The way I see it, the signing of the COP21 agreement – from the media blitz to the deliberate separation of conference attendees from climate activists – marks a watershed moment in the geo-political conversation around climate change. But there’s a world of difference between a change in conversation and a change in greenhouse gas emitting activities.
Still, in the coming decades, I believe the agreement at COP21 will be remembered as an historic turning point. This is not the moment when the international community turned back the tide of emissions, this is the moment when climate change became a truly international conversation.
One of the key elements of the Paris Agreement is the INDC. Inviting each party to submit what their country feels comfortable committing to, in terms of emission reductions and some mitigation steps, is an important way to bring climate change into the national conversation in nearly 200 countries. It was also an important way to ensure countries were willing to sit down and talk, knowing they would commit only to what they had already agreed on domestically. But this diplomatic strength is also a weakness that we’ll feel for decades to come.
The INDC system does not actually account for the volume of carbon that needs to remain unused to avoid catastrophic levels of warming. In fact, the agreement itself acknowledges in paragraph 17 that the commitments described in the collective INDCs are not enough to limit warming to 2 degrees Celsius. A group of researchers have argued persuasively in a letter to The Independent that the danger of the agreement is that we can feel as if the right steps are being taken. Furthermore, without an enforcement mechanism, it is hard to believe that the Paris Agreement will be any different from other climate agreements – the cuts that are made will almost certainly be less ambitious than planned, and than necessary. Naomi Klein argues that the last two decades have demonstrated that economic agreements will always take priority over climate agreements in her 2014 book, This Changes Everything. Klein encourages us to consider how economic agreements may be fostering increased emissions even as we discuss cutting emissions in climate agreements.
So, in my eyes, it is not the reduced emissions that will have the greatest impact on the coming decades. The Paris Agreement offers a new pattern of agenda-setting. New possibilities now exist for global work to mitigate climate change. This agreement alone can’t meaningfully slow climate change – unless large emitting countries including the United States, China, and India choose to radically decrease their emissions through the five-year audits and re-commitments. What the agreement can do is offer future decades the promise that we do not have to live in a world that can’t respond to climate change.