The Plan from Paris to Save the World

The Plan from Paris to Save the World

After two weeks of negotiations, with one day of overtime, the Paris Conference of Parties (COP) has delivered a final agreement.

The celebrated host and shepherd of the COP, France’s Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, called it “differentiated, fair, dynamic, durable, balanced, and legally binding.” After five years of living in the shadow of the disappointment of the 2009 Copenhagen talks which failed to bring together the support necessary to secure a durable agreement, the international community can celebrate a strong first step in arresting global climate change. And it seems that this time around there is also full awareness of the scope of the task ahead — implementing the policies needed to make the agreement a reality on the ground.

In the days to come, a lot of information will emerge about the high drama and disputes that went into this agreement, as well as flood of assessments of which parts of the deal are ambitious and where work still needs to be done. For now, it is worth drawing attention to some of the factors that made the Paris COP successful, and why those who care about addressing climate change should be cautiously optimistic for the future.

Of all the diplomatic twists and turns that of the Paris conference from financing to a long term goal for greenhouse gas emissions neutrality — the emergence of a target of holding global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius stands apart. After all, the two-degree target, which had been reluctantly formalized in 2010, had long been the consensus target for the purposes of negotiations. As the COP unfolded, however, the much stronger 1.5 degree target was folded in as a reach goal, as the agreement finalized today reads with lapidary clarity the world’s new goal:

“Holding the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2 °C above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels, recognizing that this would significantly reduce the risks and impacts of climate change.”

It’s a lofty goal, and one that may not even be possible. The difficulty – according to the best climate science – is that on the current trajectory, the world is not likely to meet the long-standing goal of 2 degrees Celsius. According to Climate Action Tracker, a consortium of four climate science research institutes, claims that the current pledges will not hold global warming any lower than 2.7 degrees. As a practical matter, meeting 1.5 degrees Celsius would require not only a massive expansion of renewables and nuclear worldwide, but also deployment, at a commercial scale, of strategies for negative emissions: carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) technology that is still more of a dream than a practical solution.

In fact, the Paris agreement doesn’t contain a strategy for compelling action toward a 1.5 degree goal. As such, the goal is a symbolic one — but that doesn’t mean it’s not significant. It’s inclusion means that the parties have recognized the risk borne by small island developing states, who consider 1.5 C as the event horizon for whether they survive as nation-states in the traditional sense. Its inclusion serves a reminder that there is no “safe” level of global warming, and that the international community should act accordingly.

The second big surprise of the conference was the public unveiling of something that had been coalescing for apparently quite some time: the high ambition coalition, an informal grouping of like-minded nations with a common platform of issues they wanted to see addressed in the agreement. Conceived of at a preparatory meeting in July, it represented an effort to bridge old divides in climate diplomacy.

The rise of this group of now over 100 countries —including among others the United States, EU, Brazil, Australia, and the Marshall Islands (though not India or China, who expressed skepticism about the group’s aims) — representing of a majority of COP participants of various sizes and economic circumstances is noteworthy.

Trying to speak with one voice during the various negotiating sessions, they established a supermajority of sorts behind a strong long-term decarbonization goal, binding under international law, with transparency measures for tracking individual country action, including the important goal of reviewing individual pledges every five years. Prior COPs had always included a divide between developed and developing nations, whose responsibilities had always been divided by the original text of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the original international treaty that brought together the international community to deal with climate change. Fractures within the G77 — a loose coalition of developing countries— on climate priorities have been appearing for quite some time, especially with countries like China and Brazil, who had been categorized as “developing” in 1992 but having since grown by leaps and bound economically. But the fact that this faction organized itself and has been moving cohesively as a group toward long-term, verifiable goals is one of the most important things to come out of Paris, serving as evidence that old divisions should not stand in the way of meaningful action.

The agreement put forth today, contains a lot of moving parts, and getting them all to work will be essential. One of the most important, though, and something that the coalition had insisted on, is the review mechanism as the leverage for ramping up ambition over time, underlining that the plans developed so far are only first steps. Much more work will need to be done by all nations to bring about the long-term decarbonization needed to avoid the worst effects of climate change.

And these checks begin in 2023, with a five-year review cycle for each of the individual country’s plans. And those plans (termed Intended Nationally Determined Contributions, or INDCs prior to Paris) were a recognition that the Kyoto Protocol model of top-down mandates had been unsuccessful. In the United States in particular, the lack of a requirement of action for countries like India or China made the Kyoto Protocol politically a non-starter. By contrast, the bottom-up procedure did succeed in getting the majority of UNFCCC parties to submit plans. This time around, both India and China submitted plans that reflected their assessment of their economic circumstances, but also promised robust action. Now the challenge will be not only to ramp up the ambition of those plans over time, but, as the agreement acknowledges, improve the transparency and clarity of those plans. Considering that many of these individual country plans are contingent on financial assistance, it ensures that many developing countries like India will no doubt also be quite dependable in reminding developed countries like the United States of its still undisbursed pledge of $500 million for the Green Climate Fund.

U.S. President Barack Obama was criticized by Republicans in December for saying, in the wake of the terrorist attacks in Paris claimed, that this conference would be a “strong rebuke” to those who had killed so many innocents. Representative Marsha Blackburn from Tennessee had said that such language reflected the president’s “misplaced priorities.”

What Obama may have been trying to convey is not, as those like Blackburn believe, that he thinks solving climate change is more important than solving terrorism, or that a solution to the former would contribute to a solution to the latter. It was, rather, that this agreement, and the process behind it, was a statement of purpose by the international community: that amid a lot of divisions and seemingly intractable crises, nearly every country in the world could still come together, argue their interests, and, at the end of the day, put on paper a plan to save itself from an humanitarian and economic disaster.

The Paris agreement is not a perfect document, and it is by no means the last word on the subject. What it represents is the end of the beginning: the creation of an enabling document that puts the world on the right path forward.