News•December 12, 2015
World Unites, Delivers Hopeful Climate Deal
By John Upton
LE BOURGET, France — As the world’s hottest year on record nears an end, a new approach to fighting global warming under the guidance of the United Nations was agreed upon here Saturday, ushering in an era of hope that the world can limit the devastating impacts of climate change.
After decades of failures to cooperate to slow the release of climate pollution, the Paris Agreement is a global framework crafted to transition away from fossil fuel-based economies toward cleaner energy supplies, and to protect the forests and other ecosystems that help keep the planet cool.
Aiming to curb warming well below the low level of 2°C that many see as critical but unlikely, the new pact will rely on the individual efforts of nearly 200 nations striving in their own ways to reduce their impacts on the climate. No penalties will be imposed on those who fail to live up to their promises.
“This is in the interest of every nation on earth. We have taken a critical step forward,” said U.S. Secretary of State, John Kerry. “It's a victory for all of the planet and for future generations.”
A climate rally in Paris on Saturday.
The eventual success of the pact in limiting global warming won’t be known for years, given its untested and heavy emphasis on voluntary measures to reducing pollution.
French foreign minister Laurent Fabius, who presided over two weeks of negotiations in a sprawling conference center, attended by tens of thousands of national delegates, official observers, scientists, environmental advocates and journalists, lauded the pact as “differentiated, fair, durable, dynamic, balanced and legally binding.”
Climate pledges submitted by nations ahead of the two-week round of negotiations here wouldn’t do nearly enough to keep warming well below the 2°C target, let alone its loftier goal of 1.5°C. However, the hope is that the agreement will establish a system that successfully improves on those pledges over time.
Under a key compromise between European and American negotiators, some parts of the pact will be binding under international law, while other aspects will be voluntary.
Perhaps most significantly, the agreement could send a message to the energy sector and its investors that solar and wind power and other clean energy sources will be increasingly favored over fossil fuel energy.
Such impacts wouldn’t come directly from the Paris Agreement, but from the domestic policies that countries put in place to meet the pledges that they make under it, said Harvard University economics professor Robert Stavins. “These various policies have the teeth to impact business decisions,” Stavins said.
The fossil fuel industry still receives hundreds of billions of dollars annually in government subsidies globally, helping it outcompete cleaner and more modern alternatives. The new pact may help in whittling away those handouts — something that many consider to be key to effectively slowing global warming.
Failed negotiations and climate pacts of years and decades past took heavy-handed, top-down approaches, trying to force developed countries to reduce their pollution levels by arbitrary amounts. The Paris Agreement is radically different. It relies on stringent monitoring of almost all countries as they strive to reduce pollution levels to levels they set themselves, using strategies of their own choosing.
Finalization of the 31-page agreement followed two weeks of enervating negotiations that sometimes ran through nights. “We didn’t sleep very much,” Fabius said. That culminated with resolution of a tense diplomatic staredown between China and India and much of the rest of the world on Saturday over how far-reaching the climate pact would be.
The outcome was a diplomatic triumph for France, which rallied for it throughout the year and carefully guided the negotiations. It will now have the name of its capital city enshrined in an agreement that profoundly pleased many. The triumph came amid national grief, fear and intense police investigations following terrorist attacks that killed 130 in Paris a month ago.
During an address to negotiators on Saturday, French President François Hollande described the “gridlock” that has defined the past two decades of failed climate negotiations as a “source of great disappointment for all those who wanted the planet to have a future.”
Although climate rallies planned earlier in the month had been outlawed by officials wary of subsequent attacks, leading to teargas-drenched duels between police and protesters, a more celebratory rally in Paris was allowed to proceed on Saturday.
From left, French president François Hollande, French foreign minister Laurent Fabius and U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon applauded as climate negotiations drew to a close in Paris.
Ahead of the historic round of annual negotiations, countries submitted pledges outlining how they plan to protect the climate beginning in 2020. The new approach had been heavily backed and devised by U.S. negotiators. In the end, the U.S. got what it wanted from the pact.
