Just signing the Paris Agreement is not enough

Climate change is a true test of political leadership, and now is the time for governments to do more, says former UNFCCC executive secretary Christiana Figueres.

children on climate march in Bonn
Children carry out a climate march prior to the opening session of the COP23 U.N. Climate Change Conference 2017, hosted by Fiji but held in Bonn, Germany, November 6, 2017. Image: REUTERS/Wolfgang Rattay via Thomson Reuters Foundation

1,200 dead. 1.8 million out of school. 40 million counting the costs of heavy monsoon rains. This year’s flooding across India, Nepal and Bangladesh left a trail of devastation that will take years to rectify.

Unabated construction on flood plans, inadequate and clogged drainage systems were undoubtedly a factor. Yet an increase in the risk of extreme rainfall is what we would expect in a warming world, and climate models suggest Asia’s summer monsoon will become only more intense and erratic.

It looks little better elsewhere.

We have witnessed hurricanes, droughts, temperature anomalies over 5ºC in the Caribbean and California, in Europe and Africa. While scientists work on attributing specific weather events to climate change, we can say the extreme conditions we witness around the world are a warning from nature. The risks of inaction are growing.

As the latest round of UN climate talks gets underway in Bonn, Germany, it’s vital world leaders remind themselves of the consequences of inaction. They stressed “we are still in” when President Trump announced his intention to withdraw from the Paris Agreement. Since then, Nicaragua has decided to join. But being part of the agreement is not enough.

In facing down climate change our planet faces a technological, political and economic challenge that can sometimes seem all too much. But by tackling it head-on leaders can reap huge rewards for nature, landscapes, wider humanity and—yes—the global economy. 

It is unrealistic to think that we can always do more later: today’s choices determine tomorrow’s world, and we are writing this story. 


The 2015 Paris Agreement was the start of a process. It outlined a path along which countries should follow - albeit at varying speeds. When the deal was agreed two years ago we knew it was—on its own—enough to prevent future extreme weather events. Now is the time for governments to do more. 

The national climate plans submitted by governments prior to the 2015 Paris summit are insufficient to meet the goal of limiting the global temperature rise to “well below 2°C”. This is why the Paris Agreement established a regular form of reviews to steadily increase national commitments over time. 

2018 will see the first review, and it is vital we see States come forward with new and more ambitious targets.  It is unrealistic to think that we can always do more later: today’s choices determine tomorrow’s world, and we are writing this story. 

2020 is the year in which we need to see a significant fall in emissions, in order to protect the possibility of staying well below 2C, protect the Sustainable Development Goals, and ensure the decarbonisation of the global economy is smooth and well-managed. It is closer than we think, and policy and investment decisions now will determine where global emissions are by 2020.

We can already see the fruits of the initial round of climate action plans.

National and sub national governments, business leaders and community groups are taking action. In the past year car makers have announced they will use electric motors in all cars as soon as from 2019.

Leading banks say they will stop funding coal and shale oil. Shareholders have demanded climate transparency from Exxon. Others have taken further steps towards 100 per cent renewables. While some in the US have turned away from the world, many more have emerged to grasp the massive opportunity that lies before us. 

Just as the UK and Canada have pledged to lead a new anti-coal push at COP23, we need new leaders to step forward and drive the Paris Agreement onwards.

Climate change is a true test of political leadership. There are few easy answers and many questions. How do we modernise the transportation sector, reducing pollution that is harmful to public health while slashing GHG emissions? How do we transform our agriculture to be more water and soil efficient while reducing the carbon footprint of our food? How do we improve urgently needed access to energy while reducing the carbon intensity of the energy system? How can the possibilities of economic growth in countries that still have so much to develop be strengthened in the short and long term?

Ambition is not blind determination, but rather the commitment to complete the transition combined with the confidence that it can be done. More ambitious policies must match two criteria. They must respond to short and medium term economic expectations and prepare the ground for greenhouse gas emissions neutrality in the second half of this century.

These are sovereign decisions yet leaders should know they are not alone. Every country in the world is now working out how it will quit fossil fuels, as the debate at COP23 illustrates. Every country in the world is developing what is - at heart - a shared vision of the type of society towards which we strive. Each contribution builds mutual trust between stakeholders.

The clock is ticking, the world is waiting. We have under three years and there is no time to waste.

Christiana Figueres is the convenor of Mission 2020, she ran the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change from 2010-2016. Teresa Ribera runs the Paris-based IDDRI think tank, from 2008-2011 she was Spain’s climate and environment minister. Manuel Pulgar Vidal is WWF’s climate chief, previously he was Peru’s environment minister and chaired the 2014 UN climate summit in Lima.

* Any views expressed in this article are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

This piece was published with permission from Thomson Reuters Foundation.

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