December 12, 2020 marked five years since the signing of the historic Paris Climate Agreement, or the Paris Accord. A total of 196 countries agreed on a coordinated plan of action to tackle global heating at the 21st annual meeting of Conference of Parties (COP) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) held in Paris in 2015. It entered into force on 4 November 2016.
What is to be achieved by this Accord?
The Paris Accord is a ‘legally binding’ international treaty and a watershed moment in multilateral diplomacy, considering that a truly global response to the looming climate crisis was agreed upon for the first time bringing almost all nations together specifically for this cause.
The Paris Accord sets an ambitious long-term goal to limit global warming to well below 2 degrees Celsius, preferably to 1.5, compared to pre-industrial levels, taking into account the rising levels of global heating that threatens lives and livelihoods by causing extreme weather events such as melting of icebergs, submerging of low-lying areas, frequent floods, bushfires, and cyclones in various parts of the globe.
Support for the needy countries
Although the climate issue is global in scale, some countries are more vulnerable than the other where the people fear loss of lives and livelihoods and in some cases even creating a new category of ‘climate refugees’, mostly developing and under-developed countries.
As per the UN Refugee Agency, year 2017 recorded about 18.8 million new disaster-related internal displacements, and among them many are climate-induced. All countries aren’t capable enough to deal with this looming threat. Therefore, the developed countries, particularly in the West, were stipulated by a framework to provide financial and technological assistance to countries that are mostly in need of it.
What all have changed in the past five years?
A lot of events have occurred in these five years since the signing of the agreement in 2015. In the fight against climate crisis, the actions of individual countries do matter as important as multilateralism alone and domestic politico-economic factors of these countries play a significant role in their national responses.
The world needs leaders who believe in climate science and cooperate with each other to build a collective response, particularly with regard to powerful and industrialized countries or power blocs such as the United States and the European Union.
The Trump challenge and the hope of a Biden presidency
The conduct of the US leadership under the outgoing US President Donald Trump was disappointing, given the tremendous influence and power it yields in the global stage.
Trump’s unilateral acts such as pulling the United States out of the Accord, just 18 months after signing it, was so unbecoming of a country of that stature.
Trump stated that it puts a huge financial burden on developed countries such as the US, the world’s second largest carbon emitter, and is favourable to the interests of other countries.
But, hope is still on as the US awaits a leadership transition next year, as President-elect Joe Biden promised to rejoin the Accord as soon as he assumes office.
Many countries reassured their commitments to the climate cause by setting deadlines for net carbon neutrality, meaning to strike a balance between emitting carbon and absorbing carbon from the atmosphere.
How other countries responded
The UK became the first country in the world to declare a ‘climate emergency’ in 2019, followed by Ireland, Canada and France the same year. Many countries and subnational entities have followed the move in the later months and in this year, with New Zealand being the latest in the league. More countries are expected to follow soon enough.
Being the largest carbon emitter on the planet owing to its enormously large levels of domestic manufacturing activity, China is by far the largest emitter of greenhouse gases causing global heating and has pledged to achieve carbon neutrality by 2060.
Japan, South Korea, and the European Union have also set deadlines for net zero emissions or carbon neutrality.
Meanwhile, theper capita emissions of another key nation, India, were 60% lower than the global average. But, emissions grew slightly in 2019, but still much lower than it’s per annum average over the last decade.
At the recently concluded Climate Ambition Summit this month, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres called on world leaders to declare a state of ‘climate emergency’ in their respective nations.
Role of people and non-state actors
Apart from national governments and international organisations, more and more people and non-state actors are becoming aware of the climate crisis as each day passes, particularly with the rising popularity of movements such as ‘Global Climate Strike’ and ‘Fridays For Future’ led by activists such as Greta Thunberg who keeps on pushing for global action on the climate crisis. They are evolving a powerful force to persuade timely policy action.
The way ahead
The Paris Accord envisages a step-by-step ‘climate action’ based on a five-year cycle wherein greenhouse gas emissions are significantly reduced, thereby achieving a climate neutral world by 2050.
Accordingly, as the first step, countries that are parties to the Accord were directed to submit their national plans for climate action known as nationally determined contributions (NDCs) by this year.
The pandemic has caused disruptions, but most of the countries still remain wholeheartedly committed to what they’ve agreed five years back. But, the developed countries should not shy away from supporting low-income countries to achieve their respective NDCs.
The Accord’s journey so far, therefore, throws light on the need to have a resolute and well-informed political will, both at domestic and multilateral levels, to realise the goals set for a co-ordinated climate action, rooted in science and mutual cooperation.