Under the agreement, countries will be required to review and potentially improve their pledges every five years as part of a goal of keeping global warming to “well below” 2°C compared with preindustrial times, while also “pursuing efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C.”
The 1°C of warming so far has already had profound effects on the weather and on tide levels. Additional warming will make wildfire seasons fiercer, heat-waves hotter and deluges heavier. Seas have risen 8 inches since the 1800s, leading to routine flooding in the U.S. and in coastal cities worldwide.
In studies published last month in a special supplement of the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society, all eight found clear evidence that climate change played a role in making extreme heat events more intense or more likely to occur. More recently, climate change was found to have made a major storm that dumped 13 inches of rain in some parts of England 40 percent more likely.
Progress toward meeting the pledges, which are designed to reduce the worsening effects of climate change, will be monitored internationally. But there will be no international legal repercussions for failure. That approach was strongly favored by the Americans.
Experts say the U.S. government will be able to join the new treaty under its existing laws, including the Clean Air Act and the 1992 treaty that founded the climate negotiations. It could do that without seeking approval from the U.S. Senate, which is controlled by the Republican Party, and which is against climate action.
In a compromise from Europe, the aspects of the pact that may have required U.S. Senate approval, including any requirements that national climate pledges actually be met, were left nonbinding.
“The silver lining here is that nonbinding commitments may make a more effective agreement,” said Alex Hanafi, a senior attorney with the nonprofit Environmental Defense Fund who closely follows climate negotiations. “Nonbinding commitments can increase ambition, as countries feel more free to put forward stretch targets.”
The U.S. pledged to produce 26 percent less climate-changing pollution in 2025 than was the case in 2005. The European Union said it would reduce its pollution 40 percent in 2030, compared with 1990 levels. China’s pledge would see its annual growth in pollution rates halted by 2030.
To help meet their pledges, countries may set up carbon cap-and-trade programs, such as those already operating in Europe, parts of China, South Korea, California and in some states along and near the U.S. eastern seaboard. The new agreement clearly allows countries to link their programs together, effectively promoting international pollution trading.
The agreement contains some glaring gaps. Most notably, it may do little to clean up the heavily polluting shipping and airline industries. And its reliance on guidelines established by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change could also see power plants skirt new rules by burning wood instead of coal, worsening deforestation and climate change.
Still, aspects of the agreement will protect forests, which suck heat-trapping carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. Some countries listed forest protections in their climate pledges, which the new agreement specifically allows to be counted toward pollution reductions.
“This is not just about limiting temperature rise, but also maintaining the resilience and integrity of carbon sinks, such as the oceans and forests,” Johan Rockström of the Stockholm Resilience Centre told reporters on Friday.
Overall, the reliance of the agreement on voluntary pledges will “help move us in the right direction,” said Steffen Kallbekken, who researches behavioural economics and climate policy at the Norwegian Center for International Climate and Environmental Research.
The new climate accord was heavily covered by the world's media in Paris.
Credit: John Upton
Kallbekken said the pledges submitted so far would not keep warming to less than 2°C, but that future ratcheting of the pledges under the new agreement could help to do so. Although he doesn’t “think that’s likely,” he said the new pact would help to curb rises in levels of greenhouse gas pollution and temperatures.
The goal of keeping global warming to less than 1.5°C was described by Kallbekken as an “aspirational” one that would almost certainly require the use of expensive geoengineering technologies to draw down levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide.
“What’s very uncertain is whether that technology is economically and socially feasible,” Kallbekken said. “Can you do it on a massive scale?”
Regardless of what’s possible or likely, it was clear in the years leading up to the Paris climate negotiations that previous efforts to slow global warming by attempting to enforce rules on nations through the U.N. had failed.
