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There’s a joke that asks how many psychiatrists it takes to change a lightbulb. The answer is: One, but the lightbulb has to really want to change. The same is true of the Paris Agreement: How many agreements does it take to get the world on target for climate mitigation? Only one, but the world has to really want to change.

The mere fact that the Paris Agreement was adopted has not changed the world – but over the past five years, the desire among leading emitters to actually change has become bigger: Japan has announced a 2050 target, China has plans to “fully decarbonize by 2060”, the EU and Korea are also doing it. The United States’ president-elect Joe Biden has indicated that the US is now coming on board as well.

Where we are on cutting emissions  

That said, the climate ambition outlined in the NDCs that have been submitted so far is not even remotely enough to keep global warming to the limit agreed – 1.5 degrees Celsius or maximum 2 degrees Celsius by the end of the century. We are currently on track for the world to warm by at least 2.7 Degrees, according to the Climate Action Tracker .

This is of course under the condition that all pledges are implemented – which is a big “if” given that any one NDC document is not, in and of itself, more than a promise of what a country says it will do; what that country actually ends up doing may look quite different.

However, the past five years have brought at least two developments that could help to significantly change the lay of the land in the years to come. 

1. The NDC process has spurred developing countries to build capacities

The Paris Agreement did not bring about these developments. However, it did move away from a tradition of negotiating top-down climate targets for countries, instead setting a global target but leaving it up to each individual country to work out their contributions. These individual contributions are the “nationally-determined contributions”, or NDCs, that are to be submitted to the UN climate change secretariat every five years and enhanced over time.

This process has helped many poorer, smaller countries or medium-sized developing countries. It has led to these countries taking the issue much more seriously than they did five years ago. Because the NDC process is continuous, it has helped them to start building up capacity to do the planning and modelling that forms the basis of the mitigation measures stated in the NDC documents.

Ten years ago, smaller and poorer countries had almost no capacity to work on this topic and would hire external consultants to write the reports that were needed. But over the last few years, governments have started to realize that what is needed is a strategy for their country over which they can assume ownership, and that the only way to do that is by building their own capacity.

Besides countries building up their own capacity to model energy planning, it also seems promising that regional groupings, for example CARICOM in the Caribbean, are now starting to work together as groups. And what’s more, donors like Germany’s GIZ have really stepped up to support these processes.

These efforts are further spurred on by another key aspect of the Paris agreement: the stipulation that successive NDCs must be increasingly ambitious. As Richard Klein notes in another recent SEI Perspective, however, the stated ambition of most new or updated NDCs is far from impressive.

2. Realities are changing

Perhaps most importantly, realities on the ground are changing. Five years ago, most people would have answered “no” to the question of whether they could see coal being phased out soon. These days, a majority might say “yes!” And the subject even makes the front pages of magazines like the Economist.

Whether it’s Korea or South Africa , investors have been pulling out of coal-power plant projects , and some of the world’s largest insurers have Renewable energies have grown rapidly and continue to do so, with renewables used for generating electricity growing by 7% in 2020 according to estimates from the International Energy Agency (IEA). The share of battery-electric vehicles has increased, growing in Europe from about 3.4% in 2019 to 7.8% in the first half of 2020.

Naturally, countries’ resource bases make a difference. While small and oil-import-dependent economies like small-island developing states (also known as SIDS) already see strong arguments for the economic benefits of moving to a different pathway, it is much harder to make the case against coal in countries that have significant coal resources but not much renewable energy generation. In these countries, it is important to point out the pitfalls of becoming dependent on exploiting these coal resources. Fortunately, we are in fact beginning to see changing attitudes, with countries such as Indonesia beginning to explore phasing out coal, despite their huge coal resource bases.

Going to where we need to be

Both developments outlined above – increased capacities and changing realities – can help in getting us onto pathways that are compatible with the goals set forth in the Paris Agreement.

If countries build up capacity to conduct serious energy modelling, ministries of environment or energy can present alternatives to the models put on the table by utility companies. After all, companies that want to build new power plants can offer serious modelling, and anyone who wants to present an alternative to the status quo must be able to match its credibility.

The case that there are going to be more jobs in a renewable-oriented pathway also has to be made – and it must be made credibly. Proponents need to show, in numbers, that low-carbon pathways are not going to be more expensive options and that they also produce important co-benefits, such as reducing health impacts otherwise caused by air pollution. For many developing countries, these analyses remain to be done. SEI’s Initiative for Integrated Climate and Development Planning helps countries build up their institutional capacity so that they can do these types of analyses and bring good science to bear on these questions.

COVID-19-recovery provides fruitful ground for sustainable-recovery arguments

Being able to make an economic case for reducing emissions is even more important in light of the economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. Decisionmakers around the world are concerned about job losses and unemployment, and the clearer it is that renewable energy-based pathways actually come with benefits for the economy, employment, social equality and the environment, the more convincing the case becomes.

The challenge remains, however, that the window of opportunity is narrow. Once governments have spent the trillions of dollars needed to support their economies’ recovery from COVID-19, there will be very little public money left to support shifting to sustainable and more equitable pathways.

Realistically, therefore, the period of recovering and rebuilding from the impacts of this pandemic is likely to be our last chance to realize the goals of the Paris Agreement. That’s why the international community must now stand together and support developing countries in boosting their institutional capacity. With increased capacity, developing countries will be able to act on these changed realities and will want to choose low-carbon and Paris-compatible pathways.