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Paris Climate Agreement

How civil society and others achieved the Paris Climate Agreement

Duncan Green's picture

Michael JacobsA brilliant analysis by Michael Jacobs of the success factors behind last year’s Paris Climate Agreement appeared in Juncture, IPPR’s quarterly journal  recently. Jacobs unpacks the role of civil society (broadly defined) and political leadership. Alas, it’s over 4,000 words long, so as a service to my attention deficit colleagues in aid and development, here’s an abbreviated version (about a third the length, but if you have time, do please read the original).

The international climate change agreement reached in Paris in December 2015 was an extraordinary diplomatic achievement. It was also a remarkable display of the political power of civil society.

Following the failed Copenhagen conference in 2009, an informal global coalition of NGOs, businesses, academics and others came together to define an acceptable outcome to the Paris conference and then applied huge pressure on governments to agree to it. Civil society effectively identified the landing ground for the agreement, then encircled and squeezed the world’s governments until, by the end of the Paris conference, they were standing on it. Four key forces made up this effective alliance.

The scientific community: Five years ago the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was in trouble. Relentless attacks from climate sceptics and a number of apparent scandals – the ‘climategate’ emails, dodgy data on melting Himalayan glaciers, allegations surrounding its chairman – had undermined its credibility. But the scientists fought back, subjecting their work to even more rigorous peer-review and hiring professional communications expertise for the first time. The result was the IPCC’s landmark Fifth Assessment Report, which contained two powerful central insights.

First, the IPCC report introduced the concept of a ‘carbon budget’: the total amount of carbon dioxide the earth’s atmosphere can absorb before the 2°C temperature goal is breached. At present emission rates, that would be used up in less than 30 years. So cutting emissions cannot wait.

The other insight was that these emissions have to be reduced until they reach zero. The IPCC’s models are clear: the physics of global warming means that to halt the world’s temperature rise, the world will have to stop producing greenhouse gas emissions altogether.

The economic community: But it was a second set of forces that really changed the argument. Since the financial crash in 2008–2009, cutting emissions had fallen down the priority lists of the world’s finance ministries. The old orthodoxy that environmental policy was an unaffordable cost to the economy reasserted itself. A new argument was required.