A landmark agreement to limit global temperature rises to below 2 °C has been announced

After two intensive weeks of debate the 21st Conference of the Parties (COP21) drew to a close on 12th December with a new climate deal on the table. The ambitious global agreement commits the 195 participating parties to hold the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2 °C above pre-industrial levels, and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 °C. All but the smallest poorest countries are asked to play their part to ensure that greenhouse gas emissions peak and then begin declining as soon as possible to help achieve the long term temperature goal.

The long road to the Paris agreement actually began in 1992, when nations met in Rio de Janeiro and approved a general framework to combat climate change. The document was lacking in significant detail, and since then there have been 20 further meetings which seem to have made little progress to curb emissions.  The idea to limit warming to no more than 2 °C was first discussed at COP15 in Copenhagen. This 2 °C target was set as it was thought that warming above this would push the climate beyond limits humans were familiar with. However, the 2 °C limit wasn’t formally adopted into UN documentation until the following year’s session in Cancún, and furthermore it wasn’t legally binding. COP21 took a different approach; countries were invited to submit pledges – called Intended Nationally Determined Contributions – prior to the meeting which outlined how they would cut emissions to help achieve the 2 °C goal. Examples of some pledges put forward included:

These INDCs pledged prior to the conference didn’t escape without criticisms. A recent report by the UNFCCC which synthesises the national climate plans from 146 countries has shown that the “estimated annual aggregate emissions levels resulting from the implementation of the INDCs do not fall within the least-cost 2 °C scenario level”. Christina Figueres the executive secretary of the UNFCC speaking at the launch of the report has said that the “emission pledges made so far will not keep the planets average temperature within 2 °C of industrial levels” and “without any further action, [the projected global emissions of carbon dioxide] would put the global average temperature on track to warm by 2.7 °C by 2100.” Furthermore research has suggested that limiting global warming to 2 °C is inadequate as a safe limit and the tougher 1.5 °C warming limit should be the target.

Dissecting the COP21 agreement

So now the Paris agreement is on the table, what are the key features of the final deal?

