Will the Paris Agreement go down in history as the greatest example of multilateralism, ever?

Reading time: 5 minutes
4 November 2016

The historic Paris Agreement on climate action, reached at the COP21 summit in December last year, has now entered into force after being officially ratified by nearly 100 UN member states, and Nigel Topping, CEO, We Mean Business, assesses the significance of the deal.

The Paris Agreement, that comes into force today, represents a watershed moment in the fight against climate change. The unanimous agreement by 196 states, to clear targets and mechanisms to steer the global economy to zero emissions, is now law. Entry into force occurred at unprecedented speed. How will it go down in history? Could it be seen as the greatest example of multilateralism, ever?

The treaties that defined Christianity, the nation state, inter-war peace and the global monetary system - the First Council of Nicaea 325, the Peace of Westphalia 1648, the Congress of Vienna 1815 and Breton Woods 1944 - are useful comparators to help answer this question.

The Paris Agreement is an instance of extraordinary participation between independent parties. Achieving such a degree of multilateralism is difficult, especially on complex, contentious issues like climate change. Even vastly influential treatises, like the First Council of Nicaea that defined early orthodox Christian belief, lacked compromise between widely differing stances. Constantine invited 1800 bishops, but only 318 attended. Furthermore, powerful voices like Alexander of Alexandria and Arius dominated discussions, drowning out others’ views.

Global input

COP21, which heard the sentiments of non-state actors, threatened island states, developing economies, and industrialized nations, is an example of truly broad and effective multilateralism. The Peace of Westphalia is an accurate comparison here. Negotiations included 179 plenipotentiaries representing 194 states. Delegates throughout Europe joined the peace-making process from 1643-1649 following the Thirty Years War, but that precisely is the difference. The Paris Agreement was created incorporating not just regional input, but global.

Key players: Laurence Tubiana, Climate Champion, Christiana Figueres, former Executive Secretary, UNFCCC, Ban Ki-moon, Secretay-General, UN, Laurent Fabius, President, COP21 and François Hollande, President of France

Nicaea and Westphalia were negotiated during a time when multilateralism didn’t exist, where dominance bested compromise. In 325, religion was the most important aspect of social identity in Western Europe. Heretical Christian belief warranted death. It is admirable that Nicaea saw a civilized conference and respected decision making. Treaty-making accelerated after the 1850s and the creation of the United Nations made co-operation easier.

This is not to say that reaching the Paris Agreement was easy. The achievement in Paris had to include compromise: the geopolitics of energy complicated the position between developing economies and industrialized nations. The principle of 'common but differentiated responsibilities' was present through negotiations and Paris successfully mediated between the different responsibilities of these nations to achieve clear targets that were agreeable to all.

Compromise between parties

Climate change is a problem of wide scope, requiring a compromise between parties to best limit emissions while ensuring development. Those present at the Congress of Vienna in 1815 faced a similar scale of difficulty. The Napoleonic Wars had swept across Europe, obliterating conservative traditional institutions and advocating liberty, fraternity and equality. The four great powers and France met to solve not just issues of territory and reparations, but to establish a governing world order that would maintain peace.

Both COP21 and Vienna required mediation between developing economies and industrialized nations. However, the difference is the range and scale of issues that require solving. Regional post-war settlements are challenging, but solving the global issue that is climate change is significantly broader in scope.

Nigel Topping , CEO, We Mean Business

Nigel Topping, CEO, We Mean Business

Different forms of multilateral treaties govern trade and finance. Breton Woods, established in 1944, created much of the machinery of the modern global financial system. Although the issues addressed were complex and important, they pale in scope to the breadth of issues on the table in Paris. The most pressing need is the orderly reduction in GHG emissions around the world, but adaptation, mitigation finance, loss and damage also have to be addressed simultaneously.

Legacy

Tackling climate change must integrate all aspects of modern energy, food and urban economic sectors. Participation, era and scope help assess multilateral treaties, but legacy must be the most important. Nicaea settled an orthodox belief held by nearly all Christians even today. Westphalia empowered the concept of the nation state that dominates contemporary politics. Vienna’s principle of power balance was the basis of future post-war settlements until World War Two. Breton Woods established an international monetary system that helped rebuild destroyed economies and now exists as the World Bank and the IMF.

The Paris Agreement’s goal is to curb dangerous global climate change and chart a new course in the global climate effort. With early entry into force set against such a challenging geopolitical backdrop, alongside its vast scope and the extraordinary breadth of participation and commitment from both states and non-state actors, Paris has the potential to go down in history as an exemplar of multilateralism.

If history judges it so depends on our next steps. Now that the Paris Agreement has entered into force, our task is to ensure that all actors raise their ambition and turn to the challenge of implementation.

by Nigel Topping

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