Paris Climate Agreement – Mind the gaps

Whilst a better than expected climate deal was finally struck in Paris, fundamental issues still remain

When it comes to weather reports, in recent years we’ve seen unprecedented use of the word ‘unprecedented’. 2015 is likely to be the hottest year on record to date and fourteen of the hottest fifteen years have occurred since 2000.

2015 will also be remembered for two important climate milestones; the concentration of average monthly atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) exceeded 400 ppm for the first time in at least 800,000 years, and the average global temperature reached 1°C above pre-industrial levels.

The exact link between atmospheric CO2 levels and global temperatures, and the impacts on the climate system and the environment, have been the subject of a great deal of scientific research and international debate.  In Rio de Janeiro in 1992 the international environmental treaty known as the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) was negotiated. The details were left for later agreements, such as the Kyoto Protocol in 1997.  Over the years, very little progress has been made to curb the soaring global greenhouse gas emissions.

Whilst scientists have been persistently warning that even modest global warming could lead to irreversible climate change, it was not until the 2009 Copenhagen Accord that it was internationally agreed by governments that the increase in global temperature should be kept below 2°C above pre-industrial levels. Even this level was considered dangerous by many climate scientists.

Paris 2015

In Paris in December 2015, at the UNFCCC’s 21st annual meeting, known as COP21, representatives of 195 countries reached what has been described as an historic agreement to combat climate change.

The Paris Agreement aims to strengthen the global response to the threat of climate change by:

  • Holding the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels
  • Pursuing efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels
  • Increasing the ability to adapt to the adverse impacts of climate change
  • Fostering climate resilience and low greenhouse gas emissions development
  • Making finance flows consistent with a pathway towards low greenhouse gas emissions and climate resilient development

In the years preceding the Paris climate talks, countries were invited to produce voluntary pledges to describe what steps they would take to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 2030. These are known as intended nationally determined contributions (INDCs).

To ensure that countries keep to their commitments, the Paris Agreement creates a transparency framework for measuring, reporting and verifying emissions. It also allows for an independent technical expert review and a compliance mechanism, which will be “non-punitive”. The details were perhaps a bridge too far for the weary negotiators at Paris and will be debated at the next climate talks.

A “global stocktake’” will take place every five years to assess the collective progress towards achieving the purpose of the agreement and its long-term goals. The first global stocktake will be in 2023.

The aspiration-pledge gap

The Paris Agreement document itself notes that these INDCs will not limit global average temperatures to the 2°C level – the agreement’s primary aim.

The combined impact of countries’ INDCs suggests that temperatures will rise in the range of 2.2°C to 3.4°C. This is an improvement on the current path of 3.6°C of warming and the UNFCCC acknowledges that the INDCs represent a “floor” for countries’ ambitions.

The agreement requires nations to revisit and ratchet up their climate pledges every five years, beginning in 2020. Each successive nationally determined contribution will reflect its country’s “highest possible ambition”.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has concluded that holding warming to 2°C will probably require emissions cuts of 40-70% by 2050, compared to 2010 levels. Achieving the 1.5°C target would require substantially larger emissions cuts in the order of 70-95% by 2050.

Glen Peters, of the Centre for International Climate and Environmental Research in Oslo, goes further. He has calculated that, at the current rate of emissions, the world will, by 2020, have burnt through the “carbon budget” consistent with keeping to 1.5°C. Unless emissions were reduced to zero after 2020, the goal would be missed.

The inclusion of the 1.5°C figure is very welcome as it acknowledges that 2°C is likely to be highly problematic. At the moment, in reality 1.5°C is largely a symbolic aspiration. The IPCC has been directed to provide a special report on the impacts of 1.5°C of global warming, which may change some decision-makers’ perceptions. However, this will not be published until 2018.

The technology gap

The agreement also aims “to achieve a balance between anthropogenic emissions by sources and removals by sinks of greenhouse gases in the second half of this century”.

Robert Jackson et al write that “we have already emitted two thirds of the carbon allocation to the atmosphere that would ensure at least a 66% chance of limiting global temperature increases to below 2°C”.

So it seems that to limit warming to 1.5°C, or even 2°C, will require that some carbon dioxide emitted in the first half of the century, be sucked back out of the atmosphere in the second half.

Whilst extensive reforestation would help, to soak up really large amounts of carbon dioxide would require technologies such as carbon, capture and storage (CCS). At present, it appears that the world has neither the millions of square kilometres available for the necessary reforestation, nor the proven technologies capable of working on anything like the scale required.

And then there’s the small matter of the cost and who pays. Having recently canceled the £1bn CCS Commercialisation Programme, it doesn’t look as if the current UK government is going to be putting its hand up anytime soon.

We appear to be gambling on technological innovation, human ingenuity and healthy global economic prosperity.

The science-politics gap

Many people have commented on the Paris Agreement. Below is a selection which is indicative of the gap that still exists between the scientific and political views.

Quotes from climate scientists Quotes from leading politicians
“Whilst the 2°C and 1.5°C aspirations of the Paris Agreement are to be wholeheartedly welcomed, the thirty-one page edifice is premised on future technologies removing huge quantities of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere many decades from today. If such highly speculative ‘negative emission technologies’ prove to be unsuccessful then the 1.5°C target is simply not achievable. Moreover, there is only a slim chance of maintaining the global temperature rise to below 2°C. “

Kevin Anderson, Deputy Director of Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research


“This is a major leap forward for mankind. The agreement will not be perfect for everyone, if everyone reads it with their own interests in mind. We will not be judged on a clause in a sentence, but on the text as a whole. We will not be judged on a word, but on an act.”

President Francois Hollande


“Human-induced warming is already approaching 1 degree and predicted to be 1.2°C by 2030, so 1.5°C will be a challenge.”

Myles Allen, professor of geosystem science at Oxford


“[the agreement] shows what is possible when the world stands as one. This agreement represents the best chance we have to save the one planet we have.”

President Barack Obama


“For all that is encouraging in the draft agreement, the time scales and lack thereof are worrying. Little substantive will happen until 2020, while deadlines for specific targets are generally absent. Even if this agreement is accepted in Paris, plenty of opportunities remain for governments to change and for legislatures to fail to ratify. It will be particularly difficult to deal with the US Congress.”

Ilan Kelman, UCL


“We’ve secured our planet for many, many generations to come – and there is nothing more important than that.”

Prime Minster David Cameron


There was a palpable sense of achievement amongst the negotiators when the deal was finally reached, as was echoed by the politicians’ statements. One of the threats to progress will be complacency. For politicians their focus will no doubt move to matters with more immediate urgency, such as economic growth, terror threats, refugees and of course, elections. Amongst the scientists, there was a reported sense of unease. And we know from them that a colossal amount still needs to be accomplished.  For a review of the implications for business read; The Paris Climate Agreement – some implications for business.

In 2005, John Schellnhuber, director of Cambridge’s Tyndall Centre for Climate Change and founder of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research said “We now know that if we go beyond two degrees we will raise hell.” The Paris Agreement creates a road to lower global emissions but it is paved with good intended nationally determined contributions.

Jon Malcolm

Director, Sustainability Vision Limited

Main sources:

  • Nature
  • Nature Climate Change
  • The Economist
  • The Observer
  • The Times

Further Information

If you’d like further information on Greenhouse Gas reporting, Streamlined Energy and Carbon Reporting (SECR), CDP, supplier environmental questionnaires, or how to achieve zero carbon emissions, then please contact Jon Malcolm at or follow this link…