By Sue Landau
It was a diplomatic triumph.
After two decades of fraught negotiations, 195 nations have backed a pact tackling climate change despite different interests, abilities and responsibilities.
The Paris agreement is both inspiring for pulling out an accord where so many have failed, and disappointing for not laying the basis for a carbon-free economy.
Avaaz, the online activist platform, called the December 12 agreement “a brilliant and massive turning point in human history.”
James Hansen, a former NASA scientist who popularized understanding of climate change, saw it differently.
“There is no action, just promises,” he told The Guardian. “As long as fossil fuels appear to be the cheapest fuels out there, they will be continued to be burned.”
Writing in The Atlantic, Robinson Meyer said: “Nations still bicker over borders, flaunt weapons of mass death, and abhor refugees in their midst. Today they tried, miraculously and inadequately, to care for their common good.”
Some see the Paris accord as a springboard for industry and civil society to forge ahead with initiatives beyond the accord itself. This is where the transition to a low-carbon or no-carbon economy will take place.
It is not a minimalist pact.
So what did the summit produce?
The challenge was to prevent warming from greenhouse gases, particularly carbon dioxide (CO2), from threatening human survival.
Scientists say tipping would start if the average world temperature rises 2°C, or 3.6°F, above pre-industrial levels. It is already 1°C higher.
An agreement had to be palatable to small island nations threatened by rising sea levels; to China and India, big polluters with development needs, that fear they cannot forego fossil fuels soon; to Africa with its vast development needs; and to rich industrial countries that have caused most of the pollution and oil-producing countries whose source of livelihood is destined to disappear.
The accord that emerged from the two-week negotiation gives everyone something they sought. But everyone had to give up some aspirations.
Still, it is not a minimalist pact, even if it falls short of what climate scientists and campaigners feel is needed.
Here are the main points:
More ambitious on limiting temperature rise
The previous target was to prevent the average global temperature from rising more than 2°C from the pre-industrial era by the year 2100.
The Paris document limits that to “well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels” and, in a gesture to small island nations, says efforts should be pursued “to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels”.
Less ambitious on CO2 emissions
Greenhouse gas emissions are to peak “as soon as possible,” with no target date, and the document recognizes that developing countries will need more time to achieve this.
Critically, ambitions for the second half of the century were reined in. The aim had been for no more CO2 emissions after 2050, but oil-producing countries opposed this.
Instead, the document calls for forests to offset CO2 emissions in the second half of this century. There is no explicit call for de-carbonization of the economy or leaving fossil fuels in the ground.
Precise calendar and monitoring
There were concerns over verifying the implementation of plans for emissions curbs that 186 countries put on the table before the conference started.
First, a conference in 2018 will review and ratify some emission reductions targets. If they are ratified by 55% of countries, or countries representing 55% of global emissions, the Paris accord comes into effect in 2020.
Then, conferences from 2023 and every five years after that will take stock and set new, tighter emissions targets.
Countries are to monitor, verify and report greenhouse gas emissions using a global system, something the United States insisted upon against calls for a separate system for developing countries.
An advance on deforestation
The document calls for incentives to reduce emissions from deforestation and recognizes the importance of forest conservation and sustainable management.
“This provision is the most significant recognition given in one of these agreements to the role forests play in offsetting human action,” wrote Justin Gillis, climate science reporter at the New York Times.
Money — stronger language, but not legally binding
This was the most sensitive part of the deal for developing countries. The document sets the previous figure of $100 billion a year as a minimum for climate finance earmarked for helping poorer countries cope with climate change.
It gives the opportunity to review this upwards at any future conference. But this is not in the legally binding part of the document so as to avoid a review by the U.S. Senate, whose Republican majority would not approve it.
Loss and damage recognized
This is the first time an international climate change accord has recognized loss and damage caused by global warming, so it is significant, especially for the small island nations with most to lose. But on the insistence of rich countries, there was no acceptance of liability.
Towards carbon pricing?
The agreement does not call for putting a price on carbon, either through taxation or carbon markets, although environmentalists, economists and more recently businesses see this as essential to spur a shift away from carbon.
But some say the accord could open the door to schemes for countries to trade carbon liabilities and excesses.
Sue Landau is a freelance writer and translator based in Paris. She worked in financial and business journalism for 25 years at the International Herald Tribune, Reuters and the Investor’s Chronicle, chiefly in London and Paris. She reported on energy, new technologies, media and advertising, corporate and industry issues, wealth management and investment, and regional development.