Well, that was easy. I mean, not that easy—there apparently was some late-night posturing and maybe even some shouting—but negotiators from 195 nations in Paris actually managed to hammer out a climate change deal. The agreement will incorporate the carbon reduction goals that each country proposed prior to the meeting, with a goal of keeping the global average mean temperature rise below 1.5 degrees Celsius over the long term. The negotiators may have overshot their self-imposed deadline, but if their work over the past two weeks ends up staving off the worst effects of a warming planet, what difference does a day make?
Before the conference began, we anticipated three significant sticking points for the negotiators. Here’s how they were settled.
The Paris agreement requires each country to revisit its carbon reduction commitment every five years, beginning in 2020. They will issue new greenhouse gas reduction targets every five years, with the target dates also rolling in five-year cycles. Since the 2015 commitments have target dates between 2025 and 2030, the 2020 commitments will have target dates between 2030 and 2035.
Several countries, most notably Saudi Arabia, reportedly opposed any fixed reassessment process, while others, such as India, argued that the reassessment process should be voluntary. This outcome is a victory for the countries seeking a serious, comprehensive approach to climate change.
The arrangement is a big improvement over the current process, if you can call ad hoc meetings every few years a process. The major benefit of the reassessment system is that it puts in place a timetable for future carbon reductions, rather than forcing negotiators to put everything back on the table at each conference.
At the 2009 Copenhagen conference, developed countries agreed to mobilize $100 billion by 2020, but that wouldn’t be nearly enough to help developing countries move away from fossil fuels, and Paris negotiators had to establish a funding system that extended beyond 2020. Transitioning from our entrenched fossil fuel system to green energy could cost $44 trillion by mid-century, according to a 2014 report by the International Energy Agency. That figure doesn’t include the construction of seawalls to hold back the rising oceans, the cost of relocating affected communities, and countless other expenses. Solving all of those problems will pay for itself in the long term. In the short term, however, it’s going to take massive investment. A hundred billion dollars is barely a down payment.
Parties to the Paris deal have made a vague promise. Rather than setting a specific finance goal, the developed countries agreed to “set a new collective quantified goal from a floor of USD 100 billion per year” before the 2025 climate change conference. It’s a bit mealymouthed, but the problem is the U.S. Senate. A specific commitment of money could have triggered the Senate ratification requirement. (The U.S. Senate, in case you haven’t noticed, is not inclined to approve any climate change agreement.)
The document signed today mandates that all countries—regardless of income level—provide all the information necessary for external experts to track their carbon-cutting progress, making it possible for the international community to fully analyze the success of each participant. The word flexibility is used, and the agreement will recognize “different Parties’ capacities,” but the fundamental requirements cut across the spectrum of rich and poor nations.
This was important because the 1997 Kyoto Protocol drew a sharp distinction between developed and developing countries. That division has affected almost every aspect of the international approach to climate change mitigation—who gets money, who gives money, reporting obligations, and so on.
Under the previous system, developed countries were required to report their emissions and progress toward achieving their carbon targets. If they weren’t on track to fulfill their commitments, they would be out of compliance. (There are few concrete consequences for noncompliance, since it’s mostly a naming-and-shaming system, but nobody likes to be shamed.) In contrast, developing countries merely had to be fully transparent and honest about their emissions to remain in compliance.
The United States and Europe strongly opposed this system, since China and several other major emitters are still classified as developing. It was a major point of contention during the Paris negotiations. Just a few days ago, negotiators were so far apart that the draft contained two entirely different options for reporting requirements, and even those alternatives contained the dreaded ###, indicating that negotiators had no idea what words to put into the sentence. (And, as with the reassessment process, Saudi Arabia was an obstacle. The country objected to having any international observers entering the kingdom to verify the information provided in reports.)
A couple of other issues that threatened to roil the negotiations were settled with surprising ease. Prior to Paris, many observers tagged the “loss and damage” issue as a potential deal-breaker. The idea behind loss and damage is that some climate change impacts are already unavoidable. Even if we comprehensively address greenhouse gas emissions today, temperatures and sea levels will continue to rise for decades. Farmers will lose their arable land, coastal dwellers will lose their homes, and some small islanders may even lose their countries.
Many developing countries, led by the Association of Small Island States (AOSIS), pushed for a provision acknowledging that the developed world bears responsibility for these irremediable harms, something that the United States, Europe, and other developed nations firmly opposed. The developed nations worried that such an admission would lead to nearly unlimited liability. (What do you pay someone after you’ve submerged his home in the sea?)
In the Paris agreement, the negotiators took only baby steps on loss and damage. The document calls for research and information-sharing on insurance mechanisms to address loss and damage issues, and it envisions an expert task force to develop recommendations for future climate change conferences.
Another issue, which few people saw coming, allows us to end on a note of optimism. Since at least 1990, the stated goal of climate change mitigation has been to limit global average temperature rise to 2 degrees Celsius. There were suggestions at the time that higher temperatures would lead to feedback loops that would send the temperature soaring higher and higher. Ever since the target was made explicit, most scientists and many policy makers have attacked it. There are, for example, potential feedback loops beginning at temperatures both lower and higher than the targeted maximum. Some of the consequences of a 2-degree rise are intolerable, such as the loss of most of the world’s coral reefs and three feet of sea level rise.
The most important critique of 2 degrees, however, is that it’s fundamentally unjust. Global average temperature rise is just that: an average. It doesn’t account for hot spots, like the Arctic, where the temperature will rise far more than 2 degrees. More important, some islands will almost certainly go underwater after a global temperature increase of 2 degrees.
Tony de Brum, the foreign minister of the Marshall Islands, drew the world’s attention to this issue early in the negotiations, but the unexpected stars of the Paris talks were indigenous peoples. They came from Papua New Guinea, from Indonesia, from northern Sweden, and from every other corner of the globe to put a face on the 2-degree target. They told negotiators that the 2-degree target would destroy their homes and their way of life.
In response, a raft of countries formed a “high ambition coalition,” pushing for the climate change target to be lowered by an extremely significant 0.5 degrees Celsius. While the old 2-degree target remains in the text as a remnant, the coalition successfully inserted 1.5 degrees as the limit necessary to produce a balanced global ecosystem and justice for as many people as possible. It was a victory for science, for understanding, and for humanity.
Hopefully it will also be a starting point of a true process to address climate change. Now, about hitting those targets…
onEarth provides reporting and analysis about environmental science, policy, and culture. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. Learn more or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.