The Kyoto Protocol of 1997, which was the last climate pact to carry as much weight as the Paris Agreement, required weak pollution improvements from developed countries. Europe met its requirements with the help of a recession. The U.S. never ratified it. Canada withdrew and neither China nor India were directly affected. Efforts to double-down on the approach at talks in Copenhagen in 2009 failed famously.
The so-called “bottom up” approach adopted Saturday is untested in climate diplomacy. In some respects, it resembles bilateral and multilateral efforts that successfully stemmed nuclear proliferation following the Cuban Missile Crisis following years of failed talks at the U.N. That two-week Cold War confrontation nearly triggered nuclear war, leading to new urgency.
“Based on the experience we’ve had from 20 years of negotiations, they’ve shown that the top-down approach wasn’t effective,” Kallbekken said. “The best solution we’ve had so far, which remains to be proven, of course, is what we’ve done with these national pledges.”
While the U.S. and EU got most of what they wanted from the climate pact, not everybody was so successful.
Small island states had pushed hard for the 1.5°C target to be included in the pact, hoping to protect their homes from rising seas. But the agreement fell well short of ensuring they would receive financial help recovering after rising seas swallow their homes, or after storms made worse by global warming tear infrastructure apart.
Although the Paris Agreement lists ways assistance could be provided to help after disasters through a loss and damage mechanism, it specifically ruled out any requirements to provide compensation.
Rich countries committed in previous rounds of negotiations to mobilize at least $100 billion a year by 2020 to help poorer ones slow and adapt to climate change, but the Paris Agreement failed to lay out the rules they had sought to ensure that pledge is met or improved upon.
“We came to Paris to make sure that developed countries, which are obligated to support developing countries, do their bit,” said Harjeet Singh, an ActionAid official based in India. “But here we find that we’re having a lot of fluffy language in the text. We want real money on the table, and not just some fluffy language.”
The new deal may favor renewable energy projects like the Tehachapi Pass Wind Farm in California.
The greatest concessions during the Paris talks came from rapidly industrializing nations — India and China and, to a lesser extent, South Africa and Brazil. Those countries had, at times, appeared to pose the greatest threats to hopes of clinching aspects of an agreement that were supported by much of the rest of the world.
Those four nations had fought to be grouped with the world’s poorest countries, such as Haiti, which could have reduced their obligations to help in the fight against climate change. Strictly speaking, they lost that fight: no longer will global climate agreements divide countries into two categories, based on their wealth. But the agreement nonetheless refers to different roles that “developing” and developed” countries will play.
“What we have adopted is not only an agreement, but we have written a new chapter of hope in the lives of 7 billion people on the planet,” Indian environment minister Prakash Javadekar said during the closing meeting. “We also are happy that the agreement differentiates between the actions of developed and developing countries.”
Fearing that their economies would be hobbled at a critical time in their growth, rapidly industrializing countries also resisted efforts to make the pact as far-reaching and ambitious as was eventually the case.
Similarly, the U.S. was slow to take climate action during most of the earlier stages of its economic development. It only became a determined advocate for a global climate accord during President Obama’s second term, as clean energy prices tumbled, and as the effects of climate change became frighteningly clear.
In recent months, the Obama administration rejected high-profile fossil fuel projects, including the Keystone XL pipeline, and refused to extend Arctic oil drilling leases. This year, his government also finalized the Clean Power Plan, designed to restrict climate pollution from the electricity sector.
The outcome of the talks in Paris may help establish a legacy for Obama as a climate champion, while helping his Democratic Party campaign on the issue, which is of growing importance to American voters. The Republican Party currently has no clear platform on climate change.
The diplomatic salvoes may have helped produce the world’s first all-encompassing climate change agreement, but that won’t do enough to solve the problem. That will be determined by the ambition of the pledges that are made under it in the coming years and decades.
“How we implement our targets, how we guide our agreement, how we build it out for each of our nations and how we strengthen it in the time ahead,” Kerry said as the negotiations came to a close. “That is what will determine whether we’re actually able to address one of the most complex challenges humankind has ever faced.”
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