  • Hold warming below 2° C. As part of the Paris deal countries are aiming to hold the increase in the overall global average temperature to less than 2 °C and, more ambitiously, pursue efforts to limit warming to only 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels. Although, 0.5 °C may seem like an insignificant amount of warming it could spell disaster for many of the Earth’s ecosystems. Whether this 1.5°C limit is feasible is still up for debate, a topic which received good coverage in a recent report from Carbon Brief “Scientists discuss the 1.5 limit to global temperature rise” .
  • A peak emissions goal. This goal seems rather vague but to achieve the temperature goals detailed above the parties agreed to “reach global peaking of greenhouse gas emissions as soon as possible” and to “achieve a balance between anthropogenic emissions by sources and removals by sinks of the greenhouse gases [i.e. zero emissions] in the second half of this century”. Here, developed countries are expected to take the lead and it is accepted that peaking will take longer for developing countries.
  • Revisit pledges every five years. To make a concerted effort to achieve the 2 °C target, and as the current INDCs will not achieve this, all parties are encouraged to revisit their pledges and submit newer versions with more ambitious targets every five years – the first is due in 2020.
  • Conservation of carbon sinks. To help in achieving zero emissions parties are requested to conserve and enhance sinks and reservoirs of greenhouse gases, particularly forests. Here, the report gives a specific focus to Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation (REDD+) schemes. REDD+, consolidated at COP13, was seen as the leading approach for making early and large cuts to GHG emissions. It works by creating a financial value for the carbon stored in forests, offering incentives for developing countries to reduce emissions from forested lands and invest in low-carbon paths to sustainable development. There has been significant fragility in the performance of REDD+ to date which hasn’t been helped by later COPs failings to produce a binding international agreement on climate mitigation. However, the dedication of a standalone article – Article 5 – in the final agreement is a strong signal that REDD+ is going to be part of the new climate regime. Largely, the rich countries will be required to supply adequate financing to REDD+ initiatives, and these payments will be results based.
  • Addressing unavoidable loss and damage. For some areas of the planet the adverse effects of climate change have already taken hold, a particular concern for low-lying countries and islands which are vulnerable to flooding. The main action here is that the Warsaw International Mechanism for Loss and Damage, established at COP19 to address the impacts of climate change related loss and damage in developing countries, should be enhanced and strengthened. For example, parties should cooperate to support developing countries with innovations such as early warning systems and risk assessment and management. As at previous COPs no settlements were made on compensation to poor countries for the effects of richer countries emissions.
  • Adaptation strategies. The Parties recognize that the more action taken to mitigate climate change means the less adaptation measures that will be required, but agree that the provisions for adaptation need to be put in place to protect vulnerable communities and ecosystems. Each party is requested to draw up an adaptation assessment and engage in adaptation planning processes specifying how actions will be implemented. Monitoring and evaluation of adaptation strategies should also be undertaken and greater co-operation between parties to work together to identify effective adaptation strategies is specified. As with many of the Articles, here again the proposed agreement expressly states that developing countries would be eligible for support.
  • Continued financing for developing countries. Richer more developed nations are required to “provide financial resources to assist developing countries parties with respect to both mitigation and adaptation in continuation of their existing obligations under the convention.” Six years ago, rich nations established a green climate fund, pledging that by 2020 developed nations would provide $100 billion a year in aid, loans and private money to help developing nations adopt clean energy and cope with climate change impacts. The agreement also stipulates that developed countries are expected, as part of the agreement, to pledge more on top of this, although no figures are given in the report. There has been significant misreporting in climate aid grants in the past which has left developing nations accusing rich countries of failing to deliver on promised funds to fight climate change. According to a recent report by Oxfam developing countries will need $270 billion extra each year to adapt to the impacts of climate change.
  • Enhanced Technology development and capacity building. Technology development and transfer and capacity building also get a place on the agreement under Articles 10 and 11. Article 10 states that “accelerating, encouraging and enabling innovation is critical for an effective, long term global response to climate change and promoting economic growth and sustainable development.” Innovation efforts will be supported by the Technology Mechanism which was established at COP15, and developed countries will be expected to support developing countries in achieving their goals. A country cannot mitigate or adapt to climate change without having the capacity to do so, therefore the COP21 agreement has capacity building billed pretty highly for developing nations. Although adequate backing (both financial and knowledge based) should be provided by developed nations, capacity building will primarily be a country driven process, allowing learning by doing and building on existing activities.
  • Increased transparency. To ensure credibility of the climate deal, a robust transparency mechanism had to be in place as part of the agreement. The agreement requests that each party shall regularly provide “a national inventory report of anthropogenic emissions by sources and removals by sinks of greenhouses gases” and “information necessary to track progress in implementing its INDCs.”   Furthermore, information needs to be provided on progress related to climate change adaptation, and on any financial, technology transfer and capacity building support given or received depending on status as a developed or developing country party. Information submitted will be subjected to a technical review to identify areas of improvement for the Party. This is one of the few areas of the report where the word ‘shall’ is used instead of ‘should’ suggesting some legal framework will be put in place to ensure documentation is delivered.

Opinion on the report have been mixed, many are glad to see that countries are finally acknowledging that climate change is not going to go away and we need to act now, but is it all too little too late? If we are to have any chance at limiting the global temperature rise to even 2 °C we are going to have to arrive at zero emissions very soon. Furthermore, there has been significant criticism that the deal doesn’t go far enough to help the poor, especially those living in low lying island communities that are already feeling the effects of climate change. I find it particularly unsettling that the agreement has little or no legal binding – if a country fails to cut its emissions it does not incur any penalties. So where is the obligation to do anything?

Forestry and agriculture

I was particularly pleased to see the increased focus given to forestry and agriculture at COP21. New research was presented on the importance of soil for agriculture (particularly fitting as this year marks the International Year of Soils).   The research conducted by The University of Sheffield’s Grantham Centre for Sustainable Futures, revealed that “nearly 33% of the world’s arable land has been lost to erosion or pollution in the last 40 years.” Furthermore, the current rates of erosion in ploughed fields are outstripping the rates of soil formation by 10-100 fold.    The loss of soil is blamed on the continual ploughing of fields, combined with repeated, heavy use of artificial fertilisers. The problem is further exacerbated by heavy and unpredictable rains, fuelled by global warming, and deforestation which removes trees that help stabilise the soils and are important for nutrient cycling. This loss of soil is particularly problematic when set against the words soaring global demand for food. The researchers do have some ideas as to how we could repair the damage including: Engineering plants to create associations (symbioses) with soil microbes and thereby tap into extra soil organic nutrient reserves, manufacture inorganic fertilisers from human sewage, and bring back ‘conservation agriculture’ practices such as rotating annual and cover crops, the application of livestock manures and no-till agriculture.

