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The Environmental Policy Cycle

Reflecting on the Paris Agreement


“If we don’t start taking additional action now … we will grieve over the avoidable human tragedy. The growing numbers of climate refugees hit by hunger, poverty, illness and conflict will be a constant reminder of our failure to deliver. The science shows that we need to move much faster.”

United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) Chief Erik Solheim


On December 2015, 195 countries gathered in Paris to discuss how the international community will address climate change, culminating in the adoption of the Paris Agreement that officially came into effect on 4 November 2016. Many international actors praised the Agreement because it created legal obligations, requiring countries to help limit the effects of climate change by, for example, preserving forests from degradation (Article 5), assisting developing countries (Article 9), and creating an international transparency framework (Article 13). One of the Agreement’s main goals is to cap climate change at 2ºC above pre-industrial levels, showing mixed optimism from the international community that they can at least slow down warming within the next few decades.


The UNEP reported that the Agreement had already reached an important stepping stone within the past year: ratification by at least 55 countries representing at least 55% of global emissions. Countries that have ratified the agreement include the US, China, India, the EU, and Canada. This level of national support, alongside the Agreement’s legal obligations and relatively fast timeline for coming into force, signals a strong commitment by the international community to combat climate change.


Critically, the UNEP also reported that the long-term objectives of the Paris Agreement require accelerated efforts and more ambitious greenhouse gas reductions. Revised studies show that, even with reforms from the Paris Agreement, climate change will still cause global temperatures to climb over 3 ºC above pre-industrial levels. That is, despite countries’ best efforts so far, climate change will still radically affect the world and the populations living in it.


The UNEP’s report, which has already been picked up by environmental actors to strengthen calls for action, will likely influence discussions in the Marrakech Climate Change Conference. The Conference follows up the Paris Climate Change Conference in 2015, focusing on how countries can effectively uphold the obligations created by the Paris Agreement.


For myself and many environmental activists, these recent developments in the international community’s attempts to stop climate change follow the usual routine. First, a new international instrument is created that is more progressive and more accepted than the previous one. The honeymoon period begins and countries optimistically applaud themselves for their efforts. (Patricia Espinosa, the UN’s climate chief, previously stated that “humanity will look back on 4 November 2016 as the day that countries of the world shut the door on inevitable climate disaster and set off with determination towards a sustainable future.”)


Second, experts within the scientific community and environmental watchdogs remind leaders that more needs to be done, and that international agreements – even ratified ones – are ineffective without proper enforcement. The honeymoon period ends and the bickering begins, further delaying effective government action.


Lastly, the international instrument expires, forcing the international community to rapidly reform and create a new agreement in order to show their continued stance against climate change. The negotiation period starts, bringing in new ideas from current science, innovative policy groups, and underrepresented actors to create an even stronger international instrument.


Then the cycle repeats itself.


This endless churn of environmental policy, whether it’s the Kyoto Protocol, the Millennium Development Goals, the Sustainable Development Goals, or the recent Paris Agreement, often leaves environmental activists angry, exhausted, and burnt out. Despite best efforts, large gas-emitting sectors, like the fossil fuel and beef industries, will simply find new ways to move forward despite the roadblocks. People will largely continue to support these sectors despite numerous studies showing the dangers of consumption. And developing countries will invest in their own growth despite calls to slow down and act sustainably.


However, we need to resist the urge to slip into jaded defeatism. After all, support is growing, our leaders are starting to listen, and even some industries are changing. Despite the slow pace, our actions count for something. And these climate change goals are not a matter of mere policy or science, but of real human lives. As we debate, extreme weather conditions are destroying entire communities and rising water levels are sinking whole countries. The consequences are dire for these populations, and it would be a gross misuse of our privilege to simply let that happen.