Assessing the COP21 Climate Agreement
December 16, 2015
The Guardian & The Washington Examiner & Vox
Governments have signaled an end to the fossil fuel era, committing to a universal agreement to cut greenhouse gas emissions and to avoid the most dangerous effects of climate change. After 20 years of meetings, negotiators from nearly 200 countries signed on to a legal agreement that sets ambitious goals to limit temperature rises and to hold governments to account for reaching those targets.
Paris Climate Deal: Nearly 200 Nations Sign in End of Fossil Fuel Era
Two decades of talks have come to this: an ambitious agreement to hold states to emissions targets -- but already low-lying countries are worried
Suzanne Goldenberg, John Vidal, Lenore Taylor, Adam Vaughan and Fiona Harvey / The Guardian
PARIS (December 12, 2015) -- Governments have signaled an end to the fossil fuel era, committing for the first time to a universal agreement to cut greenhouse gas emissions and to avoid the most dangerous effects of climate change.
After 20 years of fraught meetings, including the past two weeks spent in an exhibition hall on the outskirts of Paris, negotiators from nearly 200 countries signed on to a legal agreement on Saturday evening that set ambitious goals to limit temperature rises and to hold governments to account for reaching those targets.
Government and business leaders said the agreement, which set a new goal to reach net zero emissions in the second half of the century, sent a powerful signal to global markets, hastening the transition away from fossil fuels and to a clean energy economy.
The deal was carefully constructed to carry legal force but without requiring approval by the US Congress - which would have almost certainly rejected it.
After last-minute delays, caused by typos, mistranslations and disagreements over a single verb in the highly complicated legal text, Laurent Fabius, the French foreign minister, brought down a special leaf-shaped gavel to adopt the agreement. The hall erupted in applause and cheers. "It is a small gavel but I think it can do a great job," Fabius said.
Fabius said: "It is my deep conviction that we have come up with an ambitious and balanced agreement. Today it is a moment of truth."
The agreement was equally a victory for the United Nations, which spent four years overcoming political inertia and the deep divisions between rich and poor countries, to put together the ambitious deal. "I used to say: we must, we can, we will," Christiana Figueres, the UN climate chief who guided the talks, tweeted. "Today we can say we did."
The US president, Barack Obama, hailed the agreement as "a tribute to strong, principled American leadership" and a vital step in ensuring the future of the planet.
"This agreement represents the best chance we have to save the one planet that we've got," he said, but added that the deal "was not perfect. The problem's not solved because of this accord."
Miguel Arias Cañete, the EU's climate commissioner, said the agreement had re-affirmed confidence in the UN process. "This was the last chance [for the UN process]," he added, "and we have taken it."
Al Gore, the former US vice-president who helped draft the 1997 Kyoto climate treaty, was in the hall. He appeared visibly moved when the agreement was gavelled in and said the accord would have a powerful effect on the economy.
"This universal and ambitious agreement sends a clear signal to governments, businesses, and investors everywhere: the transformation of our global economy from one fuelled by dirty energy to one fuelled by sustainable economic growth is now firmly and inevitably underway," Gore said in a statement.
Six years after the chaotic ending of the Copenhagen climate summit, the agreement now known as the Paris Agreement for the first time commits rich countries, rising economies and some of the poorest countries to work together to curb emissions.
Rich countries agreed to raise $100bn (£66bn) a year by 2020 to help poor countries transform their economies. The overall agreement is legally binding, but some elements -- including the pledges to curb emissions by individual countries and the climate finance elements -- are not.
The deal was also hailed for delivering a clear message to business leaders. The International Investors Group on Climate Change, a network managing €13 trillion of assets, said the decision would help trigger a shift away from fossil fuels and encourage greater investments in renewable energy.
"Investors across Europe will now have the confidence to do much more to address the risks arising from high carbon assets and to seek opportunities linked to the low carbon transition already transforming the world's energy system and infrastructure," the group said.
Jennifer Morgan, of the environmental thinktank, the World Resources Institute, said the long term goal was "transformational" and "sends signals into the heart of the markets".
The deal set a high aspirational goal to limit warming below 2C and strive to keep temperatures at 1.5C above pre-industrial levels -- a far more ambitious target than expected, and a key demand of vulnerable countries.
It incorporates commitments from 187 countries to reduce emissions, which on their own would only hold warming to between 2.7C and 3C.
