Three years after it was signed, are supporters of the Paris Agreement still correct that it’s the first truly global step toward a sustainable future, or are critics right that the pact is not nearly ambitious enough?
“The Paris agreement in some ways has this top-down, bottom-up relationship,” says Katharine Mach, a Senior Research Scientist at Stanford University and a co-leader of the IPCC working group on impacts, adaptation and vulnerability. “If 30 years from now we look back and say the Paris agreement was successful, largely it will be because it has provided predictability to enable all of the other bottom-up action.”
But, she adds, “if you really wanna say are we doing enough, the answer hands down, still is no.”
Not enough to meet the ambitious Paris target of limiting post-industrial warming to 1.5°, perhaps. But there are risks to framing the success or failure of Paris as a binary challenge where either the world gets to 1.5° or it’s Armageddon.
”The progress that we've already made in bending the emissions curve down has avoided just a massive amount of future human suffering,” says Trevor Houser, a partner at the Rhodium Group, where his team focuses on analyzing the economic risk of global climate change. “And the progress that is certainly within our reach is another large quantum of benefit that we shouldn’t abandon while continuing to work towards that one 1.5°, 2° target.”
Houser, who also worked on the U.S.-China bilateral relations involving climate while serving as a senior advisor at the U.S. State Department, does acknowledge the impact of the change in U.S. leadership in advancing the Paris agenda. “In almost every head of state meeting … the leaders that [President Obama] was meeting with knew that he was gonna make climate change one of the top three discussion points,” Houser explains. “That’s completely gone now. If anything, the opposite is true that the current president creates a moral hazard opportunity for other leaders to backslide.”
So what are the prospects going forward for countries to actually achieve their Paris commitments, let alone curb emissions fast enough to limit warming to 1.5°? For Katharine Mach it’s a question of ambition. “In terms of the world as it exists right now and the world that would limit warming to 1.5°C, they’re radically different,” she says. “We’re going need to take a lot of steps forward recognizing that some of those will make profits and move fast once they get into place whereas others, airline travel, for example, or cement and steel we don't yet have the solutions in our toolkit.”