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Paris Agreement sealed - now what?

October 6, 2016

It's a historic moment: The Paris climate agreement will come into force at lightning speed, in less than a year. But what needs to happen over the months and years to come, if we are to get a handle on global warming?

Wind turbines over field with coal plant in the distance
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/R. Weihrauch

The Paris Agreement will come into force on November 4 - just in time for the next United Nations climate conference in Marrakesh. So what are the next steps? NewClimate expert Niklas Höhne explains.

Deutsche Welle: What does this speedy progress, less than 11 months after the Paris conference, mean for the climate agreement?

Niklas Höhne: It's a very good sign for climate protection that so many countries have ratified the treaty in such a short space of time. There's never been an international environmental agreement ratified so quickly - the Kyoto Protocol, for example, took eight years to ratify. So it's very positive and it shows that these countries are taking climate protection seriously. International climate protection is crucial.

So what can we expect to happen in the next few years?

The Paris Agreement stipulates that each country present proposals outlining what kind of climate protection they want to implement at home. And it was very surprising in Paris to see that almost all countries already brought pledges to the table. Now, it's important that these plans be implemented. For some countries, that will mean putting significantly more climate protection measures in place, such as investing in energy efficiency and renewable energy.

But sticking to those self-imposed national climate targets won't be enough to meet global climate targets to limit global warming to a maximum of 2 (3.6 Fahrenheit) or 1.5 degrees Celsius. A lot more needs to happen for us to reach that goal. So all countries need to rethink their plans to see where they could do more.

Infographic "emissions gap" (Update) Englisch
The so-called "emission gap" demonstrates how climate protection needs more ambition

Do you think it's possible for countries to be more ambitious?

Most countries put forward conservative plans - they're relatively certain they can achieve the targets submitted. I expect these countries will meet and in some cases even exceed their goals.

I think that countries are capable of doing much more.

Which measures do you think are most effective in speeding up the pace of mitigation?

The next step is for nation-states to show the international community that they can implement their climate plans and possibly follow up with additional measures.

Some countries are leading the way, and their actions are driving down the cost of climate-friendly technologies. A good example is the development of renewable energy in Europe, especially in Germany. That's helped to make energy generation from renewables cost-effective, and able to be implemented worldwide.

Smart eBike
E-bikes have been taking off across EuropeImage: Imago

Another example is electro-mobility. Countries like the United States, China, Norway and the Netherlands have supported the development of e-mobility to such an extent that it's becoming cheaper and cheaper, and over the long term will be able to be used around the world. 

Reaching climate goals would also mean phasing out fossil fuels. But changing over to a clean energy supply costs money. What measures would you propose?

Our current system is very expensive. We spend so much money on buying power, and then we waste so much of it. So the first step is to save energy. That means an initial investment that would ultimately save costs in the long term.

The trick is to drive investment in the right direction today - towards energy-saving and renewable energies, not new coal power plants or tapping into new gas reserves.

The second step is supporting developing countries in setting up new energy systems. Emissions trading or carbon taxes in industrialized countries can also be used to finance the transition in these countries.

Which system do you think is better: Emissions trading or a CO2 tax?

It depends on how they are implemented. Emissions trading isn't effective in the European Union at the moment because the climate target isn't ambitious enough, and so the price of CO2 is low. The target should be much more ambitious.

Niklas Höhne in Cologne
Höhne previously worked for the UNFCCCImage: DW/G. Rueter

By the same token, a carbon dioxide tax could be positive or negative. In both cases, you'd need to make sure that those who'll be asked to pay - also those who pollute the most - don't weaken the measure through lobbying.

Individual countries' decarbonization plans, stipulated in the Paris Agreement, are very important. They show the way forward, and they contain very difficult decisions. But these strategies also provide long-term planning security.

How optimistic are you that the work will be put in at all levels of society, and in each country, so that the climate targets can be reached?

Getting rid of fossil fuels is a huge task. We're still very much dependent on fossil energies, so it will mean profound and sweeping changes. We've seen this with Germany's efforts to move away from coal. It has far-reaching implications for regions that today depend on coal. But I think we, as a society, can meet this challenge.

And I'm optimistic, because things have moved much faster in many different sectors than we had anticipated - again, take the example of renewable energy and e-mobility. Change has been much faster than we though possible, so I'm confident that we'll also find solutions in other areas that lead to much faster transformations than we imagined.

Niklas Höhne works at the NewClimate Institute for Climate Policy and Global Sustainability in Cologne, which advises numerous governments, the UN and the European Commission. Before that, Höhne worked with the UNFCCC and Climate Action Tracker.

Interview: Gero Rueter / nm

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