The Paris COP21 Agreement – So what does it all mean?

The 21st Conference of Parties (COP) took place in Paris in December and delivered a substantive agreement to tackle climate change on a global level. Philip Pascall, chair of ICE’s Energy Expert Panel, explains the main points of the agreement and what it means to civil engineering

Daily CO2 emissions in New York City, 2010, measured in one tonne spheres, if emissions all came from the same location. This is 12% less than in 2005, with a 30% reduction on target for 2017.
Daily CO2 emissions in New York City, 2010, measured in one tonne spheres, if emissions all came from the same location. This is 12% less than in 2005, with a 30% reduction on target for 2017.
  • Updated: 25 February, 2016
  • Author: Philip Pascall- chair, ICE Energy Expert Panel

In our November 2015 blog we considered what might be agreed at the COP21 Conference in Paris. Now that it has happened, you could say that it has delivered an agreement to agree. That is, the Parties agreed to work out what to agree in the future. Pledges to date still fall far short of achieving less than 2°C temperature rise.

However, 195 nations committed to legally binding processes towards limiting global temperature rise this century to well below 2°C. Clear intent was underlined by the largest ever gathering of heads of state (including Obama and Cameron) at the opening ceremony. So, the agreement is substantive.

What is COP21 and the Paris Agreement?

The 21st Conference of the Parties (COP) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) was held in Paris in December 2015. The Conference reached a global agreement on action on climate change. Although inevitably short of what some stakeholders were seeking, the agreement is a genuine step in managing climate change. It will have a major influence on infrastructure and the built environment in the decades to come.

Outside the conference in Paris
Representatives of 195 nations – over 38,000 delegates – attended the Paris COP21 summit in December 2015. Relative to population size, the biggest delegation was from Tuvalu – one of a number of Pacific island nations threatened by rising sea level (Image: Surfnico)

Three elements make up the overall "Paris Outcome":

  • The Paris Agreement: an enduring, legally binding treaty on climate action. It contains emission reduction commitments from 187 countries that will start in 2020
  • COP Decision: more immediate decisions will accelerate climate action and prepare for the implementation of the Paris Agreement
  • Paris Action Agenda: a large number of commitments for additional action to reduce emissions and increase resilience were made by countries, regions, cities, investors and companies

What are the key points in the main agreement?

  • A commitment to peak greenhouse gas emissions as soon as possible and achieve a balance between sources and sinks of greenhouse gases in the second half of this century
  • A commitment to keep the global temperature increase "well below" 2°C (3.6°F) and to pursue efforts to limit it to 1.5°C
  • Each country will prepare a "nationally determined contribution" (NDC) of greenhouse gas emission reductions that it intends to achieve through domestic mitigation measures. Each successive update is to be more ambitious than the previous (NDCs are not legally binding).
  • There will be a review of progress every five years, to assist countries in progressively ratcheting up their NDC commitments
  • To track progress, countries must follow a legally binding transparency framework
  • There will be $100 billion a year in climate finance for developing countries by 2020, with a commitment to further finance in the future
  • There is a "global goal" on adaptation of "enhancing adaptive capacity, strengthening resilience and reducing vulnerability to climate change". This is linked to the temperature goal and commits countries to engage in an adaptation planning process

Overall, the agreement is a 'hybrid' between a mandatory top-down, rules-based system and a bottom-up system of voluntary pledge and review of commitments to act.

What will the Paris Agreement change?

The Paris Agreement marks a genuine turning point in global action on climate change. For the first time, all countries are committed to take action on both climate mitigation and adaptation. The NDC process establishes a common framework for delivering mitigation action, another first.

However, current intended NDCs will only limit the global temperature increase to approximately 2.7°to 3.5°C. Long term success will depend on the Parties taking further actions to close the gap to the 2°C target and below. Paris is best viewed as the start of a new global journey. The world now needs to press on with the major tasks ahead.

Delivery of NDCs and action on adaptation will result in a significant shift in emphasis for infrastructure and the built environment. For example, renewables and other low carbon energy sources will need to make up the great majority of energy supply by 2030 in the major economies. Existing initiatives on low carbon energy and energy efficiency will need to accelerate substantially.

Governments and investors will need to manage an orderly transition away from a fossil fuel dominated economy, while minimising stranded assets and negative impacts on workers. As an early example of the new perspectives that are needed, the G20 has established a taskforce on the implications of climate policy on financial stability, which will report in 2016. Ahead of COP21, all international development financing institutions agreed to align their financing with the Paris climate goals.

The new international emphasis on adaptation and resilience will also have a profound effect on the planning and management of infrastructure. There will be increased emphasis on the incorporation of future resilience to the increasingly extreme effects of climate change.

What is the UK doing?

The Energy Secretary, Amber Rudd, said that the UK is "absolutely committed to this deal and making sure we deliver on it" (BBC Andrew Marr show, 13 Dec 2015). The UK has already done a lot, for example being the first country to enact legislation to reduce carbon emissions (Climate Change Act 2008) and to announce an end date to electricity generation from coal.

Worthy of note, Amber Rudd and team reportedly worked round-the-clock in pursuit of the deal in Paris (James Murray, Business Green, 14 Dec 2015). However, concerns are raised by the present Government's withdrawals and reductions of support for renewables and low carbon energy without warning, the signs that we will miss interim carbon reduction targets (e.g. for heat and transport in 2020) and the dearth of present energy policy (many policies having expired at the end of 2015). Nothing much has been forthcoming from Government since the announcements just after COP21.

Whilst the Energy Secretary insists that value for money and cutting emissions do not need to be separated, it would be really helpful to see long-term stable policy that shows how the UK will continue to make progress in line with the Climate Change Act, the Carbon Plan and of course the Paris agreement. Government frequently makes clear that it looks to competition and the private sector to achieve affordability, security of supply and decarbonisation (the energy "trilemma"). That being so, it is critical that developers and investors have confidence in Government policy.

And finally, what does it mean for Civil Engineers?

Though civil engineers are already at the heart of both climate mitigation and adaptation, the Paris agreement will have direct and profound effects on the practice of civil engineering. Businesses and individuals all have a role to play, across all types of infrastructure and whatever their part in the life-cycle.

We have to improve the productivity of our industry hugely, as stated in the Government's Construction 2025 strategy. We need to innovate and collaborate. We have to eliminate waste. We must apply circular economy principles to optimise the carbon footprint of our projects. We must reduce energy use, improve energy efficiency and switch to low carbon sources. We need to design and build for resilience, minimising whole life cost and risk.

Through these and other means, we will find affordable solutions that both mitigate further climate change and adapt to the level of change that is now unavoidable.

ICE on climate change…

ICE Debate: The role of civil engineers in resilience and climate change, November 2015

ICE Civil Engineering Triennial Summit, December 2015

ICE Statement to Energy & Climate Change Select Committee, August 2015

Availability of Infrastructure: Resilient Cities, February 2015

ICE energy briefing sheets

PIANC event: Climate change adaptation for ports and navigation infrastructure, 7 March 2016 (recorded highlights to follow event)

Further Reading

Historic Paris Agreement on Climate Change, UNFCCC Newsroom

E3G Commentary: Judging the COP21 outcome and what's next for climate action

Business Green, Editor's blog: How the Paris Agreement has just made the UK government's life a lot harder

Construction 2025, Industrial Strategy: government and industry in partnership, July 2013

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