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The Paris Agreement: A New Global Vision

The Paris Agreement: A New Global Vision

Posted on Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Mukul Sanwal writes that China and India played a defining role in shaping an agreement which goes beyond emission curbs.

The Climate Summit in Paris exemplifies the power of diplomacy and dialogue to resolve differences; but the protracted negotiations also illustrate the lag seen when international institutions need to catch up with an emerging world order where the United States no longer shapes multilateralism.

In many ways the outcome will have profound effects on the global environment, governance, economy and society. The new regime moves away from notions of burden sharing to cooperatively sharing risks and opportunities. The pessimists will argue that the Agreement does not contain legally binding obligations on developed countries to meet specific targets to cut emissions. That it only requires countries to "communicate and maintain" plans to cut greenhouse gas emissions, and the compliance system is to be explicitly "non-adversarial and non-punitive." The optimists will say that it includes an objective to reach a "balance between anthropogenic emissions by sources and removals by sinks of greenhouse gases in the second half of this century." It obliges all nations to subject their climate plans to public scrutiny every five years. Developing countries also secured a commitment to get more climate finance and pushed developed countries to set a new goal of more than $100bn a year by 2025.

At the heart of the deal is cutting back on the use of coal, oil and gas for energy, which has enabled the industrial revolution and urbanization. Both China and India sought to re-frame the debate around urban middle-class lifestyles as both the cause and the solution to the global problem. India argued that "the prosperous still have a strong carbon footprint. And, the world's billions at the bottom of the development ladder are seeking space to grow," while China stressed the required lifestyle and economic changes, pointing out that "we need heating. We need air conditioning. You need to drive your car." Since consumption patterns are now more important than production patterns as sources of missions, the post 2030 reviews must focus less on coal and more on energy efficiency buildings and transport emissions, as two-third emissions come from cities.

The Paris deal does not represent a transformational change in the global efforts to deal with climate change. It only modifies how countries approach the problem, and it is still not clear what a low-carbon world would look like. The attention now turns to the social sciences, distribution issues and to the obstacles and policy choices. This new climate research can drive the debate in a constructive manner that goes beyond emissions data to understanding the trade-offs. Exploring how climate change interacts with lifestyles, social norms and e-commerce is going to be crucial to politicians in designing practical policies. Including the social sciences into the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change remains a vital task.

The Paris negotiations continued into over-time because of geo-politics. The toughest negotiations were around disagreement on whether the time has come to end "differentiation" between developed and developing countries within the United Nations, which has strategic significance for the trade negotiations. India and China successfully resisted this move because of their national circumstances, and the global goals have been agreed in the "context of sustainable development and efforts to eradicate poverty."

Since the Agreement responds to the concerns of all countries the collective effort has a good chance of keeping the Planet from heating beyond safe limits. It is also just a ‘framework' and how the rules and guidelines are shaped will really determine how much of the multilateral consensus is translated into domestic political action.


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