentiated responsibilities. However, these principles were applied in increasingly nuanced ways across the various provisions of the agreement. This will see the rigid binary between developed and developing countries (a major bone of contention for the US and many other developed countries) gradually erode over time to reflect changing economic circumstances. 

Going into the conference, the US and China were the heroes as a result of their unprecedented joint statement on climate change in 2014 and follow up meetings in 2015.  This injected significant momentum into the negotiations. Once the conference began, however, China retreated inside the Like-Minded Developing country group, which includes India, Malaysia and many oil-rich states.  

Meanwhile, new heroes emerged. One was President de Brum of the Marshall Islands, who orchestrated a new Coalition on High Ambition that cut across the traditional "developed vs. developing country" divide. Joined by the US, EU, Mexico, Brazil, Norway, Canada and many other countries, this coalition helped to drive ambition.  

In an audacious move, Australia announced at the last minute that it would join this coalition. De Brum is reported to have responded that he looked forward ‘to hearing what more they may be able to do to join our coalition of high ambition here in Paris'.

The biggest hero of this conference was the COP President (and French Foreign Minister) Laurent Fabius. Undeterred by the shocking terrorist attacks on Paris, Fabius and his diplomatic team managed to steer the parties towards an agreement while maintaining an inclusive, transparent, and party-driven process that remained ever-attentive to individual party concerns. This maintained trust and a cooperative spirit, and was crucial to enabling a final deal to be reached.

The Danish COP President in 2009 had departed from due process in the second week of negotiations, and this came at a high price. That conference derailed and a final consensus failed to materialise.

The biggest spoiler in Paris was Saudi Arabia, supported at times by other petro-states, which tried to block many of the more ambitious provisions in the text but was ultimately worn down by the weight of numbers after securing several concessions.

The Paris agreement will be formally signed in New York in April 2016, and come into legal force in 2020 assuming the requisite number of ratifications are received by then, which is at least 55 parties, representing at least 55% of emissions.

The Paris agreement has set a new course that will help to carry the world beyond the age of fossil fuel.  If the Australian government fails to grasp this message after Paris and does not ramp up our domestic targets and policies, then we will be seen as a pariah state.


This article was originally published by the Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute

Image credit: CAFOD, Flickr

Robyn Eckersley

University of Melbourne

Published Date
December 12, 2015