But it sets out procedures for review at regular intervals to deepen emissions cuts, with countries aiming to peak global greenhouse gas emissions as soon as possible, and then rapidly scale down in the second half of this century.
Critics said the agreement would still condemn hundreds of million of people living in low-lying coastal areas and small islands, after US negotiators demanded the exclusion of language that could allow the agreement to be used to claim legal liability for climate change. But supporters said the negotiations took a significant step forward in getting countries to act together on a global challenge of immense complexity.
Saturday's agreement was the product of years of preparation, two weeks of intense negotiations, capped off by three sleepless nights, with Barack Obama and Hollande phoning other leaders to bring them on side with the deal.
Accounts from behind the closed doors of negotiating session described tense exchanges between oil-producing countries, such as Saudi Arabia and Russia, and a rapidly constituted US- and Europe-backed High Ambition Coalition, which kept up the pressure for a strong temperature goal and regular reviews of emission-cutting plans.
The French hosts also won praise from negotiators for using a mixture of informal huddles, or indabas, and traditional shuttle diplomacy to bring the deal home.
The text commits countries to peak greenhouse gas emissions as soon as possible, and to seek a balance between human-caused emissions and removals by carbon sinks.
"This means bringing down greenhouse gas emissions to net zero within a few decades," said John Schellnhuber, director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, and a climate adviser to the Vatican.
But he added that countries would have to move aggressively, peaking before 2030 and eliminating emissions by 2050 through reforestation and technologies such as carbon capture and storage.
For vulnerable countries, the high ambition of the 1.5C goal was offset by the weakening of the agreement when it came to dealing with irreparable damage of climate change.
"The idea of even discussing loss and damage now or in the future was off limits. The Americans told us it would kill the COP," said Leisha Beardmore, the chief negotiator for the Seychelles. "They have always been telling us: 'Don't even say that'."
Even so, campaign groups were broadly positive about the outcome. Given intense pressure from oil-producing countries, negotiators managed to craft a text that was far more ambitious than expected.
The universal nature of the agreement was a radical departure from the Kyoto Protocol, the 1997 agreement that drew sharp divisions between the obligations of wealthy and developing countries but ultimately failed to lower emissions.
Unlike Kyoto, the agreement reached on Saturday depends on political will, with countries setting their own climate action plans.
Rich countries promised that by 2025 they would set a new goal for climate finance "from a floor of $100bn per year", the figure first pledged at the Copenhagen climate talks six years ago. However, the commitment was offered as a non-binding decision that accompanied the binding text.
All the countries agreed on demands from the US and European Union for five-year reviews of their emissions reductions -- an exercise that had been resisted by China.
Final Deal Reached in Paris,
But Major Portion Could Need Congressional Approval
Kyle Feldscher / The Washington Examiner
(December 12, 2015) -- The world is set to approve a final agreement on combating climate change after a final draft was released Saturday morning following all-night talks in Paris.
But the deal looks likely to include trouble for the American delegation.
The 31-page pact, released at 7:30 a.m. Eastern Time, seeks to hold global temperature rise "well below" 2 degrees Celsius with an eye toward keeping it below 1.5 degrees Celsius. It includes reviews every five years of each country's commitments to lowering greenhouse gas.
The one part of the agreement that could be a point of contention with American negotiators is a legally-binding, but non-specific, requirement for developed countries to provide financial resources to developing countries under international law.
This has been a major sticking point for Republicans in Congress. GOP lawmakers have rejected the notion of sending billions abroad to developing countries to help fight the effects of climate change.
President Obama has pledged $3 billion to a so-called Green Climate Fund for developing countries.
A non-legally binding part of the agreement sets a goal of developed countries to provide $100 billion annually to developing countries by 2020.
That sticking point didn't change the mood of celebration in the air at the conference Saturday.
In an emotional speech before the conference, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, host of the talks, said the world was counting on them to approve the agreement.
"The Paris agreement text allows each delegation to go back home with their head held high," he said.
The 196 countries at the conference are expected to vote on passing the agreement around midday. Discussion on the agreement will start at the conference about 9:45 a.m. Eastern Time.
Many countries seeking a strong agreement will give a sigh of relief at seeing a potential self-destruct button in the bill weakened in the final version.
