Catherine Leining says the Paris Agreement won't deliver a safe climate. However, it opens the door to that outcome - if we rise to the challenge

Catherine Leining says the Paris Agreement won't deliver a safe climate. However, it opens the door to that outcome - if we rise to the challenge

By Catherine Leining*

This month, 195 countries reached the Paris Agreement under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.  It breaks new ground by bringing developed and developing countries under a common legal framework for achieving “nationally determined contributions” (NDCs) toward reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Detailed rules will require further negotiation, but for New Zealand, the agreement ticks some critical boxes, notably:

  • collective effort toward meeting the global temperature goal, 
  • reporting provisions that support transparency, 
  • the options to use forestry and carbon markets to deliver upon NDCs, and 
  • acknowledgment of the need for food security.  

Achieving this outcome took years of preparation culminating in two weeks of highly intense negotiations.  In the spirit of dramatic but happy endings with a twist, this post highlights key features and policy implications of the new agreement – framed by classic quotes from “Casablanca.”

“Play it again, Sam.”

The Paris Agreement builds on many precedents, extending beyond the scope of the Kyoto Protocol and reflecting outcomes from key conferences in Copenhagen (2009), Cancun (2010), Durban (2011) and Doha (2012). Its 12 pages cover the traditional suite of core issues and are complemented by a series of decisions to help give effect to the agreement and initiate more detailed rule-making. Among these decisions, Parties acknowledge the efforts to address climate change by non-government actors and the value of providing emission-reduction incentives through domestic policies and carbon pricing.

Of course, "Play it again, Sam" is not what Ingrid Bergman actually says, but it is the quote everyone remembers. In 2030, how will people remember the Paris Agreement? 

“The fundamental things apply, as time goes by.”

The Paris Agreement defines three important aims: 

  1. Limiting temperature increases to “well below” 2 degrees C above pre-industrial levels, and pursuing efforts to achieve a 1.5 degree C limit,
  2. Increasing the ability to adapt to climate change and foster climate resilience and low-emissions development without threatening food production, and
  3. Making financial flows consistent with a pathway toward low-emission and climate-resilient development. 

Attempts to strengthen the global temperature goal fell short of some Parties’ hopes. Significantly for New Zealand, no sectors have been excluded from mitigation targets and forest conservation and enhancement are encouraged.

“Will I see you tonight?” “I never make plans that far ahead.”

The Paris Agreement establishes processes for ratcheting up mitigation ambition over time. Parties will be required to put forward progressively more ambitious NDCs every five years. Developed countries must include economy-wide absolute emission reduction targets, whereas developing countries have the flexibility to transition toward that form of target over time. The agreement provides for a “global stocktake” of progress and goals every five years starting in 2023.

The agreement also encourages all Parties to develop “long-term low greenhouse gas emission development strategies” by 2020. New Zealand could take up this invitation, creating collaborative processes designed to harness expertise, exchange sectoral perspectives and build cross-party support for the outcome.  Over the past two years, Motu’s Low-Emission Future Dialogue has identified a range of potential transitional pathways and stakeholder processes that could be useful for this effort.

“Last night we said a great many things.”

The aspirational goals of the agreement have not (yet) been matched by countries’ mitigation targets.  Collectively, countries’ intended NDCs tabled to date would align with a pathway to 2.7 degrees C.  In the supporting decisions, Parties identify a mitigation gap of 15 gigatonnes of GHG reductions needed by 2030 to stay on track for 2 degrees C.

While the Paris Agreement will be legally binding, countries’ NDCs themselves sit outside of the agreement and will be enforced through national legislation or policy. This was a requirement for ratification by some countries (notably the United States). The consequences for non-compliance with the Paris Agreement will be facilitative, not punitive. As a result, whether countries actually deliver on their NDCs will depend on domestic political will and international peer pressure. In New Zealand’s case, the NDC is not inscribed in legislation, and it will be interesting to see how the government reflects the obligation in the budget.

To help increase mitigation ambition pre-2020, Parties have encouraged voluntary cancellation of surplus Kyoto units by both Parties and non-Party stakeholders.  Five EU countries set an example by cancelling 635 million Kyoto units.  Other countries, including New Zealand, are relying heavily on surplus units from the first Kyoto commitment period to help meet their 2020 targets.

“Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”

Couched in language about "voluntary cooperation" through the use of "internationally transferred mitigation outcomes," Article 6 opens the door to using carbon markets with international emissions trading to help countries meet their NDCs.  The agreement also provides for development of a new mechanism to contribute to mitigation and sustainable development.





  • must be independently verified, 
  • cannot be double-counted across NDCs, 
  • must be additional to what would happen otherwise, and 
  • must deliver “an overall mitigation in global emissions.” 

A share of proceeds from transactions will cover administration and support vulnerable countries with adaptation.  Both public and private entities can participate. What this means in practice will depend on future rules.

