Why there’s no time to dally on the Paris Agreement

Comment: The treaty may enter into force well before 2020, but let’s not wait and see – let’s start delivering actions

16,000 people live on Morrea Island in French Polynesia (Flickr/ Dany13)


Today, representatives of more than 160 countries are expected to sign the Paris Agreement – a first-day record for a global treaty if it becomes a reality.

This is something to celebrate: the momentum of Paris is holding strong. And with global temperatures at the highest levels ever documented, we cannot let up.

A glitch in the formulation of the Paris Agreement has created an opportunity to have it enter into force well before 2020.

The agreement becomes effective as soon as at least 55 Parties responsible for at least 55% of global greenhouse gas emissions have ratified it.

With the U.S. and China leading the charge for prompt ratification, the threshold is likely to be met soon. Given how many years it has taken us to get to this point, early entry into force would be a very good thing.

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Yet we need not wait for entry into force to start taking action. National governments can work quickly to turn their Paris pledges into plans for action, the Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) – and in the process, look for ways to further boost ambition.

They can tackle additional economic sectors, address short-lived climate pollutants, and encourage and support climate engagement by sub-national governments and businesses.

Most important, the NDCs need to look beyond the immediate commitments and chart out a vision for development that is not only low-carbon, but also resource-efficient and socially and environmentally sustainable.

That means thinking about climate action together with the Sustainable Development Goals and Agenda 2030, as well as the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction.

Political signals

A broader, long-term vision is essential if we want to mobilize stakeholders at all levels. Fossil Free Sweden 2030 is a good example of a government collaborating with business and civil society to achieve an ambitious goal: the first fossil-free welfare state.

The point is not just to “do good”; the public and private sector alike see this as a way to build future competiveness and business opportunities.

Governments need to realign incentives and send clear political signals about the economic future they envision. Swedish companies are enthusiastic not only to provide climate-smart and sustainable goods and services, but also to create jobs and grow the economy.

On a global scale, this could become an exciting competition to drive innovation and economic transformation. Many political and business leaders already see this potential, which is why more and more want to join the race!

Climate finance – a priority for developing countries – also needs urgent attention.

Governments, financial institutions and the private sector made substantial new finance commitments at the Finance for Development conference in Addis Ababa in July 2015 and in Paris, but we’re still far short of the $100 billion by 2020 pledged in Cancún – and as the Paris Agreement notes, finance needs to keep growing post-2020.

Climate finance flows

The Green Climate Fund in particular is struggling – it may not even have the $10 billion it needed to get going, due to exchange-rate fluctuations – and it’s only now getting ready to make its first disbursements. We need to continue to scale up climate finance, even at this difficult time for European budgets.

And we need to rethink how we approach climate finance, to focus less on individual transactions and more on countries’ development needs and priorities.

This will require a deeper conversation about the effectiveness and efficiency of climate finance, and about the roles of “donors” and “recipients”.

We also need to get serious about realigning finance flows to be “consistent with a pathway towards low greenhouse gas emissions and climate-resilient development”, as outlined in the Paris Agreement.

In the next 15 years alone, some $90 trillion will be invested in infrastructure in cities, energy systems and agriculture alone. The choices we make with those investments could bring us closer to a 2°C world, or set us back.

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Climate finance is not a one-way street: rich countries giving to poor countries. It involves partnerships and collaboration to identify finance needs, secure the finance, and ensure the funds are used efficiently.

Many developing countries are struggling with those first two steps, as they lack the governance and accountability systems needed to attract finance.

We need to help them fill those gaps – and empower them not only to attract GCF funds, but also to foster private investment, particularly by domestic companies, including micro-, small and medium enterprises.

We also need to recognize that the goals of Agenda 2030, the Paris Agreement and the Sendai Framework are closely interlinked.

We need to make sure our investments in development, emission reductions, adaptation, and disaster risk reduction complement one another and never work at cross-purposes.

We need to demonstrate – in hard numbers – that such investments also make sense from an economic point of view; fewer risks, greater return on investment (long-term), multiple benefits, etc.

Pause for thought

A final note: Signing the Paris Agreement commits countries to not do anything that undermines the agreement’s purpose.

Obviously that means not trying to hinder ratification or weaken key provisions, but maybe we should take it one step further.

The Paris Agreement, first and foremost, is about sending a clear signal about where we want the world to go: towards sustainability and resilience, and away from fossil fuels, pollution, and the degradation and depletion of natural resources.

So let’s think hard about the choices being made in ministries and parliaments, and how they look through a Paris lens. Let’s start turning the promises into action – not in 2020, but today.

Johan L. Kuylenstierna is executive director of the Stockholm Environment Institute. Marion Davis is a senior communications officer, focused on climate issues.

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