Magazine article Renewal : a Journal of Labour Politics

What Is the Significance of the Paris Agreement?

Magazine article Renewal : a Journal of Labour Politics

What Is the Significance of the Paris Agreement?

Article excerpt

The UN Accord reached in Paris in December marked a historic landmark in progress on climate change. It showed that the world is still capable of reaching common agreements on complex problems when our shared interests are at risk.

For the first time ever, almost every country in the world agreed to take part in a coordinated international plan to limit global temperature rises to no more than 2°C, and to try and cap warming at 1.5°C. Importantly, both America and China - the two largest emitters - agreed for the first time to join with hundreds of other countries, including Britain, to deliver radical cuts in greenhouse gas pollution and build a prosperous carbon neutral global economy.

As well as protecting the natural wonders of the world - rainforests, coral reefs and the Arctic - addressing climate change is ultimately about protecting people's lives and their livelihoods. For vulnerable low-lying countries like the Marshall Islands, the Maldives and Micronesia, the difference between a 1.5°C increase in warming and a bigger temperature rise is a question of survival or extinction. But for Britain too, this difference will have profound implications for our health, prosperity and national security.

In October the government's chief advisors on climate change warned that if global temperatures rise by as much as 4 degrees, an extra one million homes in the UK would be at a significant risk of flooding.1 They said annual economic damages from floods across Britain could increase by 150 per cent.2

The Governor of the Bank of England, Mark Carney, is also among those to have warned of the severity of climate risks to our economic security. He told financiers in the City of London at the end of last year that 'once climate change becomes a defining issue for financial stability, it may already be too late'. UK investors, including anyone with a pension, are exposed.3

While the Paris Agreement has finally established a plan for reaching climate safety, a key part of the Accord is the undertaking that all countries will return to the table every five years to increase their ambition on cutting pollution until the job is done. This will be critical, because the gap between existing national plans and what scientists tell us will be required is still substantial.

The requirement to submit national plans is made legally binding through the agreement, but commitments within each of these plans are rooted in national laws and schemes. This novel approach ensures that each country retains ownership and control over what it is doing; something that was key to securing support from the United States. Campaigners, civil society and business leaders will have a key role ensuring that each country is delivering against the promises it has made.

The task of bringing down pollution should become easier as the cost of clean technologies continues to fall. Nevertheless, the enormity of the challenge cannot be underestimated. The transition from an energy system dominated by fossil fuels to one almost wholly powered by clean energy is comparable in size and scale to the industrial revolution.

This challenge creates a pressing need for an industrial strategy to ensure all communities can benefit from the transition into the jobs of the future, including those that currently rely on fossil fuels for their livelihoods. As young people from coalfield communities like Wigan and Barnsley once built the country's prosperity through coal, they should be given the chance to do it again through solar, wind and the other technologies of the future.

To breathe life into the Paris Accord, and turn the words on that paper into a practical reality, the UK will need an active government with a high level of political commitment at all levels, both to pursue the transition but also to build a public consensus around it. This will require a complete reversal of the approach taken by this government since the 2015 general election. …

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