For the agreement to take effect by Jan. 1, 2020, 55 countries accounting for 55 percent of global emissions must domestically approve the agreement. In the previous draft, negotiations were considering requiring 70 percent of global emissions to approve the deal. That would have meant the agreement could die if some big emitters couldn't approve it domestically.
The deal would see the countries agree to peak greenhouse gas emissions "as soon as possible," with rapid reductions coming after emissions peak.
The language in the bill states countries have "common but differentiated" responsibility to fight climate change. That wording will be seen as a win by developing countries who seek to blame developed nations for causing climate change with greenhouse gas emissions. Countries with low emissions will be required to do less under the agreement than high-emission nations.
French President Francois Hollande called on the nations at the conference to "save the world."
"History is coming. History is here," he said. "All the conditions are reunited. The decisive agreement for Earth is now."
The agreement also has wins for American negotiators, who wanted to see strong transparency requirements included. Countries will be required to report on their progress toward their emissions goals every other year.
Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune hailed the deal as a "turning point for humanity."
"For the first time in history, the global community agreed to action that sets the foundation to help prevent the worst consequences of the climate crisis while embracing the opportunity to exponentially grow our clean energy economy," Brune said.
The World Just Agreed to
A Major Climate Deal in Paris.
Now Comes the Hard Part
Brad Plumer / Vox
(December 12, 2015) -- After two weeks of bleary all-nighters in Paris, diplomats from around the world have hammered out a major global agreement to address climate change. Here's the full 31-page document, which was approved by 195 countries on Saturday.
It's important to be clear on what this wad of paper actually does. The Paris climate agreement hasn't saved the planet, and it hasn't solved global warming. Not by itself. Instead, the deal is supposed to add structure and momentum to efforts that are currently underway around the world to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
That's a worthwhile task in its own right. Since 2014, nearly every country has submitted a voluntary plan to the United Nations for tackling climate change. The US is reducing carbon dioxide from power plants. China is boosting wind and solar. And so on. But those pledges, in the aggregate, remain weak and inadequate.
If you add them all up, global emissions are projected to keep rising through 2030, putting us on pace for 2.7°C (or more) of warming by century's end. That's well above the 2°C threshold that many scientists argue is unacceptably risky:
What this Paris agreement does, then, is provide a set of diplomatic tools to prod countries into cutting emissions even more deeply over time. The deal's text starts with aspirational goals: The world should aim for an emissions peak "as soon as possible" and limit total warming to less than 2°C, or perhaps even to 1.5°C. (The Earth has already warmed about 1°C since pre-industrial times.) It's a signal that countries at least hope to do more than they're already doing.
The deal then adds transparency measures to verify that nations are actually restraining their emissions. Importantly, it requires that countries reconvene every five years to reconsider the ambition level of their pledges. And wealthy countries have set a goal of providing more than $100 billion per year in public and private financing by 2020 for poorer countries, to help them invest in clean energy and cope with sea-level rise, droughts, floods, and other ravages of climate change.
There are plenty of hard questions about how effective these diplomatic tools will be. Will the transparency measures work? Will that climate aid actually materialize? The basic reality, though, is that the Paris agreement can only encourage countries to step up their efforts. It can't force them to do so. That's the hard part, the part that comes next. Further action will ultimately depend on policymakers and investors and engineers and scientists and activists across the globe, not the UN.
In other words, the Paris deal is only a first step. Perhaps the easiest step. To stop global warming, every country will have to do much, much more in the years ahead to transition away from fossil fuels (which still provide 86 percent of the world's energy), move to cleaner sources, and halt deforestation. Countries will have to pursue new policies, adopt new technologies, go far beyond what they've already promised.
If we want decent odds of staying below 2°C of global warming -- the grandiose target laid out in the Paris deal -- then most countries will have to make radical changes, and quickly. It's an extraordinarily difficult undertaking, with no guarantees we'll succeed.
What the Paris Climate Deal Does, Exactly
Start with this fact: The Paris deal, negotiated through the United Nations, does not legally require any emission cuts. Negotiators tried to craft an agreement like that back in 1997, with the Kyoto Protocol, and it simply didn't work. It was infeasible to force countries to make sharp cuts they didn't want to make. (See here for more on that history.)
Instead, the Paris talks took a radically different approach. Every country started off by deciding for itself how it plans to tackle greenhouse gas emissions, taking into account its own unique domestic situation. Since 2014, every single major emitter has submitted a climate pledge to the UN. A few highlights:
* The United States is vowing to cut its greenhouse gas emissions at least 26 percent below 2005 levels by 2025, through policies like the Clean Power Plan to decarbonize power plants.
