World leaders are calling the Paris climate agreement a “turning point” in the fight against the effects of climate change. The deal, which is the result of years of meetings and negotiations between leaders from nearly 200 countries, indeed marks a landmark shift in global policies. After two weeks of intense compromise, the final draft of the accord solidifies universal goals in a number of areas including curbing greenhouse gas emissions, setting long-term goals for clean energy, ramping up climate commitments, and even a clause to help financially support developing nations that are suffering from the worst effects of global warming. In this follow-up to our preliminary coverage of the final deal, we’ll look more closely at the terms of the agreement and what the deal will mean for the world in the coming years.
The Paris agreement is not the first international deal to address environmental issues, but it is the only such cooperative measure in history that requires all participating nations – from the richest to the poorest – to share in the responsibility of protecting the Earth. Previous agreements, such as the Kyoto Protocol, exempted developing nations like China, Mexico, and Brazil, and allowed them to burn coal and let carbon emissions soar. In 2009, world leaders met in Copenhagen with the intent to outline an international agreement on climate change policy. That meeting did not produce a deal, because the participants couldn’t settle on common ground and climate change essentially went unchecked for years. Now, with the Paris climate accord in place, those days are over.
“This is truly a historic moment,” the United Nations secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, told the Guardian. “For the first time, we have a truly universal agreement on climate change, one of the most crucial problems on earth.”
Nobody should be confused about whether the Paris deal will save us from climate change. It won’t. But in recognizing the agreement’s limitations, the landmark progress it represents is undeniable. “This agreement will help delay or avoid some of the worst consequences of climate change,” U.S. President Barack Obama said in a speech over the weekend, “and will pave the way for even more progress, in successive stages, over the coming years.”
Controlling global temperature increase
In an achievement that surprised even the most optimistic observers of the Paris negotiations, the final draft of the agreement includes a goal to keep global temperatures from reaching the crucial 2 degree Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) increase that scientists agree is a ‘point of no return,’ by committing to a maximum rise of 1.5C. Scientists who have analyzed the climate deal already say that the greenhouse gas emissions cuts it calls for will account for about half of what is needed to stave off the 2C global temperature increase. It’s worth pointing out, though, that we have already experienced a 1 degree increase (since pre-industrial times) and, according to the most recent scientific estimates, are on target to hit 1.2C by 2030.
Despite the ambitious goals of the deal, skeptics say it might not be feasible to prevent the Earth from avoiding the 1.5C mark, no matter what government leaders think or want, simply due to arc of current practices and the short deadline. However, as French president François Hollande said, the agreement is “a major leap for mankind.”
Curbing carbon emissions
Under the terms of the climate deal, the majority of the participating nations will see peak carbon emissions no later than 2030, with some aiming to reach that goal even sooner. Most countries included goals for curbing emissions in the statements submitted prior to the Paris conference, and those are recognized in the international deal but won’t be legally binding aspects of the agreement. Despite that, some are calling this ‘the end of fossil fuels,’ although it’s more likely to be ultimately known as ‘the beginning of the end’ as it calls for a gradual phase-out of oil and coal. With such an aggressive goal for global temperatures, world leaders agree that clean energy infrastructure is key to edging out dangerous GHG emissions and smog-inducing pollution.
Five-year review periods
The terms of the Paris accord are the result of decades of talks, but we won’t have to wait that long to find out what happens next in the saga of the international war against global warming. The agreement includes a review mechanism that draws world leaders back together in just five years’ time to evaluate progress under the deal and most likely ramp up commitments. Of the 195 nations that participated in negotiations, 187 have pledged to curb their emissions beyond 2020, as far out as 2030. Some point to this aspect of the agreement as lip service, since it was placed under the section of the agreement that is not legally binding.
In fact, former NASA scientist James Hansen has decried the entire accord as “bullshit” and “fraud.” Hansen, who recently penned a paper calling for nuclear power to replace fossil fuels, says the agreement is worthless because it doesn’t impose taxes on fossil fuels. “There is no action, just promises,” Hansen said. “As long as fossil fuels appear to be the cheapest fuels out there, they will be continued to be burned.”
That criticism makes a lot of sense, leaving us with a swirling vortex of hope and nervous anticipation for the years ahead.