Michael Jacobs on how civil society and others achieved the Paris Climate Agreement

April 20, 2016

     By Duncan Green     

A brilliant analysis by Michael Jacobs of the success factors behind last year’s Paris Climate Agreement appeared michael jacobsin Juncture, IPPR’s quarterly journal  recently. Jacobs unpacks the role of civil society (broadly defined) and political leadership. Alas, it’s over 4,000 words long, so as a service to my attention deficit colleagues in aid and development, here’s an abbreviated version (about a third the length, but if you have time, do please read the original).

The international climate change agreement reached in Paris in December 2015 wasan extraordinary diplomatic achievement. It was also a remarkable display of the political power of civil society.

Following the failed Copenhagen conference in 2009, an informal global coalition of NGOs, businesses, academics and others came together to define an acceptable outcome to the Paris conference and then applied huge pressure on governments to agree to it. Civil society effectively identified the landing ground for the agreement, then encircled and squeezed the world’s governments until, by the end of the Paris conference, they were standing on it. Four key forces made up this effective alliance.

Paris conf logoThe scientific community: Five years ago the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was in trouble. Relentless attacks from climate sceptics and a number of apparent scandals – the ‘climategate’ emails, dodgy data on melting Himalayan glaciers, allegations surrounding its chairman – had undermined its credibility. But the scientists fought back, subjecting their work to even more rigorous peer-review and hiring professional communications expertise for the first time. The result was the IPCC’s landmark Fifth Assessment Report, which contained two powerful central insights.

First, the IPCC report introduced the concept of a ‘carbon budget’: the total amount of carbon dioxide the earth’s atmosphere can absorb before the 2°C temperature goal is breached. At present emission rates, that would be used up in less than 30 years. So cutting emissions cannot wait.

The other insight was that these emissions have to be reduced until they reach zero. The IPCC’s models are clear: the physics of global warming means that to halt the world’s temperature rise, the world will have to stop producing greenhouse gas emissions altogether.

The economic community: But it was a second set of forces that really changed the argument. Since the financial crash in 2008–2009, cutting emissions had fallen down the priority lists of the world’s finance ministries. The old orthodoxy that environmental policy was an unaffordable cost to the economy reasserted itself. A new argument was required.

Enter the Global Commission on the Economy and Climate, an initiative hatched by a number of economists, research institutes and the Swedish, Norwegian and UK governments to re-examine the evidence on climate change and economic growth. The Commission’s report, Better Growth, Better Climate, set out a powerful new argument. Cutting emissions could generate better growth, with lower air pollution, more liveable and economically efficient cities, more sustainable use of land and greater energy security. The heads of the IMF, World Bank and OECD quickly took it up.

At the same time, a quite separate economic story was being told by a tiny NGO in London. Carbon Tracker took up CarbonBubble_ENG.svgthe IPCC’s idea of the global carbon budget and turned it into a startling proposition. If the world was to stay within the 2°C limit, 80 per cent of the world’s remaining oil, gas and coal reserves were now effectively ‘unburnable’ and would have to be left in the ground. If governments acted on their own commitments, it would leave many of the world’s fossil fuel companies with ‘stranded assets’, unable to continue planned production and with heavily devalued share prices. The world’s stock markets and pension funds were effectively sitting on a ‘carbon bubble’. Carbon Tracker’s analysis spread like wildfire. Some of the biggest shareholding institutions sat up.

The businesses: As these narratives of science and economics gathered pace, a critical new player began to amplify them. The traditional stance of business organisations had been to oppose stronger climate policy. However, over the last decade a number of leading global corporations, exemplified by the consumer goods giant Unilever, had begun to argue in public that strong climate policy was in the interests of business. On the one hand the ways in which climate change threatens water and food production in supply chains around the world had become increasingly clear. On the other, the growth of green and renewable energy policy has created a new and growing global market.

The result was the creation of a new global network, We Mean Business, to lobby in favour of climate policy and for a new international agreement. By September 2014 over 1,000 global companies were calling on governments to introduce ‘carbon pricing’ through carbon taxes or emissions trading schemes.

The NGOs: Meanwhile, environmental NGOs had shifted their campaign tactics in the aftermath of the Copenhagen conference. While some NGOs downgraded climate campaigning altogether, others focussed their attention on a different battle: the fight against fossil fuels.

