On April 22, global leaders gathered in New York to celebrate the Earth Day 2016 and open the signature period of the Paris Agreement. The Agreement was crafted during the 21st Conference of Parties (COP) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), held in Paris in December 2015. Considered a success compared to previous commitments in the climate regime, it leaves several issues open before it proves its effectiveness in mitigating climate change.
It is discussed whether the Paris Agreement is legally biding or not. In fact, it is both. The body of the agreement is binding, but except for setting 1.5oC as the long-term target for average global temperature increase, its content is as broad as the one present in previous climate agreements. The Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs), presented by UNFCCC members previous to COP 21, are voluntary. Countries indicate actions they are willing to undertake to mitigate climate change as well as the baseline according to which they claim to do so; there is no common parameter. Commitments should be revised every five years, but there is no requirement that each revision must make them stricter. Last, but no least, no sanction for non-compliance is established.
The fact that most UNFCCC members signed the Agreement on April 22 is positive, but ratification – the confirmation by states that they recognize the commitment and become bound to it, usually given after the Parliament approves the text – is a clearer sign of commitment. On April 22, 15 states deposited the document of ratification of the Paris Agreement, whose joint share in total global carbon emissions is 0.03% (UNTC, 2016; UNFCCC, 2016). The Paris Agreement will not enter into force until at least 55 countries accounting for 55% of total global carbon emissions ratify it – and these are cumulative requirements, meaning that the Agreement is not in force even if (a) countries accounting together for more than 55% of total global carbon emissions but less than 55 in number or (b) more than 55 countries accounting together for less than 55% of total global carbon emissions ratify it.
Even if all signatories ratify the Agreement, great challenges lie ahead of its implementation. Among them, cutting global dependency on fossil fuels is the greatest. Most carbon emissions are generated by burning fossil fuels – 78% of the emissions between 1970 and 2010, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) (IPCC, 2014). In 2013, 77.25%, 67.52%, 45.17% and 80.22% of the electricity produced, respectively, in China, the United States, the European Union (EU-28) and India – the four greatest carbon emitters – was generated by fossil fuels (IEA, 2016). True, these shares have decreased since 2006 – in 2006 the numbers were 82.51%, 70.89%, 54.54% and 80.01% (IEA, 2016), but this is not enough. It is argued that a third of global oil reserves, half of global gas reserves and 80% of global coal reserves should remain unused from 2010 to 2050 in order to meet the target of an average 2o C increase in global temperature (McGlade and Ekins, 2015). Only massive substitution of fossil fuels for renewables or nuclear can do the job in the electric sector. If we add the transport sector, even more dependent on oil, the picture becomes bleaker.
Cutting our dependency on fossil fuels requires dealing with fossil fuel subsidies, yet international concertation to tackle them is in its infancy. Energy governance is fragmented; one of the best attempts to improve it has been occurring in the G20. The group has been dealing with fossil fuel subsidies, but true progress has been slow. In 2009, the G20 pledged to “rationalize and phase out over the medium term inefficient fossil fuel subsidies that encourage wasteful consumption” (G20, 2009), and the commitment has been reiterated in almost every meeting since. In 2010, a report on energy subsidies was presented and members drafted implementation strategies and timeframes for the rationalization and phasing out of fossil fuels (G20, 2010a). Later that year, members were requested to report on country specific strategies and goals achievement by 2011 (G20, 2010b); and further measures and reports were requested by 2012 (G20, 2011). In 2013, the Energy Sustainability Working Group was created, and members approved “a methodology for a voluntary peer review process and the initiation of country-owned peer reviews” (G20, 2013). In 2014, the members reported “preparations for the first round of voluntary peer reviews involving the United States and China” (G20, 2014), and an expected second round of reviews involving, at least, Germany (G20, 2014). In 2015, the G20 Energy Ministers met for the first time and reinforced, once again, the commitment first stated in 2009 (G20, 2015). In the meanwhile, it was estimated that 4.9 trillion dollars, or 6.5% of global GDP, were spent on subsidies in 2013, and that they could amount to 5.3 trillion in 2015 (Coady et al, 2015). Coal accounts for the largest share (Coady et al, 2015).
