COP21 - What does the Paris Outcome mean for South Africa and its cities. 

Paris Outcome signals the end of business as usual for energy industries and potentially locks the world into green transitions. For the first time in history, more than 150 developed and developing countries around the world have promised to reduce GHG emissions. How binding are these agreements and how does it provide impetus for action at a local level?

Global State of Play – a post 2015 agenda and its implications for national and local government

By Belynda Petrie, One World Sustainable Investments

The Paris Outcome marked a turning point in building a global low carbon economy through nationally determined activities, resulted from the 21st Conference of the Parties (COP) and comprises three important elements:
- The adoption of an enduring, legally binding treaty on climate change (the Paris Agreement), containing emission reduction commitments from 187 countries, starting in 2020. (The agreement has still to be ratified, a process that is scheduled to be completed sometime after 22nd April 2016.)
- A set of COP Decisions, designed to accelerate climate action and to prepare for the implementation of the Paris Agreement once it enters into force.
- The Paris Action Agenda, the large number of commitments that were made in Paris alongside the formal agreements, constituting additional action to reduce emissions and increase resilience by countries, regions, cities, investors, and companies.

Critically, the Paris Outcome signals the end of business as usual for energy industries. It does this through each of the three elements, from the inclusion in the Paris Agreement of an ambitious global warming goal to sending a death knell to fossil fuels through the Paris Action Agenda. In sum, it is evident that future energy investments will need to be compatible with a zero carbon world. One way of achieving this is through large-scale fossil fuel subsidy (FFS) reform. The most promising action for the reform by countries is in their Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs). Many of these make specific reference to the removal of fossil fuel subsidies or “fiscal measures” in general, implementation of clean energy subsidies or “carbon pricing”.

Removing or reducing FFS will accelerate the uptake of renewables, particularly in countries with viable resource endowments. Accessing these endowments is enabled by the adoption of improved technologies and of favourable pricing. The possibilities of both are evident in emerging economies around the world, providing another means of achieving the ambitious global warming goal embedded in the Paris Agreement.

Analysis of the Paris Outcome can be summarised as follows:
Global solidarity is what gives the Paris Agreement its power: The Agreement sends a strong economic signal to invest in green energy because of the political unity that stands behind it. While it is useful that the Agreement binds the world in a five-yearly “stock take” cycle to track collective progress in limiting or reducing emissions, it encourages (rather than enforces) a new drive to cap global warming at 1.5 degrees Celsius.

The Paris Outcome is global in nature but its delivery is premised on national action: The Paris Agreement will affect domestic and international policies alike, but the spotlight shines on national activity and sovereign interests. Importantly, the Paris Agreement is predicated by the INDCs. Important elements of INDCs worth noting in a post Paris analysis are: The Paris Outcome potentially locks countries around the world into green transitions: In many ways, 2015 marked a turnaround for the green economy, even before the Paris Outcome. The Paris Outcome followed closely in the footsteps of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which were adopted in the last quarter of 2015. Kick starting the “2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development”, the SDGs offers the world an opportunity to reframe economic policy. The core elements lend focus to building and creating green economies and growth that is inclusive, comprising sustainable consumption and production, socially equitable outcomes and investments for environmental sustainability (UNEP 2015).

Today, the Paris Outcome represents substantial change in the political and economic solidarity that underpins climate diplomacy, however, analysis shows that the Paris Outcome is achievable only through decisive national action. A lot hinges on how governments and industries decide to both take the action required now and to ratchet up ambition, and as such how political and economic leaders around the world perceive the gains and losses. While there is little doubt that there is a new business as usual, this still needs to be shaped and there are many actors involved in defining what will become the ‘new normal’.

Cities and local authorities are a central key group of actors in shaping the ‘new normal’. The adoption of the INDCs as a basis for implementing the global agreement places the responsibility for delivery on the global deal squarely onto national-level shoulders. Since cities own so many of the services and assets that do or can contribute to successful delivery on national mitigation and adaptation targets, they have a critical role to play in national sustainable development. Sustainable energy delivery and energy and water efficiency programmes are among the examples of city contribution potential.

It is therefore difficult to conceive of a country like South Africa delivering on its INDC commitments without substantial participation and contributions from its local authorities. As it is, a ten year review of global progress in the renewable energy sector conducted by REN21 on behalf of UNEP (for the 2004-2014 period) highlights the profound changes at the local level that have been witnessed over that decade. The report points out that ten years ago, most municipalities did not factor renewable energy into their energy supply plans. Over the past decade, many have become leaders in renewable energy and energy efficiency advancements, often exceeding the efforts of national and provincial governments.