The initial focus was coal. The results have been remarkable: since 2010 new coal generation has been virtually abandoned in the US and western Europe, and almost 900 projected plants have been cancelled worldwide. Global coal demand has now tipped into decline.

peoples climate marchWhat made the NGO revival after Copenhagen different was its global nature. As it became clearer in many developing countries that climate change was already occurring, it increasingly became a focus for a huge range of civil society organisations struggling for development, women’s rights, the rights of indigenous people and other social and economic issues. The global labour movement, too, took it up.

At the same time, two much newer NGOs entered the fray. 350.org, founded by the American writer and activist Bill McKibben, fired up a largely student and youth membership with two highly imaginative and focused campaigns, calling upon universities and other institutions to divest from fossil fuel companies and mounting a nationwide campaign in the US against the proposed Keystone XL pipeline.

Meanwhile the online campaigning organisation Avaaz was steadily building a global supporter base. Deploying an imaginative combination of online petitions and email campaigns with street protests and paid-for advertisements in newspapers around the world, Avaaz had reached 42 million global supporters by the time of the Paris conference.


These four emerging forces in civil society – science, economics, business and NGOs – first came together in an organised way around the climate summit in New York in September 2014. Organised by UN secretary-general Ban Ki-Moon, the summit was unusual in that it brought together not just heads of government but leaders from business and finance, city mayors and state governors, heads of international organisations and NGOs.

While the heads of state made speeches accepting the IPCC’s science and the new economics of low-carbon growth, it was outside the conference hall that the summit really took off. The People’s Climate March on 23 September 2014 became the largest in the history of climate campaigning, and one of the largest ever – 400,000 people in New York, and many more in countless parallel marches in cities around the world.

The climate summit marked the long build-up of political momentum towards the Paris conference. In June 2015 the Pope’s encyclical on climate change, Laudato Si, galvanised support from faith-based organisations, particularly in the developing world; he was joined in his calls for climate action by leaders from almost every other faith.


Meanwhile, behind the scenes, a fifth civil society force was exerting its influence: the thinktanks and academics Paris 1.5 degreesdrawing up designs for the agreement to be secured in Paris. They conducted quiet consultations with governments and civil society organisations to gather ideas and build support for a new international regime. A gradual consensus coalesced around the concepts of a five-yearly stock-take and cycle of commitments, parity between mitigation and adaptation, the importance of ‘climate justice’, finance for developing countries, and the definition of an accounting and monitoring regime.


In the run-up to the conference, the dominant dynamic in the UN negotiations was the relationship between the US and China. Determined to leave a new international agreement as part of his legacy, President Obama and his secretary of state John Kerry prioritised the establishment of a climate relationship with the Chinese government. A joint statement between the two heads of state in November 2014 was followed by a second in September 2015.

But in Paris something else happened. The US and China continued to talk, but a much more powerful force emerged as the dominant voice in the negotiations. This was that of the countries most vulnerable to climate change – the low-lying islands and others who are already experiencing severe impacts from rising temperatures and extreme weather events. A new grouping of 43 countries, the Climate Vulnerable Forum, made itself heard alongside the more traditional groupings of small island states, least developed countries and African countries. Together they set the negotiating agenda: they would not sign an agreement unless it had the target of holding global warming to 1.5°C rather than 2°C; included the long-term goal of net zero emissions; recognised that developing countries needed Climate-agreementsupport for the loss and damage they were already experiencing from climate change; and committed developed countries to scaling up finance from a floor of $100 billion per year in 2020. As one Filipino negotiator said, ‘it was the ants moving the elephants’.

The final piece of the jigsaw that created the Paris agreement was the expert management of the conference by the French government, led by foreign minister Laurent Fabius and his climate ambassador Laurence Tubiana, together with the executive secretary of the UNFCCC, Christiana Figueres.


So has the agreement saved the world? Of course not. No international negotiation can do that. As many people have pointed out, the agreement is just a framework of goals and rules. But in building this agreement, civil society has cleverly written itself into it. Lying at the heart of the agreement are the five-yearly ‘global moments’, when governments will have to face up to the inadequacy of their current efforts and commit to doing more. At each of these moments it will be up to the combined forces of civil society – in every country – to pressure them into doing so.