Five years ago, at the Le Bourget conference center on the outskirts of Paris—an airport turned convention hall—more than 150 heads of government gathered in an unprecedented show of support for global action to tackle climate change. In the crowded space, leaders posed for photos and delivered soaring speeches.
Behind the scenes, Laurence Tubiana, France’s then-climate ambassador, was hard at work in a nearby office, working with a handful of others to craft the careful language of a deal that could win the support of 200 countries. The resulting Paris Agreement was both ambitious and delicate: it called on countries to do their best to reduce emissions to meet the target of keeping global temperature rise “well below 2°C,” but it contained no binding language, no mechanism to force wayward countries into line. “It was a bet,” says Tubiana, now the CEO of the European Climate Foundation.
Now, with the deal’s fifth anniversary on Dec. 12, Tubiana spoke to TIME about the tumultuous past five years — from U.S. President Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the deal to the growth of a mass movement in support of aggressive climate action. “What happened in the last five years was the transformation of the mindset,” she says. “The Paris Agreement [became] the norm, the reference for everybody to know where to go.”
The coming battle against climate change will determine the future of the planet and human life on it for centuries—and the Paris Agreement will be at the center of all of it.
The Road to Paris
From the moment it entered the public lexicon in the 1980s, climate change had the potential to become the world’s biggest collective action problem. Every country relied on fossil fuels to power their economic growth. Developing countries insisted they should be allowed to consume fossil fuels just like their richer counterparts had for the past century. Some rich countries — most obviously the U.S. — insisted they wouldn’t commit to giving up fossil fuels without developing countries doing the same. And so for more than two decades a sort of stasis emerged. The Kyoto Protocol, a 1997 global climate deal, fell apart after critics in the U.S. claimed it was too restrictive and would hurt the U.S. economy. More than a decade later, global talks in Copenhagen in 2009 fell apart for similar reasons.
With those failures in mind, Tubiana had her work cut out for her in the lead up to the Paris talks in 2015. Unlike past attempts to mandate emissions reductions, countries would bring their own voluntary commitments to the Paris talks, determining on their own what actions they could reasonably undertake to reduce their emissions. In October 2015, research from Climate Action Tracker showed that countries’ voluntary commitments made ahead of the talks would prevent nearly 1°C of warming.
The idea was in many ways ingenious: once government leaders saw their counterparts taking action they would be more likely to agree to a global deal. But challenges remained. Tubiana and a handful of close collaborators needed to create a system to make all the individual countries’ disjointed commitments add up to more than the sum of their parts. To deliver that goal, they structured the deal to include a global target for every country to work toward, collectively. She created a system under which countries were expected to offer a new and improved climate commitment every five years and engage in a dialogue about their progress.
“The philosophy I had drafting the Paris Agreement was [to think] ‘how can we change the expectation?’” says Tubiana. “You don’t have a forcing mechanism, you cannot have a government punishing anybody. So, the only one is people just believing that this will happen.”
It didn’t take long for critics across the spectrum to question whether that system would work. The biggest test came a year after the deal was struck when the U.S. elected Trump, who had vowed to exit the Paris Agreement on the campaign trail. Within months of taking office, his Administration declared a virtual war on the deal—not only committing to withdraw but seeking to undermine it with allies. The U.S. even sought —with limited success—to promote coal at United Nations climate conferences.
But ultimately the U.S. wasn’t “particularly good at it,” says Tubiana. In fact, Trump’s ham-fisted attempt to sink global cooperation to confront climate change had the effect of galvanizing a powerful counter movement. After Trump announced the U.S. withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, American cities and states began committing to climate action on their own, seeking to represent the U.S. on the international stage. A formidable youth movement also sprouted up across Europe as well as in the U.S. to hold countries accountable to their commitments. “They were five very difficult years: highs and lows,” Tubiana says, describing her own emotional journey, oscillating between “deep depression” and optimism.
In the last year, even as the world battles the coronavirus pandemic, global momentum to address climate change has picked up, with some of the world’s biggest economies increasing their commitments to reduce emissions. Japan and the European Union have committed to eliminating their carbon footprint by 2050 and China by 2060; on Dec. 11, EU leaders also agreed to reduce emissions in the bloc by at least 55% by 2030. An analysis from Climate Action Tracker estimated that if countries are able to deliver on their ambitious commitments to reduce emissions—which would require extensive new policymaking in these countries—the planet will have warmed about 2.1°C between the Industrial Revolution and 2100.
Keeping warming to 2.1°C would in many ways mark an extraordinary global success, reflecting ambitious commitments from nations worldwide. But it’s also nowhere near sufficient from a scientific perspective. Reaching 2.1°C warming would be catastrophic, possibly triggering a so-called tipping point, an irreversible line where the effects of climate change accelerate dramatically very quickly.
So if even ambitious goals are insufficient, what happens next?
The Road to Zero
Part of the answer is that countries are going to have to set even more ambitious goals, says Tubiana. Countries are expected to release their new plans ahead of a UN climate meeting scheduled in Glasgow in November 2021. (They were originally supposed to come this year ahead of the 5th anniversary, but were delayed due to COVID-19). “There will be a strong demand from the youth, from the citizen, to say, what are you doing for real?” says Tubiana. “This is totally new.”
But the next phase of the Paris Agreement will also be defined by the extent to which the deal has been embedded in the functioning of the global economy. Already, major global investors with trillions of dollars in assets under management are working to benchmark investments against compliance with the Paris Agreement, threatening to unload them without a decarbonization plan. The European Commission—the executive body of the EU— has said that it will make Paris-compliance a central component of future trade deals and the body is pushing for the bloc to implement a tax at the border.
If the Paris Agreement — and its targets — continue to wriggle into the mechanics of the global economy, other countries will have no choice but to follow their lead. “This is not a surprise,” says Tubiana. The Paris deal is “not only an environment agreement; it’s related to all the economic elements.”
Across the globe, countries are increasingly approaching climate change as part and parcel to economic policymaking, from the EU’s commitment of hundreds of billions of euros to transform its economy with climate change in mind to China’s attempt to become a clean energy super power. In the U.S., President-elect Joe Biden has promised to embed climate change throughout his administration’s policymaking, but it remains to be seen how much he can accomplish given the country’s other urgent challenges and a divided congress.
Ultimately, Tubiana says, piecemeal efforts won’t be enough for any country. “There is no miracle to decarbonize the economy,” she says. “You have to do a certain number of things that everybody has to do, and every country needs to define its own Green Deal.” If countries step up, Tubiana’s bet will have delivered.