Apollo Beach power plant

We’ll Always Have Paris

196 Nations Sign Historic Climate Deal

The international climate negotiations in Paris – technically the 21st Conference of Parties of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, or COP21 for short – has accomplished what to some had seemed impossible—a landmark climate deal signed by almost every nation in the world.

It’s been a long road to get to this point from when the conference kicked off with great fanfare two weeks ago. Heads of state, including President Obama, Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin, gave opening remarks and stayed for face-to-face meetings. The presence of so many world leaders right at the outset emphasized that member nations took COP21 very seriously, and have a much greater sense of urgency about these talks than they have at previous climate negotiations.

One of the first big outcomes of COP21 was that 20 countries committed to increase government-funded research and development of clean energy technologies and 28 billionaire investors (including Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, and Richard Branson) committed to increase venture capital to help deploy those technologies.

But when the press conferences ended, the real work began. And despite the lofty and united rhetoric of the opening statements, the summit had to resolve some major differences before the nations of the world could all get on board with the climate deal.

The Target: How much warming is too much?

When negotiations kicked off, the parties hadn’t even agreed on a goal to aim for. The official goal of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, identified at the 2009 climate summit in Copenhagen, is a level of global warming no greater than 3.6°F by 2100, in order to avoid the “serious consequences” that higher temperatures would bring. But small island nations like the Seychelles and Marshall Islands warned early in the summit that even 3.6°F would raise sea levels by a potentially devastating amount, and issued a call for an even more ambitious limit of 2.7°F.

The first draft that COP21 officials started working from included a half dozen different wording choices to describe the treaty’s temperature target. By the final accepted version, the negotiating ministers had replaced those six choices with language that is stronger than many observers had expected: “hold the increase in the global average temperature to well below 3.6°F above pre-industrial levels.” In fact, it goes on to aspire to an even more ambitious target, to “pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 2.7°F, recognizing that this would significantly reduce risks and impacts of climate change.” With this agreement, countries that never previously aimed for strong targets, like the U.S. and Brazil, joined the “high ambition coalition” of more than 100 countries calling for the 2.7°F target.

How to Get Therepacific sunset, © Robert Dietz

While 3.6°F versus 2.7°F is a matter of life and death for people that live near sea level, the next major question is how to achieve the goal. The current negotiation aimed to avoid the failures of the Kyoto Protocol by having each country set their own emissions reduction targets going into the convention. Unfortunately, these commitments would still result in a likely increase of 6.3°F of warming—more than double what we need to keep low-lying island nations on the map. Therefore, negotiators also had to determine how to implement a process to secure additional reductions over time, create a timetable for review and revision of commitments, and how to guarantee that countries are being accurate and transparent in reporting on their efforts.

In the end, the text made a fairly strong statement of an increasingly ambitious “ratcheting” of future greenhouse gas reductions. “Each Party’s successive [emissions reduction target] will represent a progression beyond the Party’s then current [one] and reflect its highest possible ambition.” This is an improvement over a December 10 draft that said the countries “should” do so. The final also included strong language on transparency and accuracy in emissions reporting.

Who Pays?

The last major issue of contention boils down to money. Transitioning to a low-carbon future is going to be expensive for developed and developing countries alike—though it pales in comparison to the cost of doing nothing. Extreme weather events have unfolded all over the world, including during COP21, and scientists are increasingly clear about the influence of climate change on such events. In many cases, the countries that have contributed the fewest emissions are at the most risk. Developing nations also contend they need financial assistance in order to grow their economies without the benefits of fossil fuels that the U.S., European Union and others have long enjoyed. Indigenous people also seek assurances that their rights won’t be trampled in the transition. Developed nations, on the other hand, staked out a position opposing any language that could put them on the hook for huge liability payments to developing countries harmed by climate change.

Polar bears, © Joan Cambray

The final text, however, reflected the U.S. desire that developed nations not face liability for climate pollution: the section on loss and damage specifies that it “does not involve or provide a basis for any liability or compensation.” The final treaty also “strongly urges” but doesn’t force developed nations to provide $100 billion per year in finance to help enable the clean energy transition and dealing with impacts.

The final text of this historic agreement only mentions “biodiversity” once, but don’t let that fool you. The leaders of the world this weekend took one of the biggest steps in history to protect our planet and its wildlife heritage. Now begins the hard work of making these global ambitions a reality.

Eiffel TowerAll Eyes on Paris. This concludes our four-part series on the international climate negotiations in Paris. Our first entry introduced the Paris talks; the second described wildlife we could lose to climate change; and the third describes U.S. efforts to address climate change.