Paris, the conclusion: climate changer or puff pastry?

After the applause has died down, will the Paris Agreement do enough to keep global temperatures down, fund emission reductions in developing countries and hold nations to account?

As expected, a deal was finally done in Paris. This in itself is vital as we tackle the most serious strategic threat to our planet and its people. But it'd be easy to get carried away with hyperbole -- so what does the Paris Agreement actually deliver?

The result was a little like one of the French pastries in the Convention Centre – it looks good, but lacks substance and it definitely isn’t enough!


First it's no mean achievement to get a global agreement in an era of major shifts in global economic and political power. These climate negotiations started in 2007, long after the start of Doha Round negotiations in the WTO and negotiations over UN Security Council reform. Gone are the days of a few countries, led by the US and EU, stitching up a deal and then persuading others to sign on. There were 196 countries negotiating in Paris, in a complex array of groupings.

Further work is needed on the agreement to define the rules, and it will be crucial to build more trust. The poorer nations justifiably feel resentful that the developed countries caused the problem of build-up of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, but have done little to halt rising emissions over the past 23 years since the Convention was signed. This dynamic has been dominant in delaying agreement. Developed countries must now take action to reduce emissions and provide increased levels of climate finance, without resorting to loopholes to evade their responsibilities as the New Zealand government and others have done in the past.

The time was right for an agreement in Paris. Climate change is an extreme example of our failure to manage the global commons and needs a global solution. And as impacts have multiplied around the globe, pressure for an international agreement has built from across societies, including business and economic interests as well as the public and civil society. As usual, the agreement has come too late to avoid much of the irreversible damage, and the response will rely on rapid and deep economic transition to avoid catastrophic impacts. 

Setting a Framework

One of the contentious issues was the definition of a global goal. As we approach global temperature rise of 1°C, vulnerable communities around the world are already suffering from an increase in extreme weather. They are concerned that the impacts of the previously established goal of 2°C will be devastating and may make whole island nations uninhabitable. The international community’s positive response to their strong and often emotional call for a goal of 1.5°C was a highlight of the agreement and an affirmation of the humanitarian principles in international negotiations.

However, an ambitious global goal needs ambitious action to support it. The final agreement included a relatively weak target of net zero emissions in the second half of the century. But on most trajectories, the global carbon budget runs out in 2050 to stay within a goal of 2°C, let alone the safer goal of 1.5°C.

The voluntary pledges made by most countries fall even further short, putting the world on a trajectory towards a temperature rise of 2.7-3.5°C. Importantly, the Agreement includes five year review cycles which will provide an opportunity for pressure on governments to strengthen these pledges.

As expected, finance for developing countries to reduce their emissions and protect themselves against climate impacts was one of the sticking points. Compared to the trillions of dollars quickly mobilised for the financial crisis, the agreement to scale up funding from a base of US$100 billion looks modest. It is also insufficient to protect vulnerable communities from a crisis they did little to cause. The Agreement signals there will be a mechanism for supporting countries suffering extreme weather events, through an insurance-like mechanism for loss and damage.

There were several missing elements that would have made it a far stronger framework. International shipping and air travel are major sources of greenhouse gases, but because they are not included within any specific country, were not included. Safeguards on the Agreement protecting human rights, the rights of indigenous people an recognising gender equity were relegated to the Preamble. This is disappointing since the implementation of climate agreements have already had major impacts on vulnerable people and international norms on human rights need to be actionable in the Agreement.

Back to the Real World

The good news is that many of the government pledges already look conservative, as emissions reductions are accelerate in the real world. New technologies, steep reductions in the costs of solar, wind power and battery storage, and the actions of progressive businesses, consumers, cities and communities are driving emissions reductions.

Most governments remain beholden to the entrenched interests of fossil fuel companies and heavy polluters, maintaining high fossil fuel subsidies rather than progressive policies that would help the transition to a low emissions economy. The successful conclusion of a global agreement sends a strong message to investors and a range of institutions. If governments also change their policies to support the goal of the new Paris Agreement, far more rapid change will start to happen.

New Zealand’s role

Our lack of action on climate change at home was also reflected in New Zealand’s position internationally. Sadly, New Zealand’s reputation on climate change negotiations could hardly be worse. We failed to support our Pacific island neighbours on issues that were a priority for their survival, we were an extreme voice in denying historic responsibility for climate change, and our main priority in negotiations has been to secure loopholes that allow us to continue to increase emissions. Continuing the loophole of carbon trading was one of the government’s top priorities in negotiations.

Our inadequate pledge to reduce emissions by 11% below 1990 levels was made conditional on the agreement allowing carbon trading – we were the only country in the world that entered such a condition.

A major loophole in the Kyoto Protocol was the use of cheap carbon credits that undermined a price on carbon and provided little or no incentive for business to reduce emissions. Even worse, major polluters were allowed to get away with rorting the system by making money from free credits. Carbon trading was meant to support emissions reductions overseas, but the government did nothing to stop the flood of cheap credits into New Zealand, even after fraud and cheating was well-documented.

A low carbon price means there is little incentive for a change in behaviour and companies will continue to pollute and buy emissions as an annual cost, rather than making the investments that would reduce emissions, create jobs, innovate, meet international standards for low emissions and support New Zealand’s valuable international reputation.

The primary way to support developing countries to reduce emission is through climate finance. But New Zealand government has used a loophole to re-label aid money as climate finance, directly contrary to its stated commitments. Further, regulating international carbon trading failed in the past, but will become far more difficult in the future.

Most countries have now submitted pledges to reduce emissions and it will be difficult if not impossible to avoid double counting and identifying what is additional to reductions already pledged. And only a few countries have signalled that they want to buy the credits meaning there will be a huge over-supply of credits and low prices.

The potential for these kinds of loopholes is a serious flaw in the Paris Agreement. As a responsible global citizen, New Zealand needs to get serious about implementing our responsibilities instead of looking for clever ways to exploit loopholes. It is not good for us, for trust in the negotiations, or for action on climate change.

We can do better.