Rich and poor nations agree to first-ever global climate pact

Diplomats bridged a longstanding rich-poor divide between countries to set a goal of keeping planetary warming well below 2 degrees Celsius. A signal for the end of the fossil-fuel era?

Stephane Mahe/Reuters
French Foreign Affairs Minister Laurent Fabius (R), President-designate of COP21 and Christiana Figueres (L), Executive Secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, react during the final plenary session at the World Climate Change Conference 2015 (COP21) at Le Bourget, near Paris, France, December 12, 2015.

After two decades of work, the world has its first truly international plan to address climate change.

Diplomats from 196 nations agreed Saturday to a global pact to curb heat-trapping emissions and to protect those most vulnerable to climate change. The deal alone does not put the world on a path toward what scientists deem a relatively safe level of global warming. But officials stress that the Paris Agreement provides a clear path ahead for countries to quickly and routinely set stronger targets.

After a series of delays, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius's gavel fell at 7:26 p.m. Paris time in the final official meeting here in Le Bourget. That signaled unanimous – if not unanimously enthusiastic – support from all parties engaged in this year's UN climate talks. It comes at the end of a year scientists say will likely be the hottest ever on record. 

“This is a tremendous victory for all of our citizens,” US Secretary of State John Kerry told delegates after the adoption. “The world has come together around an agreement that will empower us to chart a new path for our planet, a smart and responsible path – a sustainable path.”

'A historic turning point'

The Paris Agreement is the first of its kind to include actions from nearly every country on Earth – both rich and poor. It seeks to limit global temperature rise to well below 2 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels, and to "pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase" to 1.5 degrees Celsius. It provides billions in financing for cleaner energy and adaptation in developing countries.

Saturday's agreement represents "a historic turning point in the global effort to address climate change," David Waskow, director of the international climate initiative at World Resources Institute, a Washington-based think tank, tells The Christian Science Monitor.  "What [the participants] have done here is made clear that they not only have national climate plans in place now, but are prepared to continue moving forward, building on that momentum."

In that sense, the Paris climate accord is an ambitious one. Global average temperatures have already risen about 1 degree C, according to Britain's Met Office. To meet a 2-degree target, global carbon-dioxide emissions would have to drop to zero between 2060 and 2075, according to the United Nations Environment Programme. To meet a 1.5-degree target, those emissions would have to fall to zero between 2045 and 2050.

That suggests that within at most 60 years, every car, building, plane, ship, train, and power plant would have to operate without oil, coal, or natural gas. Either that, or the world would have to rapidly scale up technologies that capture carbon dioxide emissions from those and other sources.

It’s a transformation of enormous scale, but whether or not it's enough to prevent catastrophic changes in the Earth's climate is still up for debate. At the least, the agreement is intended, officials say, to send a strong signal to the business and investment communities that the era of fossil fuels is coming to a close.

"It's clear to everyone that we're now oriented towards a global carbon-free economy," Rachel Cleetus, an economist at the Union of Concerned Scientists tells the Monitor.  

Fuzzy on details

How that transformation will play out is less clear. At a pithy 31 pages, Saturday's final agreement is vague when it comes to the reductions in greenhouse gases necessary to meet a 2-degree or 1.5-degree target. Emissions should peak "as soon as possible," the agreement reads, to achieve a balance between emissions sources and emissions sinks "in the second half of this century." In theory, that could be enough to meet at least a 2-degree target, but the language is broad enough to make scientists and others from civil society uneasy.

"When you talk about the pathway to achieve that 1.5 degree [goal], it's a major disappointment," Harjeet Singh, global lead on climate change at ActionAid, a nongovernmental organization based in South Africa, tells the Monitor. "Who's going to do how much? Who had the most historical responsibility? Those details to reach that goal are actually missing."

It’s of paramount concern for low-lying island countries and other small, developing nations. The rise in sea levels already threatens the existence of countries like the Marshall Islands, which lobbied heavily for the 1.5 degree target over the past two weeks of negotiations. If warming continues unchecked, these countries – and coastal areas across the globe – will likely sink underwater in coming decades, scientists say. Elsewhere, droughts, flooding, and other extreme weather events are expected to increase in frequency and strength as temperatures continue their upward trajectory.

The question of climate finance is also ambiguous in the final agreement. Previous climate summits compelled developed countries to mobilize $100 billion per year by 2020 to help developing countries build zero-carbon energy systems and adapt to climate impacts. Many of the poorest nations had hoped to see that figure scaled up significantly and codified in international law in Paris. They note that it is the developed world – including the US, Canada, and Europe – that has contributed by far the most to current CO2 concentrations. It is also the developed world that is best equipped to transition to a low- or zero-carbon economy.  

The Paris Agreement falls short on these fronts. It sets $100 billion as a floor for future climate finance, but offers no specific targets above that. What's more, the portions of the text on finance appear in the non-binding “decision” portion, as opposed to the binding “agreement.”    

Five-year cycles

Paris, of course, is not the end of global climate summitry. Indeed, the agreement adopted Saturday aims to evolve in ambition in the years to come. Current national climate pledges put the world on a path to a 3-degree C. rise in temperatures, according to UN assessments. That will need to change quickly if the world has any chance of meeting the Paris Agreement’s ambitious temperature goal.  

The agreement will enter into force in 2020, but signatories agree to first reconvene in 2018 to assess overall progress toward mitigating emissions. They've agreed to meet again in 2023 and every five years after that to reevaluate the commitments they’ve put on the table. The hope is that over that time, the cost of renewable-energy technologies will continue to decline rapidly, enabling countries to make even more ambitious pledges.

“For our efforts to combat climate change to be successful, it is critical that developed countries significantly enhance their ambition of their actions and ensure that the enhanced actions of developing countries are adequately supported,” South African Environment Minister Edna Molewa told the gathered delegates after the adoption.

Despite some reservations, delegates responded to the adoption with a standing ovation. Sustained cheers coursed through the sprawling conference site, adjacent to the airport where Charles Lindbergh completed his historic transatlantic flight in 1927. Staff are already disassembling the cafes, display booths, and work spaces here. Soon, everyone will return home for the hard work of implementing the agreement.

“We have written a new chapter in hope,” India Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar said in remarks on the plenary floor. “We hope that Paris will mark a new beginning where commitments made will be fulfilled.”

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