Cautious optimism in the wake of COP21

Over the next few weeks, Doggerel will explore last month’s historic climate change agreement and its implications for the design industry. Fiona Cousins, who attended the COP21 conference in her role as Arup principal and U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) chair-elect, gave us her take.


From your perspective, what are the most important aspects of the agreement?

The most important thing is that there is an agreement. There is now a framework against which commitments have been made, and commitments have been made by almost all countries.

In the past the negotiations have always become stuck on the idea that developed economies needed to make commitments and carry out regular audits while developing economies like China and India did not. The argument was that developed nations have had enormous benefits from carbon emission-intensive development and that developing nations must be allowed the same opportunity.

This year 187 countries said, “yes, we have a plan to reduce the emissions from our country, and here it is.” The fact that each country proposed its own emissions reductions was absolutely critical to getting the agreement. Yes, the developed countries need to allow money to flow to the less-developed countries, and that’s included in the agreement, but it’s just huge that so many of the countries are now saying, “yes, we need to do something.”

The most important thing is that there is an agreement.

If all of the developing economies were tiny it might have been possible to reach an agreement sooner. With China and India included in this category, though, the US in particular was very reluctant to make reductions, on the basis that this would simply force manufacturers to shift their operations to China. So the fact that China said, “all right, we have to make a reduction” was enormous in getting the US to commit. And the other countries could then say, “well, the two big emitters are doing something, so our contributions and efforts will be worthwhile.”

Another important aspect of the success of the Paris talks was that many of the proposals for emissions reductions were developed and shared before the conference. One hundred and nineteen countries published a voluntary declaration of what they were going to do in early October. So before anybody got to Paris those things were already on the table, and it was understood that that was the direction the conversation was going to take.

Credit: FlickrUser United Nations Photo_CC by NC ND 2.0

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon speaking at COP21.

So that wasn’t done in previous years?

No. Pre-work itself is not new; the text of the overall agreement is always negotiated over the course of the year. But this is the first time that so many voluntary commitments have been put on the table before the conference.

The background to this is that it’s always difficult to reach an agreement. Some of the previous climate change talks have fallen into complete disarray. Copenhagen, in 2009, was expected to deliver a binding agreement but did not.

The fact that China said, “all right, we have to make a reduction” was enormous in getting the US to commit.

The groundwork for success in Paris has been laid over a number of years. The 2011 Durban talks ended with a consensus that a binding agreement including both developed and developing nations should be made in 2015, and the annual talks since then were aimed at making this possible.

So I’m not saying that there’s never been pre-work before, but for COP21 the five years of pre-work culminating in the voluntary commitments, which are called intended nationally determined contributions (INDCs), was particularly critical. It was all put out there early, and it was understood that everybody was heading in the same direction.

Since the commitments aren’t enforceable, is there a fear that countries will say they’ll do things but not actually do them?

Yes, of course there is that fear.

Some aspects of the agreement are legally binding. Every country will have to strengthen its targets every five years, and investment in low-carbon technologies is required. Regular reporting on emissions has been required for all developed nations since the start of climate negotiations, and the Paris agreement strengthens the reporting requirements for all but the least-developed nations.

Meeting the actual emissions targets is not legally required, though; there are no sanctions or fines if these are not met. One reason for this is that if the agreement had included legally binding targets it would be seen as a treaty and would have to be ratified by the US Congress. The Paris agreement can be joined through an executive order, which gives other countries more confidence that the US will remain within it.

World leaders gathered at COP21

What does this agreement mean for the built environment and the design community?

This has major implications for the built environment, although they differ somewhat from country to country.

There are a few important things to keep in mind. One is that in developed nations, around 40% of carbon emissions are associated with building energy use, and in cities as much as 80% of carbon emissions are associated with building electric energy use. So the design and operations of the built environment can have a major effect on carbon emissions.

From a US perspective, another important note is that in the States much of the work of regulating energy use is done at the state or city level, while other nations regulate at a national level.

There were two significant events at the Paris summit related to these issues. One was the introduction of Buildings Day, recognizing the role of building design and operations in energy use. The other was the prominence of the C40 activities. The C40 is a network of cities committed to addressing climate change; it’s helped to demonstrate over the last 10 or 15 years that cities are very nimble at reducing carbon emissions. And as Boris Johnson, Mayor of London, has noted, they are also very good at stealing each other’s best ideas.

The Paris agreement specifically recognizes the role of the private sector, civil society, and sub-national authorities in reducing carbon emissions. I think that the combination of having to strengthen the agreements every five years and the observation that groups other than the national government have contributions to make will encourage governments to find ways to encourage cities, NGOs, and other organizations to greater action. These groups will find the least expensive ways to make the greatest impact, and that’s a challenge that we should all look forward to! Some of the actions might include strengthening building energy codes to include more energy-use reporting or voluntary initiatives by building owners or design teams.

These groups will find the least expensive ways to make the greatest impact.

You co-authored a book called Two Degrees: The Built Environment and Our Changing Climate. How do you feel about the fact that the reductions outlined in the agreement don’t actually get us to the point at which the planet will warm less than two degrees?

The two-degree limit is based on climate science that shows that most of the worst effects of climate change can be avoided if we keep within that limit. The INDCs don’t get us to two degrees; one estimate puts their impact at about 2.7ºC. Even at 2ºC there are some really significant consequences for low-lying island nations. And of course, there is some uncertainty in the climate science about the effects of temperature rise. The Paris agreement, for the first time, suggests that a tighter limit of 1.5ºC should be considered.

Tuvalu, an island nation in the Pacific Ocean

I have mixed feelings about the agreement. On the one hand I am enormously encouraged that there is an agreement in place and that the agreement includes regular strengthening of emissions targets. On the other, I am scared that we and our governments are not moving quickly enough to reduce emissions. That said, it will be much easier to act from a position of optimism, so that’s where I’m going to start.


Questions or comments for Fiona Cousins? Email

To see more COP21 coverage, click here.

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