Nearly 200 Countries Reach Historic Climate Accord in Paris

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President-designate of the COP21 climate summit Laurent Fabius (C), raises hands with UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon and UNFCCC Executive Secretary Christiana Figueres on the left, and French President Francois Hollande on the right.Photo: FRANCOIS GUILLOT

Representatives from almost 200 countries have approved a landmark climate accord in an attempt to stave off the most catastrophic consequences of global warming. The deal, reached on Saturday evening at the end of the two-week COP21 UN climate summit in Paris, promises the most significant, sustained international effort to combat climate change in history, and will, for the first time, commit most of the world’s nations to reducing their greenhouse gas emissions. Those 195 countries — after two decades of talks — have made a commitment to prevent the global temperature from reaching more than 2 degrees Celsius above what it was in preindustrial times by the year 2100, and will also “endeavor to limit” the temperature rise to just 1.5 degrees in total. (Climate scientists say we have already reached a 1-degree increase.) As the Associated Press notes, the pledge is, in effect, to stop emitting greenhouse gases entirely, and within the next fifty years.

According to analyses by the Guardian and the New York Times, the agreeing countries, including the U.S. and China, have pledged to reach peak global emissions as soon as possible, and reach net-zero emissions (i.e., to balance carbon emissions with the amount the earth can naturally absorb) between 2050 and 2100. While the term “emissions neutrality” is deliberately not included in the document (due to objections from fossil fuel–producing countries), the agreement nonetheless signals to fossil-fuel companies that remaining carbon reserves should be left in the ground, and whether the term “neutrality” is used or not, all carbon emissions must be countered by corresponding greenhouse-gas sinks, meaning fossil-fuel emissions will have to be offset by new forests or something else to ensure the balance. The conservation and enhancement of the planet’s forests are also prioritized in the agreement, which indicates that countries should be encouraged and incentivized to preserve their existing forests.

The deal also acknowledges the “loss and damage” faced by countries who are vulnerable to the already destructive effects of climate change, like extreme weather and rising sea levels. No liability is assumed by any countries for this damage, but the New York Times says that including this point in the agreement was important to smaller island nations so as to officially link global warming to the threats they face. 

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If the deal truly is a turning point, activists might eventually be reduced to only wearing their polar bear suits on Halloween. Photo: ALAIN JOCARD

According to the agreement, developed countries are to contribute financially to developing countries in order to help them adapt and transition to clean energy sources, though the initial proposal of at least $100 billion a year is apparently not legally binding. In other words, this is a bit of a punt by developed countries, and that remains a major concern for developing countries, but the agreement says that the developed world “should continue to take the lead in mobilizing climate finance from a wide variety of sources, instruments and channels, noting the significant role of public funds, through a variety of actions.” It’s also worth noting that any pledge of money would have been a deal-breaker for the U.S., as there is zero chance that such spending would be approved by the current Republican-controlled Senate.

A review and revision mechanism has also been built into the deal, mandating a “global stocktake” for countries every five years, during which they must submit new emissions-reduction targets for review. As of now, the existing reduction plans contributed by nearly all the agreeing nations will only limit the global temperature to around 3 degrees Celsius by 2100, according to climate scientists, so raising the reduction amounts over time will be essential to the plan’s success. Regarding some kind of global standard for compliance, another stipulation of the agreement is that a single system be used for measuring carbon reductions (a key requirement of the U.S.) so that the reduction amounts can be trusted by all.

As explained by the Times, the agreement employs a hybrid structure in which many of the components are voluntary, leaving individual countries to create and implement their own plans to reach the accord’s goals. With no binding emissions targets, and no promised money, the accord was designed to avoid the designation of a treaty so that the U.S. could support it. If it could be legally interpreted as a treaty, it would have to be ratified by two-thirds of the U.S. Senate, where many in the Republican majority have traditionally rejected the scientific consensus behind anthropogenic (human-induced) climate change. Instead, the agreement adopts the language of an existing treaty, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, which the U.S. already ratified in 1992.

Here is a video of the summit’s delegates and negotiators reacting to the official adoption of the accord:

This post has been updated to include a deeper analysis of the deal and its components.