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What the next 5 years hold for the Paris Agreement

By Nat Keohane

Last Saturday, December 12, was the fifth anniversary of the Paris climate agreement, and countries around the world gave it a proper (virtual) fête, filled with announcements on how countries planned to step up their action to curb climate change. Although some of the announcements represented modest steps forward, the overall effect of the event was to capture the growing climate momentum of recent months rather than break new ground.

The event also got many observers thinking back to that other Saturday in Paris, five years ago, when the agreement was approved – and, inevitably, weighing what the future will bring for the accord.

As we head into 2021 and draw closer to the annual international climate negotiations in Glasgow next November (known as COP26), three issues will increasingly dominate the discussion: the need for greater ambition in setting the next round of targets; a shift from negotiations to implementation, not only at national level but also among key global sectors like aviation and shipping; and the enduring importance of the rules for monitoring and reporting emissions, known as the “enhanced transparency framework.”

Ambition

The commitments countries have made so far do not put the world on track to meet the Paris Agreement goal of holding temperature rise to well below 2 degrees Celsius, and to pursue efforts to limit the increase to 1.5 degrees, since the industrial revolution. Much deeper reductions are needed.

The good news is that the agreement explicitly establishes a cycle of ambition: It was designed in anticipation that more ambition would be needed over time.

It’s known informally as the “ratchet mechanism”: Article 4 of the Paris Agreement says that countries will revise their emissions targets – known as nationally determined contributions (NDCs) – and communicate them every 5 years. And it specifies that each successive NDC will represent a progression beyond the current target and reflect the highest possible ambition – meaning deeper cuts and broader coverage.

At COP26, countries must submit new or updated NDCs. And that is forcing a renewed conversation about ambition. This is the first crank of the ratchet.

Indeed, a number of countries have already made promising commitments in recent months, including:

  • The European Union committed to reducing emissions 55% below 1990 by 2030
  • The United Kingdom set a target of reducing emissions 68% below 1990 by 2030, and said it would stop financing oil and gas projects
  • China pledged to reach carbon neutrality by 2060
  • Japan & Korea pledged net zero emissions by 2050

But 2050 and 2060 are a long way away, and apart from the EU and UK, we need a lot more from countries in terms of near-term commitments.

China’s carbon neutrality goal changed the global conversation – it’s a big deal when the world’s largest emitter puts a timeframe on carbon neutrality. Now we need to see that long-term goal be translated into near-term ambition and earlier peaking. Research by the China Economic Modeling Forum finds it is technically and economically achievable for China to peak by 2025.

Above all, more ambition is needed from the United States.

While President-elect Joe Biden has promised to rejoin the Paris Agreement immediately upon taking office on January 20, 2021, the more pressing question is the NDC that the U.S. will submit before COP26. The U.S. should commit to an ambitious and credible 2030 target: ideally 50% below 2005, meeting or beating the path to net zero by 2050.

Implementation

While more ambition is needed in the next round of NDCs, it’s equally crucial to make sure that countries fulfill the commitments they’ve already made. To help them do this, the UN climate talks should shift from focusing on negotiations to implementation. Since at least 2008, the centerpiece of each COP has been the negotiating rooms where country representatives pore over draft text and debate the placement of commas and brackets.

That text-centric approach certainly made sense in the leadup to the Paris Agreement. It even made sense in the years afterward when the “Paris rulebook” – guidance to Parties for how to meet their obligations under the accord – was being finalized.

But now that the rulebook is virtually complete, the focus of the annual climate conferences should shift to implementation. In practice, that means more high-level sessions devoted to identifying the concrete actions and policies that will drive emissions down, sharing best practices, learning from what other countries have done, engaging on solutions with the private sector and civil society, and building new channels of cooperation to accomplish deep reductions. And indeed, we’ve seen good signs so far in this direction from the UK COP26 Presidency and from the high-level champions Nigel Topping and Gonzalo Muñoz Abogabir.

Transparency

Ambitious pledges are all well and good, but they don’t mean anything without assurance that they are being met.

Even though the Paris Agreement is five years old, the effective ‘compliance period’ only starts in 2021. That’s when key provisions of the agreement, including the enhanced transparency framework (Article 13) kick in.

The enhanced transparency framework is the heart of the Paris Agreement. To drive greater ambition over time, countries need to be able to demonstrate that they are living up to the commitments they have made – and have the confidence that others are doing the same. That depends crucially on transparency.

Beware those who say “we don’t need the Paris Agreement anymore” or “we have moved beyond it”: That is likely to be code for not wanting to comply with its rigorous transparency and accountability requirements.

Emphasizing the importance of the transparency framework should be a top priority for all countries – and a constant theme from civil society. We need less rhetoric and more reporting.

Looking ahead

Five years after the Paris Agreement was signed, the accord remains a valuable framework for action. We sometimes hear people talking about “strengthening the Paris Agreement.” It’s vital to recognize that it’s not the agreement itself that needs to be stronger: It’s the commitments that countries make, the actions they take to meet them, and the confidence that can only come from transparent and rigorous reporting on progress.

One thing is as true now as it was five years ago: Success lies not only in the text of the agreement, but in how countries live up to it. The last five years have solidified the foundation and demonstrated the agreement’s resilience. The next five years will be crucial in ramping up the ambition needed to reduce the risk of catastrophic climate change. The world doesn’t have a moment to lose.

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