No Time to Rest : After the Paris Climate Agreement, What Next?

The battle over climate change science has been won—the evidence is overwhelming—and in the debate on the economics of climate change, there is growing evidence that climate action does not hurt economies and in fact has benefits. The new challenge will be winning the hearts and minds of people, and after Paris, this should be one of the top priorities for every country starting in 2016.

During the 21st Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP21), the world’s governments delivered a new global climate agreement. It marks a historical moment because for the first time, all countries will make commitments to greenhouse gas emissions reductions and adaptation measures for global warming.

Four building blocks underpin the Paris package: the Paris agreement, the registration of national contributions or commitment by the states (Intended Nationally Determined Contributions, or INDCs)—the financing package of money for decarbonization and adaptation, and the Solutions Agenda—the announcement of pledges and initiatives by cities, provinces, and companies.

The Paris summit alone cannot solve climate change. It is therefore important to insist on leaving behind the success-or-failure framing that often dominates the media. In practice, much of the world’s attention goes to the first crop of national contributions covering the period 2020 to 2030. Some assessments show that while the INDCs are a breakthrough, they do not yet put the world on the global average temperature trajectory that will be needed by the end of this century.

So it is crucial to explore ways to improve the national commitments as well as the voluntary pledges by nonstate actors. The Paris agreement will need to contain a clear mechanism to upgrade national commitments, for example, every five years. Developing countries are increasingly aware of their vulnerability to climate impacts, and they have insisted on the urgency of the adaptation plans contained in the INDCs. Nearly 90 percent of the INDCs included this dimension. Addressing “loss and damage”—the point where adaptation might be too hard or no longer be possible—is very important for highly vulnerable countries, but no consensus had been reached going into the negotiations.

Building a Constituency to Support Reforms

Implementing climate plans necessarily calls for governmental choices such as selecting renewable energy sources instead of fossil fuels, pushing for electric public transportation and car pooling, choosing climate-smart agriculture over pollution control approaches, having stricter land planning, and instituting building codes that help cities adapt to climate impacts.

Because these changes generate opposition from incumbents, decision makers are more likely to push forward if a clear constituency supports reforms. Moreover, citizen engagement and monitoring of pledges is also needed to ensure implementation in practice. That is why one of the key tasks for implementation beginning in 2016 is to empower organizations and support efforts to “translate” the Paris agreement into citizen language in order to increase the understanding of the global agreement and how it connects to people’s lives.

Governments will need to send policy signals such as pathways to achieving commitments for 2030 and beyond for crucial sectors (for example, energy pathways, transportation pathways, and agriculture pathways). They will have to have stronger mechanisms for monitoring progress and a more sophisticated approach to assessing the costs and benefits of the measures to be taken. Those policy signals need to be complemented with information about the opportunities for private investments, job creation, and savings in oil imports. This is important because of the tendency in national debates to focus on the costs of actions. After Paris, the shift has to be about the costs of inaction and benefits of early action.

Citizens Want to Be Part of Climate Decisions

Citizens care about climate change. On June 6, 2015, World Wide Views (a public Internet site for citizen dialog developed by the Danish Board of Technology, including the Ministry of Ecology) cosponsored the largest citizen consultation to date on climate change and the UN climate negotiations, reaching about 10,000 citizens worldwide and including 97 debates in 76 countries. Some key messages that emerged are that citizens:

  • See climate actions as an opportunity to improve life quality (66 percent).
  • Think their country should take measures even if other countries do not (79 percent).
  • Consider that education—programs on climate change for the broader public—is one of the relevant instruments to help reduce emissions (78 percent).

Because two-thirds of global emissions come from developing countries, defining strategies to involve citizens in implementing the Paris pledges will require innovation in these countries. In some countries, like Chile, Peru, and Mexico, some citizen consultation was put in place to define the national pledge for Paris. However, more citizen involvement in more countries will be needed. The public must be persuaded that there will be concrete benefits associated with making cleaner energy choices (for example, cleaner air). In 2015, US President Barack Obama provided a good example. He explained to the American public how the Clean Power Plan was linked to health by leading to the prevention of up to 3,600 premature deaths, 90,000 asthma attacks in children, and 1,700 nonfatal heart attacks in 2030. He also released a video to explain to citizens why the plan was a good idea.

Citizen concern about air pollution is on the rise in most developing countries. Citizens consume more but they are also demanding cleaner choices, and this could be a game changer for the Paris package. In Latin America, for example, two different polls, one by the government of Chile and one conducted by the United Nations Development Programme in Costa Rica, revealed that tackling air pollution was the top environmental priority in both countries, followed by waste management. An Inter-American Development Bank poll of 5,000 citizens in Bogotá, Colombia; Buenos Aires, Argentina; Lima, Peru; Mexico City; and São Paulo, Brazil, also revealed that they want a better quality of life, more transparency in city government, and more participation in decision making.

This poll, along with those from Chile and Costa Rica, show that citizens understand that climate change will affect them. They want governments to do more, not less, to protect their health and the climate. If Paris has shown one thing, it is that climate change is no longer just an environmental issue. It is an economic, social, and political issue too.

The battle over climate change science has been won—the evidence is overwhelming—and in the debate on the economics of climate change, there is growing evidence that climate action does not hurt economies and in fact has benefits. The new challenge will be winning the hearts and minds of people, and after Paris, this should be one of the top priorities for every country starting in 2016.


This article was originally published by The Stanley Foundation here.

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