Does the Paris Agreement live up to the expectations of the next generation?

Jack Nicholls, Bristol and Exeter Universities

On 12th November 2015 school students from Bristol, UK – the 2015 European Green Capital – took part in a mock-COP21 summit at Bristol University and agreed on decisive action. Exactly one month later, on 12th December, the Paris Agreement was adopted. As one of the organisers of the student summit and an observer at COP21 in Paris I compare the outcomes of the two.

There was no gavel or Laurent Fabius equivalent to provide a stern look to the hall before hammering the table and declaring that the accord had been accepted. Our ‘mock-COP’ ended with (slightly) less suspense and jubilation – running into overtime was not an option as the school buses were waiting, and instead a voting round on five key issues concluded the negotiations.

On each of the five issues, which included reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, financing for developing countries, climate refugees, protecting forests, and protecting the Arctic, the student delegations voted in favour of the most robust proposals (three resolution options were included; high, medium and low ambition). This may not be surprising considering the students were engaged in a role-play exercise where the consequences of their votes were only imagined. However, the day had progressed along the lines of previous COPs – we had walkouts by country delegations, protests by civil society groups, impassioned speeches and backroom deals. And as the organisers of the exercise we had schemed long into the night to try and rig the exercise so that a 50-50 voting bloc split would emerge on each voting issue.

Try as we did, the students knew what was required and at the 11th hour a majority voted for:

  • All countries to commit to GHG emission reductions leading to a global emission cut of 50 per cent by 2050;
  • Developed countries to raise $100 billion/year by 2025 to support developing countries in their efforts to mitigate/adapt to climate change;
  • Strong support for climate refugees – giving them rights to resettlement;
  • Financial support for countries that conserve their forests; and
  • A ban on oil and gas exploration in the Arctic.

A consensus is harder to achieve than a majority vote, nevertheless a comparison of the mock-COP student agreement and the Paris Agreement demonstrates some interesting parallels.

The 2˚C limit, associated with a 40 Gt target (by 2030) of GHG emissions, referred to in the Paris Agreement is less aggressive than the students 50 per cent by 2050. Global emissions of CO2 in 2013 were 35.3 Gt. Therefore, a 50 per cent reduction would lead to 17.65 Gt by 2050 (minimum reduction due to the high baseline year) – the upper end of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) 430-480ppm scenario and just about in line with a warming limit of 1.5˚C. Nevertheless, the inclusion of the 1.5˚C benchmark in the Paris Agreement chimes with the student’s high ambition – the student’s ‘sixth sense’ for increased efforts on emission reductions was spot on.

Following the COP21 Agreement, it remains to be seen whether global emissions can be reduced from around 40Gt to below 17.65Gt within a twenty-year period with the aim of getting ‘well below’ 2˚C and possibly achieving a 1.5˚C limit. However, there is a strong argument to be made that emissions can and should be forced to begin their descent sooner than 2030. Why wait when the technology exists now? We have seen a stall in emissions in 2014 and with suitably robust action there is no need to wait until 2030 for the peak.

Of course, ensuring that emission cuts are distributed fairly between countries is one of the hardest nuts to crack. The students went for a fund of $100 billion/year by 2025 to support developing countries, which is roughly in line with the Paris Agreement. Arguably not enough to achieve a global 50 per cent emission cut. On forests, again, there was a mirroring of previous COP commitments. However in relation to protecting the Arctic the students were way out ahead and called for a complete ban on all oil and gas exploration. And in terms of climate refugees the students had, with a simple stroke, re-written international law to include climate change as a basis for refugee status.   

As Obama stated in his first reactions to the Agreement, “The Paris Agreement establishes the enduring framework the world needs to solve the climate crisis.” For the students it was all about action and substantive agreements that included numbers, dates and targets. Frameworks are of course essential. However, it was inspiring to watch students who were coming fresh to the ‘climate conundrum’ tackle it head-on and avoid 20 years of discussions over procedure.

The Paris Agreement doesn’t quite match the ambitions of the students but it comes pretty close. The challenge will now be in ensuring COP21 is more than rhetoric, and that the actions that follow make the younger (and future) generations proud.