Article 6 offers important opportunities for New Zealand to help achieve part of its NDC through overseas mitigation at lower cost through international linkages with the New Zealand Emissions Trading Scheme (NZ ETS) and participation in the new international market mechanism.  New Zealand led a Ministerial Declaration on Carbon Markets in which 17 additional countries pledged to support development of standards and guidelines to ensure the environmental integrity international market mechanisms used to support NDCs.  The government’s upcoming review of the NZ ETS will need to account for both the opportunities and uncertainties around the treatment of carbon markets in the Paris Agreement.

“If that plane leaves the ground and you’re not with him, you’ll regret it. Maybe not today. Maybe not tomorrow, but soon and for the rest of your life.”

An important new global agreement has taken flight, and whatever its shortcomings, 195 countries are on board.  Under current targets, the Paris Agreement will not deliver a safe climate.  However, its framework opens the door to that outcome – if people rise to the challenge. This will require mitigation actions by governments, businesses and households amounting to more than a “hill of beans in this crazy world.”  Future generations deserve no less.





“Here’s looking at you, kid.”

Catherine Leining is a Policy Fellow at Motu Economic and Public Policy Research. This article also appeared on the blog New Zealand’s Low-Emission Future.” The views expressed are her own.

We welcome your help to improve our coverage of this issue. Any examples or experiences to relate? Any links to other news, data or research to shed more light on this? Any insight or views on what might happen next or what should happen next? Any errors to correct?

We welcome your comments below. If you are not already registered, please register to comment.

Remember we welcome robust, respectful and insightful debate. We don't welcome abusive or defamatory comments and will de-register those repeatedly making such comments. Our current comment policy is here.


Comment Filter

Highlight new comments in the last hr(s).

I think you need to look at National's do nothing policy......until we see a change of Govn zilch will happen, indeed even then Labour isnt likely to do much.

Yep, the wrong people with outdated thinking in charge. Not much hope around here.

Rinse and repeat in most of the countries as well.

Carbon trading is one huge con IMHO, the idea should be scrapped and instead go for tarffifs to make carbon emitters less competitive globally.

The current atmospheric CO2 concentration is around 402ppm, which is over 80ppm above the upper limit of 320ppm required to prevent the triggering of positive feedbacks, and about 170ppm above the long-term (800,000 year) average of 230ppm. Hence, numerous positive feedbacks have already been triggered and accelerating meltdown is underway. By May of 2016 atmospheric CO2 will be around 406ppm.

2015 was the hottest year ever and 2016 is predicted to be hotter still; once the last remnants of Arctic ice melt (almost certainly within 3 years) no incoming energy will be used melting sea ice and all the energy will go to warming the water (with none reflected), thereby causing even faster melting of Greenland and Siberian ice etc., and ramping up the warming several notches.

COP21 will do nothing at all to prevent runaway greenhouse increasing the Earth's average temperature by much more than 2oC. Indeed, the best scientific analysis indicates overheating will continue until a new equilibrium is reached at somewhere between 5oC above normal and 10oC above the long=term average.

The NZ government, like most other governments around the world, is fully committed to INCREASING emissions via population growth and economic growth, both of which which require increased use of cement, use of fossil fuels. Desired growth in tourism and industrial agriculture simply exacerbate the predicament.

In other words, the Paris agreement was an agreement to render the Earth largely uninhabitable for humans and other large vertebrate species in a few decades.

. . .

I was not aware of much above 6Deg C but even 5Deg C spells the end of our agricultural based civilisation if not us.

Also the time line for CC is more like 150 years? but the multipliers are the huge unknowns. Anyway, I dont whoever think we'll be in much of a state due to Peak oil in a few decades for sure.

Yeah that artic ice melt. Seen an ice cover chart lately? Tracking well above last decade. Some death spiral.

From Danish met.

Oh dear yet more cherry picking, outright mis-direction in fact. If on the other hand you look at the same site for longer term data the trend is clearly down,



In fact I am not aware of anyone credible saying artic ice will not be gone, the only argument is the time frame.

Credible? Try peer reviews lit.

"Recently, the feasibility of commercial shipping in the ice-prone Northwest Passage (NWP) has attracted a lot of attention. However, very little ice thickness information actually exists.

...Results indicate that even in today's climate, ice conditions must still be considered severe. the waters of the northern NWP, in 2014 more ice survived the summer as MYI than in the nine most recent years but slightly less than during 1968–2015 on average...

...and therefore, shipping through the NWP should not be taken lightly. These conclusions also support results of Smith and Stephenson [2013] who suggested that the NWP will not become easily navigable for another 40 years or so."

Push out those doom predictions another 40 years - or so.

The whole global warming thing is a giant CON. Agendas, Treaties, Trade deals all point in the same direction; Global governance, power and control. Its a lefties wet dream.

Arctic sea ice area at the end of Dec 2015 was 2 standard deviations less than the 1981-2010 average and the lowest ever recorded:

Ice area is not everything, of course: the thickness and density are crucial factors in the loss-of-ice dynamics. The news on both those aspects has been all bad in recent years, i.e. thinner and less dense ice, with very little multi-season ice (which resists break-up) left..

