COP21: Paris climate agreement a watershed moment, says Irena

The fossil fuel era may not be long for this world if the pledges unveiled by nearly 200 countries in Paris at the weekend are upheld, believe many green advocates.

The International Renewable Energy Agency (Irena), which had a noticeable presence in the French capital during the two weeks of the COP21 summit on climate change, has called the agreement to limit the global temperature increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius as a "watershed moment for the global energy transition", echoing other messages of cautious optimism emanating from various green quarters.

The 1.5C threshold is a marked improvement on the 2C pledge settled on in Copenhagen in 2009, and despite the complexity of the legal text that accompanied the announcement, it is believed that the target is legally binding for all countries, with a series of checks and reviews built into the agreement designed to ensure nations are taking appropriate action as the years tick by.

However, the intended nationally defined contributions (INDCs) pledged by more than 180 governments and recognized in the agreement, are not legally binding. The current INDCs are not sufficient to hold global temperatures below 2C, with scientists calculating that temperatures would rise to 2.7C and maybe beyond if countries only stuck to what they pledged in their INDCs.

Hence, the achievement of universal agreement among governments to go even lower is being hailed as a success, particularly for the renewable energy industry, which will now be at the forefront of the transition to a lower carbon future.

Irena director general Adnan Z. Amin remarked that the Paris Agreement provides a framework for international cooperation and "sends a clear signal to all stakeholders to raise their ambition".

He added: "The innovative approach of the Conference incorporated all of the ingredients for a positive outcome, setting the stage for decisive action moving forward. The Agreement establishes long-term vision for the deep reduction of global emissions and the imperative of decarbonizing energy. The commitments submitted by countries in their INDCs demonstrate the centrality of renewable energy in national strategies."

Key points and opinion

The Paris Agreement will urge countries to bring down global emissions from peak levels as soon as possible, with the 1.5C target the headline figure.

However, many governments have pledged to achieve "net zero emissions" in the second half of the century, with the UN’s climate science panel saying that 2070 is the ideal date for most developed nations to become net zero emitters.

The review mechanism in the text will seek to keep countries true to their emissions pledges every five years, with the first stocktake penciled in for 2018 and the inaugural global stocktake set for 2023, and every five years thereafter.

Financing these ambitions transitions towards a cleaner energy system and improved energy efficiency is perhaps the toughest challenge. The Paris Agreement outlines a plan to fund $100 billion a year globally until 2020 to tackle climate change, with that figure then set as a baseline from 2025. The hope is that nations can agree to incrementally increase funding from a floor of $100 billion per year.

Solar’s response

Solar Power Europe president Oliver Schafer welcomed the climate agreement, saying that it "fast-tracks the energy transition" and adding that the organization was delighted by the outcome of COP21.

"We commend world leaders for the ambitious pledges made, which is sure to accelerate deployment of solar and boost investor confidence – sending a strong message that the low-carbon economy is real and already well underway," said Schafer.

"Solar truly has been the talk of Paris, and this is a deserved recognition for this most versatile of technologies. Solar is key to reversing climate change and to making good economic sense – illustrated by the wave of new government and business-led initiatives such as the International Solar Alliance, the Terrawatt Initiative and the Global Solar Council."

In North America, the impending transition towards a cleaner energy promised by the Paris Agreement will not be painless, various industry watchdogs have admitted. U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz said: “I’m not going to sugarcoat it. Any transition has obviously not got everybody benefiting in equal amounts,” adding that there would likely be a need for government-backed job re-training programs.

In Alberta, Canada, environment minister Shannon Phillips told Bloomberg that a recently increased carbon tax would raise funds to help the province "make investments in clean tech, in efficiency, in the renewables space".

Ikea’s chief sustainability officer Steve Howard remarked: "Really high-carbon industries have had their day. If they can adapt and reinvent themselves, fantastic. If they can’t, maybe some will just return cash to shareholders and slowly close up shop."