- Anne van Oorschot
With the bang of a gavel Saturday night, representatives of 195 nations reached a landmark accord that will, for the first time, commit nearly every country to lowering planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions to help avert the most drastic effects of climate change. The deal represents a historic breakthrough on an issue that has foiled decades of international efforts to address climate change. In the past, such pacts have required developed economies like the United States to take action to lower greenhouse gas emissions, but they have exempted developing countries like China and India from such obligations. The Paris accord, which United Nations diplomats have been working toward for nine years, changes that dynamic and has at its core the requirement that every nation, rich or poor, take action. “This is truly a historic moment,” the United Nations secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, said in an interview. “For the first time, we have a truly universal agreement on climate change, one of the most crucial problems on earth.”
Just five years ago, such a deal seemed politically impossible. The climate change summit meeting in Copenhagen in 2009 collapsed in failure after countries could not unite around a deal. The changes that led to the Paris accord came about through a mix of factors, particularly major shifts in the domestic politics and bilateral relationships of China and the United States, the world’s two largest greenhouse gas polluters. In a remarkable shift from their previous standoffs over the issue, in November 2014 in Beijing, Mr. Obama and Mr. Xi announced that they would jointly pursue plans to cut domestic greenhouse gas emissions. That breakthrough announcement was seen as paving the way to the Paris deal, in which nearly all the world’s nations have jointly announced similar plans.
Despite the historic nature of the Paris climate accord, its success still depends heavily on two factors outside the parameter of the deal: global peer pressure and the actions of future governments. While every country is required to put forward a plan, the national plans vary vastly in scope and ambition. There is no legal requirement dictating how, or how much, countries should cut emissions. The Paris pact has built in a series of legally binding requirements that countries ratchet up the stringency of their climate change policies in the future. Countries will be required to reconvene every five years, starting in 2020, with updated plans that would tighten their emissions cuts.
That hybrid legal structure was explicitly designed in response to the political reality in the United States. A deal that would have assigned legal requirements for countries to cut emissions at specific levels would need to go before the United States Senate for ratification. That language would have been dead on arrival in the Republican-controlled Senate, where many members question the established science of human-caused climate change, and still more wish to thwart Mr. Obama’s climate change agenda.
So the individual countries’ plans are voluntary, but the legal requirements that they publicly monitor, verify and report what they are doing, as well as publicly put forth updated plans, are designed to create a “name-and-shame” system of global peer pressure, in hopes that countries will not want to be seen as international laggards. The system depends heavily on the views of the future world leaders who will carry out those policies. In the United States, every Republican candidate running for president in 2016 has publicly questioned or denied the science of climate change, and has voiced opposition to Mr. Obama’s climate change policies. Yet amid the spirit of success that dominated the final hours of the negotiations, Mr. Arias Cañete (EU Commissioner for Climate Action and Energy) reminded delegates that the accord was the beginning of the real work. “Today, we celebrate,” he said. “Tomorrow, we have to act. This is what the world expects of us.”
Here are some of the key elements of the deal:
LONG-TERM GOAL: The long-term objective of the agreement is to make sure global warming stays "well below" 2° C/3.6° F and to "pursue efforts" to limit the temperature rise to 1.5° C/2.7° F. (Temperatures have already increased by about 1° C/1.8° F since pre-industrial times.) To achieve that goal, governments pledged to stop the rise in heat-trapping greenhouse gas emissions "as soon as possible." By some point after 2050, the agreement says, man-made emissions should be reduced to a level that forests and oceans can absorb.
EMISSIONS TARGETS: In order to reach the long-term goal, countries agreed to set national targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions every five years. More than 180 countries have already submitted targets for the first cycle beginning in 2020. Only developed countries are expected to slash their emissions in absolute terms; developing nations are "encouraged" to do so as their capabilities evolve over time. Until then, they are expected only to rein in the growth of emissions as their economies develop.
REVIEWING TARGETS: The initial targets won't be enough to put the world on a path to meet the long-term temperature goal, so the agreement asks governments to review their targets in the next four years and see if they can "update" them. While that doesn't require governments to deepen their cuts, the hope is that it will be possible for them to do so if renewable energy sources become more affordable and effective.
TRANSPARENCY: There is no penalty for countries that miss their emissions targets, but the agreement has transparency rules to help encourage countries to actually do what they say they will. That was one of the most difficult pieces to agree on, with China asking for softer requirements for developing countries. The agreement says all countries must report on their emissions and their efforts the reduce them. But it allows for some "flexibility" for developing countries that "need it."
MONEY: The agreement says wealthy countries should continue to offer financial support to help poor countries reduce their emissions and adapt to climate change. It also encourages other countries to pitch in on a voluntary basis. That paves the way for emerging economies such as China to contribute, even though it doesn't require them to do so. Actual dollar amounts were kept out of the agreement itself, but wealthy nations had previously pledged to provide $100 billion annually in climate finance by 2020.
LOSS AND DAMAGE: In a victory for small island nations threatened by rising seas, the agreement includes a section recognizing "loss and damage" associated with climate-related disasters. The U.S. long objected to addressing the issue in the agreement, worried that it would lead to claims of compensation for damage caused by extreme weather events. In the end, the issue was included, but a footnote specifically stated that loss and damage does not involve liability or compensation.