2016 – when global meets local in climate action

Building on the historic agreement forged in Paris, IIED's director Andrew Norton looks at the opportunities to ensure global agreements on the need for sustainable development reach the local level.

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Andrew Norton
​​​​​​​Andrew Norton was director of IIED from 2015-2022
04 January 2016
New Melones Lake, California, which is facing one of the most severe droughts on record with a state of emergency declared in January (Photo: Ben Amstutz, Flickr, via Creative Commons)

New Melones Lake, California, which is facing one of the most severe droughts on record with a state of emergency declared in January (Photo: Ben Amstutz, Flickr, via Creative Commons)

According to the UK Met Office, 2015 is expected to be by some distance the warmest year since the reliable global temperature record begins in 1850. 2016 will probably beat the record again. The cyclical El Nino effect is part of this – but not all. 

It was heartening, therefore, that 2015 ended with good news in the shape of a long-awaited global agreement to tackle the climate crisis. The key elements of the Paris Agreement (PDF) include a long-term goal of 'holding the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2 degrees Centigrade above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 degree Centigrade'.

Climate change increasingly influences the context for all development action but the ways in which that influence is felt will not be static.

A big challenge for 2016 will be to find ways to link local action for rights and inclusion to climate action at the global scale.

A catalytic effect?

The big question about the Paris Agreement is whether it can act as a powerful catalyst for radical change in a range of complex social, economic and political systems.  

The legal status of the Paris Agreement is important here. Critics have pointed out that it does not have binding targets to limit greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. The politics of achieving that were simply impossible.  

What is binding in Paris is a set of provisions that oblige countries to have a plan, to regularly update the plan to make it stronger, and to communicate with citizens about how it is doing. This process has to be underpinned by credible and consistent data, and both the Paris Agreement text and the COP decision text (which outlines the measures to be taken before 2020) deal carefully and extensively with this. 

All of this will provide a framework against which accountability dynamics can work through reputational incentives, peer pressure, policy advocacy and activist litigation. The example of the successful case brought to oblige the Dutch government to raise its game on climate change mitigation is surely a taste of things to come.  

Many of the most important things in Paris happened off-stage. One hundred giant, influential global companies committed to achieving 100 per cent renewable power, signalling massively increased corporate demand for renewable energy (though the time-frame for this is vague).

The Mission Innovation initiative announced at Paris commits 20 major economies (including China and the United States) to double public investment in clean energy innovation over five years. The hope that technological breakthroughs in renewable energy and storage could make fossil fuels uncompetitive on price alone is gathering momentum.

Local to global

These developments – combined with the powerful signal of the agreement itself – should have a profound impact on both public policy and the operation of markets. This must expand the space for a different kind of development pathway to emerge, combining local action for equity and rights with the global shift towards zero net greenhouse gas emissions.  

This momentum should be reinforced by the new global goal set. The Sustainable Development Goals replaced the Millennium Development Goals on 1 January, bringing a new understanding of development action as universal in scope, and putting sustainability at the heart of the economic development agenda.  

The potential for local action to meet global climate action is vast, for example:

  • Democratising energy access through distributed power systems that can combine economic empowerment with decarbonisation of energy supplies
  • More equitable, inclusive and cleaner cities that address the substantial unmet needs for residents of low-income and informal settlements in a way that limits additional emissions. The powerful social benefits of reducing emissions need to be targeted at increasing access to basic sanitation, adequate shelter, and affordable transportation. Empowering low-income urban residents and communities to help shape a better future will be an important theme at the 10th Community-Based Adaptation conference in Dhaka in April, and should be a focus for Habitat III in Quito in October
  • Natural systems where local ownership rights are clarified to provide incentives for preserving and enhancing the world's vital carbon sinks, including forests and coastal ecosystems, and
  • Healthier and more equitable systems for the production and consumption of food – cutting down on high-emissions foodstuffs that serve mostly richer consumers.

The equity dimension

Climate justice will be a growing theme for 2016 which will be reflected in debates about finance and loss and damage. Analysis by IIED has shown that the Least Developed Countries' climate action plans prepared for Paris would require $93.7 billion per year to implement from 2020 to 2030. 

These are the countries that will find it hardest to attract private investment at scale. This means that public climate finance will need to both increase and improve its targeting in order to make adequate global progress.  

Loss and damage from climate change will also be important. Loss and damage refers to impacts it is not reasonable to expect people or communities to 'adapt' to (loss can refer to cultures, habitats, lives or species; damage refers to something that can be repaired – a road or a building for example). This has been an area of huge contention.

The Warsaw International Mechanism set up to explore loss and damage reports back to the UNFCCC at the Marrakech COP in November 2016, so the debate is bound to evolve over the course of the year.

Putting this agenda to work

In 2016, IIED will pick up the challenges of matching local action for equity and inclusion with global climate action across the full range of our research work – on natural resources, human settlements, sustainable markets and climate change.

As we begin 2016 the energy and momentum achieved at Paris needs to drive radical change at many levels – from national governments to communities, citizens, cities, investors and businesses.  

But the scale of the change needed is dramatic. The rest of 2016 will start to tell us whether the Paris Agreement was a tipping point – or a false dawn. 

Andrew Norton (andrew.norton@iied.org) is IIED's director.