Establishing international cooperation on carbon prices/taxes would help pushing this agenda forward. Carbon prices/taxes allow correcting an environmental externality of economic processes: carbon emissions do harm the global common good but the activities/products responsible for them are not charged for it. When carbon prices/taxes are in force, the amount of carbon emissions resulting from an economic process or product becomes relevant. In the case of electricity, for example, it means that an electric current generated by wind is different from another generated by oil because they release different amounts of carbon in the atmosphere. Carbon prices/taxes are already in place in 40 national and several subnational jurisdictions and cover, together, 07 gigatons of CO2 equivalent, or 12 % of annual global carbon emissions (WB, 2015). Lack of international concertation on the issue, however, leads to prices that vary greatly worldwide and, in average, are lower than 10 dollars per ton of CO2 equivalent, much less than the price estimated to meet the previous 2°C climate stabilization goal, let alone 1.5°C (WB, 2015).
Thus, the fact that 177 countries signed the Paris Agreement on April 22 does not mean that the world is on track to mitigate climate change. It was an important achievement but further negotiation of sensitive topics such as a common baseline for commitments, pushing countries to increase the ambition of their commitments, creating climate finance frameworks and improving monitoring, reporting and verification strategies is needed. Advancing concertation on energy subsidies and carbon pricing are also required, and this has been even more challenging. The Paris Agreement represents an advance in international understanding on the seriousness and urgency of climate change, but action required to implement it should not be taken for granted. The challenge remains.
G20 (2009): Pittsburgh Declaration, Leader’s Statement, The Pittsburgh Summit. Available at <https://g20.org/wp-content/uploads>. Access 26 Apr 2016.
G20 (2010a): The G20 Toronto Summit Declaration. Available at <https://g20.org/wp-content/uploads>. Access 26 Apr 2016.
G20 (2010b): The Seoul Summit Declaration, The Seoul Summit Document. Available at <https://g20.org/wp-content/uploads>. Access 26 Apr 2016.
G20 (2011): The Cannes Summit Final Declaration. Available at <https://g20.org/wp-content/uploads>. Access 26 Apr 2016.
G20 (2013): Saint Petersburg Summit, G20 Leader’s Declaration. Available at <https://g20.org/wp-content/uploads>. Access 26 Apr 2016.
G20 (2014): G20 Energy Sustainability Working Group 2014 Co-chairs’ Report. Available at <https://g20.org/wp-content/uploads>. Access 26 Apr 2016.
G20 (2015): Communiqué of the G20 Energy Ministers Meeting of 02 October 2015. Available at <https://g20.org/wp-content/uploads>. Access 26 Apr 2016.
IEA – International Energy Agency (2016): Statistics. Available at <http://www.iea.org/statistics/>. Access 26 Apr 2016
Coady, David et al (2015): IMF Working Paper WP/15/105 – How large are energy subsidies? Available at <https://www.imf.org/external/pubs/ft/wp/2015/wp15105.pdf>. Access 26 Apr 2016.
IPCC – Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (2014): Climate Change 2014: Mitigation of Climate Change. Contribution of Working Group III to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Available at <https://www.ipcc.ch/pdf/assessment-report/ar5/wg3/ipcc_wg3_ar5_full.pdf>. Access 26 Apr 2016.
McGlade, Christophe and Ekins, Paul (2015): “The geographical distribution of fossil fuels unused when limiting global warming to 2oC”. Nature, v. 517, 07 Jan 2015, p. 187–190. DOI: <doi:10.1038/nature14016>.
UNFCCC – United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (2016): Report of the Conference of the Parties on its twenty-first session, held in Paris from 30 November to 13 December 2015. Available at <http://unfccc.int/resource/docs/2015/cop21/eng/10.pdf#page=30>. Access 26 Apr 2016.
UNTC – United Nations Treaty Collection (2016): Status of ratification of the Paris Agreement. Available at <https://treaties.un.org/pages/ViewDetails.aspx?src=TREATY&mtdsg_no=XXVII-7-d&chapter=27&lang=en>. Access 26 Apr 2016.
WB – World Bank (2015): State and trends of carbon pricing. Available at <http://www.worldbank.org/content/dam/Worldbank/document/Climate/State-and-Trend-Report-2015.pdf>. Access 26 Apr 2016.
Larissa Basso is a PhD Candidate at the Institute of International Relations of University of Brasília and member of the International System at the Anthropocene and Climate Change Research Network (firstname.lastname@example.org).