* The European Union will cut emissions 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2030.
* China has vowed that its emissions will peak around 2030 and that it will get about 20 percent of its electricity from carbon-free sources by then.
* Brazil will cut emissions 37 percent below 2005 levels by 2025, with an emphasis on curbing illegal deforestation in the Amazon.
* India will continue to reduce its carbon intensity, or CO2 output per unit of economic activity, in line with historic levels (though overall emissions will grow).
These pledges are all plausible, rooted in each country's analysis of what's politically possible and technologically feasible. But they're also insufficient to avoid serious climate change. As noted earlier, if you assume every country follows its pledge to the letter, global emissions would nonetheless keep rising through 2030, and we'll be setting ourselves up for around 3°C of global warming by century's end, well past the 2°C mark long considered bad news.
So that's where this Paris agreement comes in. The goal was to provide a support structure that will, negotiators hope, allow these national pledges to get stronger over time. Key features in the final deal include:
* An overall temperature goal. The Earth has already warmed about 1°C since pre-industrial levels, because of all the greenhouse gases we've put into the air. As part of the Paris deal, countries are aiming to overall total global warming to less than 2°C, and possibly even keep it down to 1.5°C, in recognition that many dangerous impacts are likely to occur above that level. Of course, these goals are only aspirational, and they'll be impossible to meet without policies to match.
* An overall emissions goal. Currently global emissions aren't expected to peak until 2030 or later, which would make it extremely difficult, if not impossible, to stay below 2°C. So as part of the deal, countries agreed on a vague goal of aiming for peak emissions "as soon as possible." They will also aim to achieve net zero emissions by the second half of the century, though there's no specific timeline.
* Pledges will get reviewed every five years. As noted before, the current climate pledges offered by nations don't come anywhere close to keeping us below 2°C of global warming, let alone 1.5°C. So as part of the deal, countries will be encouraged to submit new and stronger pledges every five years, starting in 2020. Again, this agreement won't require anyone to keep cutting more deeply, but the goal is to pressure countries to consider stronger action over time.
* Financing for poor countries. Poorer countries will need help in adopting clean energy and adapting to climate impacts -- floods, storms, sea-level rise, and so on. So the deal requires developed countries to provide aid for this purpose, although it doesn't mandate a specific number. (Developed countries have set a non-binding goal of $100 billion per year in public and private investment by 2020, and the deal calls for an increase over time.) The accountability measures here are fairly weak. In the past, critics say, rich countries have often relabeled existing aid as "climate aid." There's no provision here to ensure that this financing is brand new.
* Loss and damage. A certain amount of global warming is already baked into the system, and some countries are going to suffer no matter what. Low-lying islands, for instance, could get consumed by sea-level rise. So many poorer countries had been pushing for compensation from richer countries, which are after all responsible for most of the emissions in the atmosphere. The US had opposed this, and the deal "does not involve or provide a basis for any liability or compensation." But it does set up committees to deal with displacement and other related issues.
* Transparency measures. The deal calls for yet-to-be-determined reporting and monitoring measures to ensure that countries are actually cutting their emissions as much as promised. Countries like China and India had opposed overly intrusive inspections, which is why the deal calls for a "transparency framework" that is "facilitative, non-intrusive, non-punitive manner, respectful of national sovereignty, and avoid placing undue burden on Parties." How this works in practice remains to be seen.
* Legal status. This deal has a fairly odd legal status. The climate pledges themselves are not binding -- if a country fails to cut emissions as much as it had promised, there are no penalties or anything. But much of the supporting structure is binding: the transparency mechanisms, the promise to come back every five years, etc. The main reason for this setup is so that the treaty does not have to be ratified by the US Senate, which would never happen. (Though it also means a future US president could pretty easily abandon Obama's climate pledges.)
You'll notice that some of these provisions are ambiguously worded and will likely need to be hashed out in future UN sessions, starting with the 2016 summit in Morocco. "Many segments contain very vague language, but this kind of 'constructive ambiguity' is often the only way to get a deal done," explained Oliver Geden, who heads the EU research division at SWP, the German Institute for International and Security Affairs. "The actual meaning will only develop over time, as a result of ongoing power struggles."
