After years of false starts, fraught discussions and great power wrangling, the world’s climate negotiators struggled to contain their emotions after finally reaching December’s historic deal in Paris.
As French foreign minister Laurent Fabius brought the gavel down on Cop21, the decisive UN climate conference, delegates danced in the aisles, embraced colleagues and shed tears, confident that the agreement they helped forge between 196 nations will help to avert catastrophic climate change.
For Africa’s negotiators, lobbying furiously until the dying moments of the summit to amend the text in favour of their vulnerable continent, it was a moment to savour – tempered by the knowledge that the hard work is only just beginning.
“I think it’s historic for two reasons, the first being universal participation, and the second ensuring that it was not just about mitigation but adaptation and having a space for a 1.5°C target,” says Seyni Nafo, incoming head of the African Group of Negotiators.
“Of course the reality is that the most important benefits will only accrue over the next decades or generations.”
The agreement, painstakingly stitched together over a fortnight in Paris, is certainly not short on ambition. The text specifies that the world will strive to limit global temperature rises to no more than 1.5°C by 2100 – a ceiling which scientists say represents the “tipping point” for the worst effects of climate change. That’s a significant improvement on the 2°C target that countries agreed to at the largely failed 2009 Copenhagen conference – and which they have struggled to meet ever since.
In order to get even close to achieving this ambitious new goal, countries will have to stick rigidly to intended nationally determined contributions (INDCs) – the detailed plans they submitted before Cop21, which set out how they will cut emissions.
Professor Mary Scholes, a climate expert at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, says that the radical new target is a “game-changer”, with individual states at the heart of the deal.
“There’s now a recognition of this urgency. The negotiating powers had always said that they’ll get around to it, and states can do what they want. I think this attitude has changed.”
For Africa, the stakes could not be higher. With the continent’s estimated annual GDP loss as a result of a global rise in temperatures ranging from 1.5% to 3% by 2030, Africa’s economic future may rest on the successful implementation of the Cop21 text.
Whether the INDCs will be sufficient to prevent the most dangerous changes remains an area of fierce contention. A recent report from the United Nations Environment Programme, which assessed the reduction plans of 119 countries, reported that the earth is on track for a temperature rise of around three degrees by 2100.
Perhaps most worryingly, the agreement is devoid of mechanisms to enforce the emissions pledge – a framework that many African policymakers see as essential. Punitive measures – distrusted by the largest developed and developing nations – were sidelined in a bid to save the central text. Five-yearly reviews beginning in 2023 will go some way to ensuring compliance, but for James Murombedzi, a UN expert at the African Climate Policy Centre, the deal still represents a missed opportunity.
“There are some real concerns about the agreement. The Paris agreement represents a shift away from a process where there were mechanisms for enforcing them to a system where you now have voluntary targets … We think there should be a process of ensuring that targets are legally binding.”
For Professor Scholes, the lower target will have a galvanising effect, inspiring countries to strive for higher goals.
“I think it’s going to be extremely difficult to try and implement measures to get to 1.5°C, but it’s better to go for a lower target than sticking with the 2°C knowing that we’re probably going to edge that upwards anyway,” she says.
Voluntary emissions targets are not the only part of the text that appears to have fallen short of African expectations. Adaptation finance, under which the wealthiest nations will transfer funds to the least-developed countries, has remained largely unresolved. With large transfers unlikely to find favour with a Republican-dominated US Congress, possible action has been shunted away from the legally binding text – much to the disappointment of the AGN’s Nafo.
“The adaptation finance is a big disappointment for me personally because I wanted a specific, strong movement. I was able to get bits and pieces here and there, for instance a reference to adaptation finance, but it’s buried in a number of other indications on mobilising finance,” he says.
Previous pledges of $100bn per year by 2020 – later estimated by the OECD to have reached just $62bn in 2014 and $52bn in 2013 – have yet to be clarified.
“It still needs to be addressed. The real challenge is that it hasn’t been clearly distinguished from existing international development aid and the ways by which it is calculated are not comprehensive,” says James Murombedzi.
Nevertheless, the US decision to double its grant-based adaptation finance to $800m by 2020, as well as a universal pledge to aim for $100bn per year after 2020 and more beyond 2025, suggests that there may be room to extract further concessions in future talks.
Despite the disappointments, Africa emerges from Cop21 armed with a historic agreement among the world’s nations and, on paper at least, an unprecedented global resolve towards combating climate change. The continent’s new priority will be to look inwards and ensure that existing programmes and funding deals are rigorously implemented.
“The developing world has to take the action that they promised, but Africa is now in a better position to implement decisions. We have to build leadership frameworks to assess policies and intended consequences, from independent businesses to politics,” says Professor Scholes.
For Nafo, who assumes the chair of the African Group of Negotiators in the run-up to Cop22 in Marrakech next year, the work starts immediately.
“Everything looks really nice on paper. All the ingredients are there, now it’s about implementation… There were about 100 processes launched in Paris. The real efforts are going to start now. As the Chinese say, this is a 1,000-mile journey and Paris was the first step.”