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The Arctic After Paris

By Sébastien Duyck

On April 22, leaders representing 175 governments convened in New York to sign the Paris Agreement on Climate Change. Never in the history of the United Nations had an international treaty secured so many signatures on a single day. The unprecedented number of national climate commitments submitted prior to the Paris conference further demonstrates the groundswell of support for the agreement. For the first time, virtually all countries, including every major emitter, have committed to cutting their greenhouse gas emissions. For the Arctic in particular, the impact of this summit will be determined to a significant extent by the ability of the international community to build on the spirit of cooperation underpinning the Paris Agreement and to meet the ambitious targets it set. 

The Paris Agreement provides a flexible and universal framework to enhance international climate cooperation in mitigation, adaptation, and financial and technical support for developing countries to cope with and combat climate change. The agreement does not define targets for individual countries but instead builds on self-defined commitments that are to be reviewed and updated on a cyclical basis. This framework thus builds on the premise that universal participation in the new regime will create a virtuous cycle as countries increase their commitments over time.

Additionally, in one of the unexpected breakthroughs applauded in December, governments agreed to strengthen the long-term global temperature target, suggesting that the increase of temperatures should be kept well below 2 degrees Celsius and that governments should pursue policies aiming at avoiding 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming. The litmus test for the treaty will be whether this country-driven approach provides sufficient positive momentum to reduce emissions enough to remain below this target.

While the agreement reached in Paris does not explicitly refer to the Arctic, it will impact this region far more strongly than many others. The Arctic is at the frontlines of climate change; average temperatures increase twice as fast as on the rest of the planet, and some regions in the High North witness even more drastic changes. Even moderate temperature increases risk destabilizing regional physical systems—such as the Greenlandic ice sheet and permafrost—which might have repercussions not only across the region but also for communities and ecosystems around the planet. Some provisions of the Paris treaty will be especially relevant to Arctic policies and economic development, particularly in relation to fossil fuel extraction, pollution through short-lived climate forcers, and climate adaptation.

The Paris conference sent an unambiguous signal regarding the need for a rapid transition to a low carbon economy. The inclusion of specific temperature targets in the agreement allows countries to calculate the volume of fossil fuel reserves that can still be consumed while ensuring that keeping the rise in temperature below dangerous thresholds will still be possible.

According to the most recent report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, maintaining a significant chance of keeping temperatures below 2 degrees Celsius would require emitting less than 1,000 gigatons of carbon from 2011 to 2050, or less than half this amount if the goal is to stabilize temperatures below 1.5 degrees Celsius. Even excluding resources yet to be discovered or leased, the current fossil fuel reserves available to coal, oil, and gas companies already contain the equivalent of 2,795 gigatons of carbon dioxide. Consequently, the vast majority of these reserves will need to remain unexploited to keep a reasonable chance of meeting either of the targets identified in the Paris Agreement.

While this simple math might not elicit immediate policy responses in all countries, it will inform the decisions of investors considering the long-term prospects of high-cost fossil fuel investments—especially in the most challenging environments. Over the past few years, a growing number of large energy companies have withdrawn from the Arctic because fossil fuel extraction was too costly and/or too risky to justify investments. The stronger-than-expected climate agreement and the rapidly shrinking carbon budget only add to arguments questioning the economic rationale of many of these investments.

The inescapability of the transition away from fossil fuels further dissipates the vision of a booming regional economy based on oil and gas revenues, as was envisioned after the 2008 release in of the U.S. Geological Survey’s estimates regarding the volume of Arctic resources. This impact is already illustrated by the concerns expressed by Greenlandic officials regarding the constraints in the Paris Agreement that limit the capacity of the island to exploit fossil fuel resources.

Despite the fact that virtually all countries submitted their own climate commitments prior to the Paris conference, the sum of these actions falls short of the overall emissions cuts that scientists consider to be required to avert dangerous climate change. Consequently, governments will not only need to fully implement the policies they proposed, but will also need to take further action and seek opportunities to strengthen regional cooperation on mitigation action.

Cooperation on policies targeted at reducing emissions of short-lived climate forcers could contribute to these additional emissions cuts. Such policies are particularly relevant to the Arctic, given that black carbon has a greater warming potential in snow- and ice-covered regions. Since 2009, the Arctic Council has worked to address this issue, first by commissioning scientific research on the impacts of short-lived climate pollutants in the region and then by suggesting policy measures that the Arctic states could enact. Even so, the Arctic Council was not able to secure consensus among its members to adopt the more ambitious policy proposals initially suggested by the environment ministers of the Arctic states in 2011. The U.S., having made climate change a key priority of its chairmanship of the Arctic Council, could use the momentum from the Paris summit to further the role of the Council in this policy area by enhancing regional efforts to tackle emissions of black carbon and short-lived forcers.

There is no doubt that the Arctic will continue to witness radical changes to its climate and ecosystems. In this context, participatory adaptation planning across the circumpolar North is more relevant than ever. Prior to the Paris summit, the United Nations mainly addressed adaptation by providing financial and technical assistance to developing countries dealing with the ongoing impacts of climate change. The Paris Agreement, however, tends to blur the lines between developed and developing countries, as the obligations related to adaptation apply more uniformly to all countries.

The Paris climate agreement, for instance, requires all countries to provide periodic “adaptation communications,” including updates on national priorities and ongoing policies, and calls on all countries to ensure that adaptation policies are gender-responsive, are participatory, and take into consideration indigenous knowledge. These obligations create an opportunity for the Arctic states to consider synergies with the ongoing efforts of the Arctic Council to promote regional good practices and stimulate efforts to consider climate policies through a regional, rather than national, lens.

The Paris Agreement might not refer to the Arctic explicitly, but it may nonetheless be the most relevant international treaty to the environmental policies and economic prospects in the region. While the agreement unambiguously establishes a path based on low carbon development and climate resilience, the realization of this vision will depend primarily on the willingness of states and private actors to adjust their policies and actions. The extent to which governmental and nongovernmental actors both within and beyond the region will embrace this vision will have a great bearing on the region and its peoples.

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Sébastien Duyck is a visiting researcher at the Arctic Centre, University of Lapland and a research fellow at the World Trade Institute, University of Bern. Duyck has taken part in and written about climate change negotiations since 2008, with a particular interest in the interlinkages between Arctic governance and climate law. He tweets @duycks.

[Photo courtesy of COP PARIS]

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