It was disappointing to hear that deforestation is, once again, on the increase; in Brazil forest clearing has increased by 16% over the last year which is pretty depressing. Curbing deforestation is a major route to reducing carbon emission. A recent article “A role for tropical forests in stabilizing atmospheric CO2” published in the journal Nature Climate Change has shown that, with strict forest management, including: halting tropical deforestation, reforestation, and allowing cleared forest areas to regrow,  we could offset much of the release of fossil fuel carbon between now and 2050. The Paris climate talks saw renewed efforts from countries to protect the world’s forests with Norway, Germany and the UK agreeing to provide $5 billion until 2020. This figure includes substantial new aid to Brazil which will hopefully go towards efforts to curb the rise of deforestation. Furthermore, maybe the revitalisation of the REDD+ schemes under Article 5 and the recent launch of the Bonn Challenge to re-forest 150 million hectares of degraded lands by 2020 will help towards achieving zero emissions.


It was fantastic to see that CABI had a significant presence at this year’s Conference of the Parties. CABI CEO, Dr Trevor Nicholls, gave two presentations during the conference. On 8 December, he addressed the UNFCC, and called for urgent support to help farmers adapt to global warming, focussing on the devastating impact that the changing climate will have on the spread of pests and diseases, and the threats these post to agriculture and biodiversity worldwide. Earlier in the week Dr Nicholls attended the session ran by the Global Landscapes Forum (#GLFCOP21) which gathered together more than 3000 experts to discuss sustainable land use. He gave a presentation on Climate smart agriculture for healthy landscapes and livelihoods (scroll to 11.00) as part of CABI’s membership of the Association of International Research and Development Centers for Research (AIRCA). During COP21 Crops for the Future, who are dedicated to research on underutilised crops, launched the Declaration on Agricultural Diversification, a vital new initiative which aims to diversify our crop base and cropping systems, making agricultural systems more resilient to the risk of crop failure in the face of climate change. On 7 December, Dr Nicholls signed the declaration, pledging support for the initiative on behalf of CABI.

The Global Open Data in Agriculture and Nutrition (GODAN) initiative were also in attendance at COP21. GODAN supports global efforts to make agriculture and nutritional data available, accessible and useable for unrestricted use worldwide. The GODAN Secretariat is hosted by CABI. At COP21 GODAN were focused on spreading awareness of the importance of the initiative as a way to address challenges related to climate change, food security and agriculture. GODAN’s Martin Parr took part in a discussion on the Kenya Climate Change Bill which is aiming to combat climate change through using climate data and focusing on community-level action. The GODAN team also had the opportunity to meet partners, the French National Institute for Agricultural Research (INRA). The meeting, led by GODAN executive director Andre Laperriere, looked at INRAs activities in knowledge sharing and open data in agriculture and discussed how their approach could benefit others. Learn more about GODAN’s activities during COP21 here.

Dr Janny Vos, CABI’s strategic Partnership Director, was interviewed by Responding to Climate Change (RTCC) whilst in attendance at COP21. She discussed how we need to help farmers deal with climate change and the importance of resilience. “[We need to] make sure that farmers understand what crop to grow so that they have yield at the end of the day, they have a market at the end of the day and they know what to expect in terms of what practices they need to put in place to have a good return on investments.” She went on to highlight the importance of passing on knowledge to small holder farmers and giving an example of this in action with CABI’s Plantwise programme.

References and further reading:

Houghton RA, Byers B, Nassikas AA. 2015 A role for tropical forests in stabilizing atmospheric CO2. Nature Climate Change. 5: 1022-1023.

Sunderlin WD, Sills EO, Duchelle AE, Ekaputri D, Kweka MA, Toniolo S, Ball N, Doggart CD, Pratama JT, Padilla A, Enright A, Otsyina RM. 2015. REDD+ at a critical juncture: assessing the limits of polycentric governance for achieving climate change mitigation. International Forestry Review. Available online 06 October 2015. 14pp.

Transparency International. 2011. Global Corruption Report: Climate change. Sweeney G, Dobson R, Despota K, Zinnbauer, D. eds. Earthscan, London: 360pp.

UNFCCC. 2015. Framework Convention on Climate Change. Draft decision CP.21. United Nations, Paris: 31pp.

UNFCCC. 2015. Synthesis report on the aggregate effect of the intended nationally determined contributions. CP.21. United Nations, Paris: 66pp.

UNFCCC. 2015. Report on the structured expert dialogue on the 2013-2015 review. United Nations, Bonn: 182pp.

UNFCCC. 1992. United Nations Framework Convention on Climate change. United Nations, Rio de Janeiro: 33pp.


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