No one can make firm predictions be we should note that we enter 2016 with the lowest ice cover ever and the highest atmospheric forcing ever, with CO2 at around 402ppm at the moment and guaranteed to exceed 405ppm in May 2016 (as emissions far exceed photosynthetic recycling). We should not be at all surprised if Arctic sea ice vanishes completely in August-September 2016. And if it is not this year then will certainly be entirely gone quite soon, since all economic and political activity is geared to increasing CO2 emissions and increasing the rate of planetary overheating.. .

Additionally, CH4 (methane) is at a record high concentration, and that is a real worry because the UNIPCC has been downplaying CH4 for decades and assigned a phony forcing factor of 23 times CO2, which they upgraded to 34 times CO2 over a century, and a forcing factor of 72 times CO2, which was then upgraded to 86 times CO2 over 20 years.

However, if you are looking at the instantaneous effect of CH4 you have to assign a forcing factor of around 300 times CO2, and over time scales that matter in the abrupt climate change scenario we seem to have entered the forcing factor is at least 100 times CO2. With 2ppm CH4 in the atmosphere (3 times the historic norm) that takes the CO2 equivalent to well over 600ppm without even counting N2O etc. This has been well documented in the monster climate change essay at Nature Bats Last:

There is a distinct possibility the warming already experienced in the Arctic has triggered the release of 'methane burps' from clathrates on the floor of shallow seas north of Russia. Even if the hydroxyl mechanism for converting CH4 to CO2 doesn't get overwhelmed, the erupting clathrates are going to adding massive amounts of extra CO2 to the atmosphere over coming years.

As previously mentioned, once the ice cover is severely compromised, ever-greater amounts of solar energy are absorbed, and that leads to faster warming which melts the ice faster and leads to faster warming, just as predicted decades ago.

Thus, exponential warming is far more likely than linear warming.

Interestingly, we are already at 1.15oC above the long-term average on a supposed course to limit overheating to 1.5oC. .

Clearly, COP 21 was a complete farce, a Claytons Climate Agreement, the kind you have when you have no intention of doing anything to limit climate chaos. And it has to be that way under the idiotic infinite-growth-on-a-finite-planet economic-political model that has been adopted throughout most of the world.

Concurrent with the collision with reality on the environmental front is the collision with reality [of the infinite-growth-on-a-finite-planet model] on the energy front. With all the easy-to-extract energy sources consumed long ago, the global economic system is dependent on increasingly unattractive low EROEI sources of energy which exacerbate the emissions predicament.

There is no way out of this self-made trap, other than to abandon infinite-growth economic model. And we know our politicians will NEVER do that. .

Therefore, we can be sure that everything that matters will be made much worse throughout 2016 and that trend will continue until climate chaos or energy depletion (very likely a combination of the two) bring the system to a standstill.

Not to mention ocean acidification also??

Yes, ocean acidification is usually overlooked (ignored). Ocean acidification will eventually render the bicarbonate-carbonate shell formation system inoperable and eliminate coral reefs and shellfish, and therefore the entire food chain dependent on them will collapse, leaving oceans full of jellyfish and other 'primitive' species. There is also the aspect of excessive heat and acidity affecting phytoplankton at the base if the ocean food chain. As I understand it, the quantity of plankton in the oceans is now less than half the amount 50 years ago..

However, long before collapse of ocean systems occurs it seems that exponentially increasing atmospheric chaos, due to excessive carbon-dioxide-induced overheating, will cause so much havoc the global industrial system will collapse.

It's all playing out those the early 1970s.predicted it would if Limits to Growth was not adopted.....the choice between a healthy, prosperous, sustainable society and rampant growth that wrecks everything and causes collapse; humanity was pushed into the wrong choice by money-lenders, corporations and corrupt politicians, and there is no turning back the clock..(Not that there is any desire amongst our so-called leaders to do so: they are still attempting to expand the rampant consumption model based on burn it all up till there is nothing left.)

Interestingly, the Arctic ice cover is currently more than 2 standard deviations below normal and showing no ice formation. Obviously that trend cannot continue in the middle of the Arctic winter but the implications for later in the year and a few years hence are extraordinarily serious.

'Nobody' is paying any attention, of course: too busy converting fossil fuels into carbon dioxide.

. .

Yawn - methane doomsterism.

"When permafrost thaws, wetlands are formed. Because typical wetland soils are water‐saturated and rich in organic carbon, they create a favorable environment for methanogens, the microorganisms that produce CH4. According to this conventional paradigm, the Arctic under global warming may act as a source of CH4 to the atmosphere. However, the carbon‐poor mineral soils studied by Lau et al. occupy five times the spatial area of carbon‐rich soils in the Arctic. Given that these mineral soils have now been shown to have the capacity to consume atmospheric CH4, large parts of the Arctic may actually act as CH4 sinks in the 21st century."

Yes, people who are at the point of falling asleep and those who do not care about the next generation often 'yawn'..

Since 2008 atmospheric methane has been rising rapidly and now is at the highest concentration on record (approximately 3 times the preindustrial level).. .

So I hope you are not suggesting methane is not a problem.