COP21: What’s the Paris climate deal all about?

14 Dec 2015

Over the weekend, a landmark deal was made between almost 200 countries, aiming to rein in global warming. But what was agreed and what happens next?

First up, the headlines. 195 countries have agreed to keep, or at least agreed to aim to keep, the average global temperature rise below 2oC above pre-industrial levels (we are nearly 1oC above pre-industrial revolution levels at the moment).

This basically means a dramatic reduction in pace of the way we have been going for the past 100 years or so – particularly the past 30.

There is also hope to hit an even lower figure, limiting warming to 1.5oC, which is what threatened countries like the Marshall Islands – and business groups – lobbied heavily for.

The agreement recognised two incredibly important facts:

  • “That climate change represents an urgent and potentially irreversible threat to human societies and the planet and thus requires the widest possible cooperation by all countries.”
  • “That deep reductions in global emissions will be required in order to achieve the ultimate objective of the Convention and emphasising the need for urgency in addressing climate change.”

Stop in the name of law

“This is truly a historic moment,” the United Nations secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, said. “For the first time, we have a truly universal agreement on climate change, one of the most crucial problems on earth.”

There are no clear protocols to follow to achieve this – although reducing carbon emissions is a general rule of thumb. This seems more an international policy, something which has brought about stark criticism.

While the agreement has been called ‘legally binding’, the nuances show that this is not quite true. As The Guardian reports, for example, US insistence meant that the 31-page agreement “was explicitly crafted to exclude emissions reductions targets and finance from the legally binding parts of the deal”.

This was pressed home to allow for a deeply-divided two-party system to each approve the deal, something which has not happened just yet.

Two, that’s the magic number?

The 2oC target has been lauded and criticised in equal measure. The hope is that a 2oC rise is (a) achievable and (b) enough to save many threatened parts of the world.

We don’t actually know what temperature is needed to protect Greenland and the Antarctic’s ice sheets. As Justin Gills writes in the The New York Times, for example, “there is a chance that staying below 2oC would avoid that trigger point”, although 1.5oC would be even better.

However, others are not so confident.

“We have had a global temperature rise of almost 1oC since the industrial revolution and have already seen widespread impacts that have had real consequences for people,” said climate expert Professor Chris Field of Stanford University.

“We should, therefore, be striving to limit warming to as far below 2oC as possible. However, that will require a level of ambition that we have not yet seen.”

Money talks

A key achievement in the negotiations seems to be the agreement among the world’s richest nations to raise enough funds so that, by the end of the decade, $100bn will be made available to developing nations, annually, to help limit their use of fossil fuels.

Basically, richer countries have gotten to where they are, to a significant degree, by using fossil fuels. Thus, it is up to them to finance those who cannot afford, yet, to rein in their use.

A five-year review cycle is part of the agreement, too, where countries meet up to assess and plan once more, on the back of up-to-date environmental research.

This, actually, is where the legalities lie. The individual plans of, say, Ireland, India, Israel and Indonesia, are not legally binding, “but the legal requirements that they publicly monitor, verify, and report what they are doing, as well as publicly put forth updated plans, are designed to create a ‘name-and-shame’ system of global peer pressure, in hopes that countries will not want to be seen as international laggards”, The New York Times reports.

Continually tackle the issue

Despite what look like flaws, this agreement is still incredibly significant. Bringing together 195 nations to agree on anything at all would be incredibly significant.

Barack Obama

“The Paris agreement establishes the enduring framework the world needs to solve the climate crisis,” said US president Barack Obama, whose intricate passage through both international and local pitfalls is well documented here.

“It creates the mechanism, the architecture, for us to continually tackle this problem in an effective way.”

Polar bear and Barack Obama images via Flickrfavorites and BeckyF on Flickr

Gordon Hunt was a journalist with Silicon Republic