Asia Global Institute

The Paris Agreement: The Problems and Challenges of a New Global Vision

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

The Paris Agreement: The Problems and Challenges of a New Global Vision

Mukul Sanwal believes global policy shifts like the Paris Agreement on Climate Change are best assessed after a period of time has passed.

The Paris Agreement is the first Global Sustainable Development Agreement that is data, assessment and analysis based. Its legally-binding provisions are aimed at re-framing the transition from rural poverty to urban middle-class levels of well being, so that this transition remains within global ecological limits.

The Paris Agreement shifts the global concern away from the sole focus of the Climate Convention on emissions reductions, which is really the symptom of the problem to dealing with its causes, that is, human activity linked to the urban transition. The purpose of the Agreement, or the new global climate policy, puts adaptation at par with mitigation. Finance linked to technology development and transfer also have a more significant role. What was a static Convention has evolved into a dynamic sustainable development agreement giving hope for optimism.

Urbanization as a mega-trend

Cities are already home to half the world's population, and account for more than 80 per cent of global economic output and 75 per cent of global energy use and energy-related greenhouse gas emissions. By 2050 two-thirds of the global population will be urban[i]. Responding to this mega-trend, the vision of international cooperation has moved away from reliance on environmental law, national obligations and dispute settlement arrangements to regulating production patterns. Growth in global carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuel-generated electricity from industry has slowed in the past two years.

The urban transition is at the heart of the current use and distribution of natural resources. Clearly a focus on scarcity, historical responsibility, burden sharing and the polluter-pays-principle under international environmental law cannot meet the challenges of the global transformation[ii]. "Common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capacities in light of national circumstances" is now to be reflected in implementation, with the consideration of sustainable development and eradication of poverty elevated to the level of principles aimed at sharing responsibility and prosperity.

A common understanding is now to be achieved to influence public opinion and modify consumption patterns[iii] which, along with services, constitute the major component of GDP and increasing emissions. Transport emissions continue to grow in all countries and energy efficiency, also in cities, has the greatest potential in reducing emissions of greenhouse gases. Consumers in China who live on relatively small budgets, are already driving fundamental changes in a number of sectors[iv].That is why the Agreement requires all countries to provide low emission development strategies by 2020.

Global transformation in natural resource use

An alignment of global trends in demographics, technology and notions of well being is triggering a global transformation. Energy efficiency, lifestyles and digital technology are coming together within a dedicated policy space in the global agenda as the Paris Agreement and the Sustainable Development Goals are implemented. It is the first transformation, described as the 4th Industrial Revolution, that is not dependent on increasing use of energy or natural resources[v]. Seeing to it that our societies adjust to these trends is one of the grand challenges of our time[vi].

By 2025, China is projected to be the home to more large companies in the services sector than either the United States or Europe. It is expected that nearly half of the world's large companies-defined as those with revenue of $1 billion or more-will be headquartered in emerging markets. "South-south" flows between emerging markets have also doubled their share of global trade over the past decade and Asia is becoming the world's largest trading region[vii]. This seismic geo-economic and geo-political shift cuts across the post-colonial North-South divide and the Agreement will support it leading to new forms of urbanization and international cooperation with China and India, both now in a leadership role.

In the real world outside the climate regime, there is ground for optimism. This dynamic trend also needs to be captured in the stocktaking. Global emissions have stalled in 2015 after growing between two to three per cent since 2000. The projected decline in global emissions is shaped by the peaking of emissions in the United States in 2005 and what some hope is the peaking of coal use in China, where more than half of its new energy needs in 2014  were met from renewable sources such as hydro, nuclear, wind, and solar power. At the global level, in 2014, renewables made up over half of total energy investment, while the cost of solar panels has fallen by 75 per cent and that of batteries for electric vehicles by half since 2009[viii]. Wind-generated and solar electricity is now at grid parity in an increasing number of countries and the rapidly declining cost of storage will help solar become the mainstream electricity source. These trends are sufficiently strong for countries to consider reducing their future trajectory of emissions to remain within ecological limits.

The need for new research

The Paris deal does not represent a transformational change in the global efforts to meet the challenge of climate change. It only modifies how countries approach the problem, and it is still not clear what a low-carbon world might look like. But by putting solutions at the heart of the debate, attention is now on distribution issues and to the obstacles and policy choices. A global policy shift like the Paris Agreement marks the emergence of a new form of multilateralism where State and non-State Actors can together, support a transformation.

New social science research can drive the debate in a constructive manner that goes beyond emissions data to understanding the role of all stakeholders and the trade-offs. Exploring how climate change interacts with urban lifestyles, social norms and e-commerce and modifying longer term trends in natural resource use without affecting middle class levels of wellbeing is going to be crucial to politicians in designing practical policies[ix]. Including the social sciences into the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change remains a vital task.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Asia Global Institute's editorial policy.


[1] Former Director United Nations Climate Change Secretariat, negotiator and author of ‘The World's Search for Sustainable Development', Cambridge University Press, August 2015.
[i] Mckinsey and Company. 2015, The Four Global Trends Breaking all the Trends, April 2015.  
[ii] Sanwal, Mukul, 2015, The World's Search for Sustainable Development, Cambridge University Press, India.
[iii] Morgan Stanley, 2015, Sustainable Signals: The individual investor perspective', Morgan Stanley Institute for Sustainable Investing, February 2015, New York. See also, The Global Commission on the Economy and Climate:The 2015 new Climate Economy Report, HSBC, London.
[iv] Goldman Sachs, 2015,The Asian Consumer: The Chinese Millennials, Goldman Sachs Global Investment Research, September 2015, New York.
[v] World Economic Forum, Global Risks Report 2016, Geneva. See also, Megatrends: Making Sense of a World in Motion, Ernst & Young, 2015, New York.
[vi] UNDP, 2014, Decoupling 2: technologies, opportunities and policy options, A report of the Working Group on De-Coupling to the International Resource Panel, United Nations Environment Programme. 2014, Nairobi.
[vii] Asian Development Bank, 2014, Asia 2050:Realising the Asian Century, Manilla,
[viii] International Energy Agency, 2015, Energy Efficiency Market Report 2015, Paris.
[ix] ISSC and UNESCO (2013), World Social Science Report 2013, Changing Global Environments, OECD Publishing and UNESCO Publishing, Paris.


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