3 questions raised by the Paris climate agreement

After two weeks of negotiations, a new landmark deal was made on Dec. 12 during the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris, France. Photo by: COP21

After multiple drafts, long nights of negotiation, protests and petitions, the Paris climate agreement is written and adopted.

Over the course of two weeks at the Le Bourget convention hall, negotiators whittled down the document from a sprawling list of options, to a set of actions, commitments, and procedures agreeable enough for nearly 200 countries to accept. That alone is cause for celebration, according to some of the Paris deal’s biggest backers.

“This is a tremendous victory for all of our citizens — not for any one country or any one bloc, but for everybody here who has worked so hard to bring us across the finish line.  It’s a victory for all of the planet and for future generations,” said U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry on Saturday in Paris.

The movement — or movements — to influence the course climate action will take have been years in the making. And in the immediate aftermath of the 21st Conference of Parties, nearly every interest group has issued its analysis of what the Paris agreement means for them, what is missing from it, and what can be built on.

What most of these emerging reactions have in common is a recognition that the Paris agreement succeeded in capturing on paper a moment of international resolve to confront the most pressing issues raised by climate change.

What they also share is an understanding that the outcome document is as much an ongoing conversation — or debate — as it is a final agreement. The implementation, review and revision of this evolving process is only partially written in the text itself. Whoever pushes hardest and most effectively to shape climate action now and in the future will help write COP21’s legacy.

For the development community, this will all sound familiar. When the third International Financing for Development Conference drew to a close in Addis Ababa, a chorus of voices rose to declare that the task at hand is to hold donors and governments accountable for their commitments. When the United Nations General Assembly produced a set of Sustainable Development Goals in New York, attention immediately turned to how they would be measured, tracked and evaluated.

The outcome of the Paris climate conference resonates with much the same frequency — successful to some, disappointing to others, and in many aspects still to be determined.

The Paris agreement raises many questions about the future of international cooperation to mitigate and adapt to climate change impacts. Here are just a few:

1. Where does the road map for adaptation finance lead now?

“Parties hereby establish the global goal on adaptation of enhancing adaptive capacity, strengthening resilience and reducing vulnerability to climate change, with a view to contributing to sustainable development and ensuring an adequate adaptation response in the context of the temperature goal.”

— Article 7.1 of the Paris agreement on climate change

The Paris agreement devotes more attention to the importance of climate change adaptation than previous climate agreements.

The text sends a message that climate change impacts are already here, they are dangerous, and they must be dealt with proactively, according to Jennifer Morgan, director of the World Resources Institute’s Global Climate Program.

But while the Paris agreement speaks to a balance between funding for mitigation and adaptation — one of the central demands from developing country delegates — significant obstacles and uncertainty stand between that ambition and a fully realized adaptation financing framework.

Devex previously reported on some organizations’ frustrations with a perceived lack of available climate change adaptation funds, despite the international community’s rhetoric that adaptation is a top priority. In addition to those concerns expressed by NGOs working in climate-affected communities, there are concerns written into — or out of — the text itself.

In an Oxfam analysis of the agreement, the group notes, “In Paris, adaptation was still treated as an issue for the poorest or most vulnerable. Rich countries saw it as a bargaining chip to secure the buy-in of poorer countries, not an essential part of a robust global response to climate change.”

Global funding for adaptation amounts to 16 percent of overall climate finance, according to Oxfam. While the Paris agreement establishes a long-term goal for climate change adaptation and calls for significant increases in adaptation funding, it does not include specific benchmark targets to measure that progress or lack thereof.

Developed countries did not want to commit to a roadmap for adaptation finance in these negotiations, said Athena Ronquillo-Ballesteros, director of the Finance Center at WRI.

The pressure will now be on for adaptation advocates to press delegates in subsequent meetings to up the ante on adaptation funding.

An opportunity to do so will be in 2023, at a “global stocktake” to review progress towards the Intended Nationally Determined Contributions. That meeting will lend clarity to a goal-setting agenda in 2025, which could bring on more emerging economies as donors in adaptation finance.

2. What does a good climate refugee framework look like, and will we have one before it’s too late?

“To develop recommendations for integrated approaches to avert, minimize and address displacement related to the adverse impacts of climate change.”

— paragraph 50, draft decision  -/CP.21.