The Paris deal will officially come into force when at least 55 countries accounting for 55 percent of global emissions have formally acceded. (So, for instance, you'd probably need China, the United States, Europe, India, and Russia to all come on board.)
Will This Climate Deal Actually Work?
Can We Stay Below 2°C?
There's ample room for skepticism about this agreement. Countries are offering up entirely voluntary climate pledges that are, so far, awfully flimsy. (India, for instance, has said that its emissions will keep rising indefinitely as it burns more coal to climb out of poverty.)
The parties have only agreed to vague feel-good goals at Paris -- limit global warming to 1.5°C, have emissions peak "as soon as possible" -- without a well-defined plan for how to actually achieve those targets.
So, yes, there's a chance that the Paris deal, and the processes it sets in motion, could prove ineffective. That's the risk with any treaty based on voluntary actions. It's why you see critics like James Hansen, a prominent climate scientist, calling these talks "worthless."
Again, though, the rationale behind the Paris approach was that no one could ever get China, India, or the United States to agree to a legally binding UN deal that mandated deep cuts or global carbon taxes from the get-go. So instead, negotiators decided to start with voluntary pledges, ensure universal participation, and then try to iterate from there, through cooperation and political persuasion.
As political scientist David Victor told me: "The encouraging precedent here is in trade -- where you get a bicycle theory of cooperation." This is the idea that once the process of trade liberalization gets underway, it keeps gathering momentum in subsequent talks: "You build credibility and trust over time and then move to bigger issues."
Or, if you like metaphors: Think of the countries making climate pledges as a bunch of out-of-shape slobs trying (and failing miserably) to qualify for a relay event. The Paris agreement can't force these people to train harder.
But it can put their names up on a whiteboard, track their progress, work out gym subsidies for those who can't afford it, and facilitate peer pressure. Obviously the exercise is the crucial part, and that ultimately depends on each individual. But that other stuff can help.
So it's worth keeping these talks in perspective. The Paris agreement can support ongoing efforts to reduce fossil fuel emissions and curb deforestation. But whether Earth warms 2°C or 2.5°C or 3°C simply won't be decided by this deal alone. That will depend on what future policies get enacted by individual countries, on how quickly we switch over to alternative energy sources, on how technology evolves.
And the bottom line is that current policies will have to undergo a serious revision if we want to avoid drastic temperature increases. A recent report from MIT and Climate Interactive looked at how national pledges would have to be ratcheted up between now and 2030 to stay below 2°C of warming:
(Sterman, et al, 2015)
Those are wrenching changes. China would have to do much more to ramp up low-carbon energy and shift away from coal so that emissions peak by 2025 instead of 2030. The United States would have to double or triple its current climate policies.
Coming even close to 2°C would involve far-reaching efforts to decarbonize homes, vehicles, power plants, and factories. Clean tech would have to proliferate far more rapidly. Plus, we'd likely need to develop technology to suck massive amounts of CO2 out of the air by the latter half of the century. No one knows if that's even feasible.
But that would be true with or without this agreement. Tackling climate change is a massive, herculean task, the work of generations. That was true before the Paris deal, and it's just as true now.
What Else Should I Read about the Paris Deal?
* Some of the best, most detailed analysis of the Paris climate agreement is happening over at Carbon Brief. Check out its rundown of the final deal here.
* Here is my history of the 2°C global warming target, and here's a look at how the math of meeting it looks increasingly brutal.
* Robert McSweeney and Roz Pidcock looked at why negotiators adopted the even more stringent goal of 1.5°C in the final deal. Many of the risks of climate change, such as damage to coral reefs, are thought to happen even before we hit 2°C. The problem is that it's extremely unlikely, at this point, that we can cut emissions enough to stay at 1.5°C.
* Michael Levi has a smart analysis of the final Paris climate deal, noting that many of the divisions and acrimony that plagued past climate talks could still resurface in the future. He also notes that public perception of the deal could matter a lot in determining its success.
Coral Davenport of the New York Times argues that the Paris deal will be a success if it provides a signal to markets and investors that clean energy is the future. We'll see if that happens, but that could end up being the deal's most concrete impact.
Finally, one thing the Paris deal didn't address was international shipping and aviation, which account for 4 percent of global emissions. That will be left for future talks. Read Julian Spector's piece for a look at why this is such a tricky issue.
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