The Paris Agreement - Climate Diplomacy as a Learning Process


The new global pact to fight climate change has the potential to be a global solidarity contract for the 21st century. This will occur if the demands to promote decarbonisation and strengthening of resilience are pursued equally, immediately and systematically during implementation.

The positive signal from Paris is that climate diplomacy has proven to be capable of learning. From this perspective, the six-year-long waiting period after the failed Copenhagen Climate Change Conference in 2009 has obviously proven worthwhile. This can be concluded mainly on the basis of three developments:

1. High-level diplomatic negotiations

Both before and during Paris climate talks, the French Presidency has managed to establish global climate policy as a strategic issue in international politics. This essentially includes reaching beyond the narrow field of environmental policy to systematically include other policy areas such as financial, economic and foreign policy and, above all, building on foreign policy negotiating experience.

Two of the key players in Paris – Laurent Fabius as President of the COP and Tony de Brum of the Marshall Islands – are foreign ministers. In recent times, the establishment and expansion of an alliance of highly ambitious governments has, via the USA and the later accession of Brazil, developed a dynamic which the other states were themselves largely unable to reject. In the multi-layered architecture of the negotiations, it was possible to build bridges with two of the groups who often have had a braking effect on the climate talks: the so-called Umbrella Group and the BASIC countries.

2. Climate diplomacy as process design

Over the past six years, the failure to reach a global accord in Copenhagen has led to significant insights into procedural weaknesses. These include, for example, the strictly pursued focus on the reduction of greenhouse gases. The Paris Agreement reflects the challenges of a climate change which is already taking place, doing so by systematically including strengthening of resilience, the way in which damages due to climate change are addressed by the international community, and the central role climate finance is to play.

On this last point, Copenhagen had after all provided a template with the announcement of the availability of an annual USD 100 billion from 2020 and with the establishment of the Green Climate Fund. By the time of Paris, climate finance had developed into the field of climate diplomacy, in which global commitments had become interlocked with tangible demands for the transparent and responsible use of funds across all countries. This process design, which can be similarly mapped out for adaptation and the establishment of national planning procedures, enabled substantial trust to be built up for international climate action procedures and for the adoption of the Paris Agreement.

The same applies to the design of the Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs). These have enabled the states themselves to define their specific contribution to the fight against climate change after gaining more clarity of the available options. In addition, by also integrating potential adaptation activities into INDCs, the procedures underlined both that widening of perspectives on global climate governance has occurred via a bottom-up process and that the concerns of particularly vulnerable countries are taken into account.

3. Solutions Agenda as a driving force

Another part of this expanded perspective is the French Presidency's strong emphasis on the Solutions Agenda and the diversity of stakeholders that make contributions in this regard. The failure of the Copenhagen conference had deeply shaken confidence in the ability of global climate negotiations to find a lasting solution. Among the social forces who act below the state level of government and who saw themselves in a position to deal with this loss of confidence, cities and networks of cities can be singled out as an example. Even before 2009, these have undoubtedly taken a distinct role in climate politics.

Both the global networking of cities and the proven (actual and potential) shaping power of the local level have increased markedly in recent years (see also "Urbanization and Climate Diplomacy"). To compensate at least in part for the global lack climate governance, diverse approaches of urban climate diplomacy have been developed; these were presented on the COP21 stage in Paris in an impressive way and can claim partial credit for the successful outcome.

What's next?

The Paris Agreement still relies on the prospects of an ambitious climate mitigation target which lies clearly below two degrees Celsius compared to pre-industrial levels. The exact configuration of the agreed targets must therefore occur immediately and comprehensively in to avoid immediately squandering regained confidence. The interim results which have been reached are to be reviewed as early as 2018. In this regard, the INDCs will become the major brigde between Paris ambitions and national priorities.

As all countries’ national contributions are implemented in the upcoming years, one main issue will need to be observed closely: with the INDCs, most states have essentially identified activities whose implementation they regard as feasible. The analyses done before Paris made it clear that this in no way sufficient to meeting the ambition of below two degrees Celsius (not to even speak of one and a half degrees). This also means that as a next step it is of considerable importance, not only to seeing how the activities identified by the INDCs can be implemented effectively, but also to analysing what is occurring in other relevant greenhouse gas-related areas, about which the INDCs have up until now remained silent.

With the Paris Agreement, international climate politics has learned the lessons from Copenhagen, and is finally leaving its comfort zone.

adelphi's activities at the COP21