While negotiators locked themselves away from the outside world in order to meet — barely — their deadline to finalize an agreement, events outside the convention halls of Le Bourget still weighed heavily on the talks. Flooding rains in Chennai, drought in East Africa, and a Syrian refugee crisis many say was worsened by climate-induced food shortages lent even greater urgency to the outcome of these deliberations.

The refugee crisis, in particular, put questions of human mobility and migration squarely on the table — even if that table was not big enough to fully incorporate those questions this time around. In a COP21 press briefing, Norwegian Refugee Council Secretary General Jan Egeland pointed out that since 2008, 22.5 million people have been displaced by natural disasters, many of them climate-related.

“We’re way behind in protection and assistance to this group,” Egeland said.

The international community currently lacks a clear framework to finance the prevention of climate-related displacement — or to compensate those who are forcibly displaced by climate change impacts. Momentum from COP21 — codified in one phrase of the agreement that acknowledges “displacement related to the adverse impacts of climate change” — will be high on the agenda at the World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul in May, where leaders who wanted to see more from Paris on the human mobility issue will put climate refugees front and center.

3. Is transparency enough to motivate action?

“In order to build mutual trust and confidence and to promote effective implementation, an enhanced transparency framework for action and support, with built-in flexibility which takes into account Parties’ different capacities and builds upon collective experience is hereby established.”

— Article 13.1 of the Paris Agreement on climate change

Development professionals place a high premium on transparency, lauding initiatives and legislation that mandate clear and harmonized reporting by donors, implementers, and aid recipients. The Paris agreement sets up a reporting framework for countries to show how they are taking action towards their INDCs — the country plans that form the backbone of national-level action. In fact, those requirements to report their progress back to the United Nations are about as far as the Paris agreement goes in legally mandating action to curb greenhouse emissions or to implement adaptation measures.

The Paris agreement will live or die by the parties’ genuine commitment to — in climate negotiation parlance — “ratchet up” their commitments and ambitions over time. As many have noted, the INDCs submitted so far set the world on a course for 3 degrees Celsius warming, which most agree would have dangerous consequences. Additionally, climate change adaptation finance currently sits somewhere below $10 billion per year — far less than the roughly $100 billion per year World Bank estimate of the cost of adaptation at 2 degrees Celsius of warming.

With no specific provisions in the agreement outlining how quickly and how steeply mitigation and adaptation measures must climb, parties to the agreement are betting heavily that a system of periodic reviews coupled with standardized reporting requirements will compel individual countries to take the necessary steps.

Supporters of the Paris agreement note that it has already catalyzed private sector investments, and they point to cities and other subnational actors who have taken the lead up to Paris as a cue to build towards a low-carbon, high-resilience future. “This is more than just a deal between nation states,” said Nigel Topping, CEO of We Mean Business.

In addition to each of these questions, significant work remains to be done to prepare developing countries to fulfill their obligations to the Paris agreement — and to help their delegates press demands and drive action through subsequent negotiations and reviews.

In the agreement text, these obligations fall under the umbrella buzzword “capacity building,” and they represent a substantial role for development professionals and organizations to play in the post-Paris world of climate change finance and implementation.

The Paris agreement establishes developing countries’ right to secure financing from developed countries to help them move towards low-carbon economies and resilient communities. Development expertise will be needed as countries work to meet their obligations to undergo new forms of planning, measuring, reporting and negotiating.

The agreement takes a big step towards creating the framework that will guide climate change cooperation. Now the challenge is to substantiate that framework with well-targeted projects, efficient financing, and community-led solutions.

Planet Worth is a global conversation in partnership with Abt Associates, Chemonics, HELVETAS, Tetra Tech, the U.N. Development Program and Zurich, exploring leading solutions in the fight against climate change, while highlighting the champions of climate adaptation amid emerging global challenges. Visit the campaign site and join the conversation using #PlanetWorth.

About the author

  • Igoe michael 1

    Michael Igoe

    Michael Igoe is a Senior Reporter with Devex, based in Washington, D.C. He covers U.S. foreign aid, global health, climate change, and development finance. Prior to joining Devex, Michael researched water management and climate change adaptation in post-Soviet Central Asia, where he also wrote for EurasiaNet. Michael earned his bachelor's degree from Bowdoin College, where he majored in Russian, and his master’s degree from the University of Montana, where he studied international conservation and development.