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Earlier this month, negotiators from 195 nations met in Paris for nearly two weeks at the 21st Conference of Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, commonly called COP21. The document they drafted in overtime, the Paris Agreement, lays out a legally-binding framework for addressing climate change for nations that ratify it.

Most observers concur that Paris marked a critical turning point in the global conversations about climate change. Most also agree that the pledges made at the conference fall far short of what’s needed to avert catastrophic climate disruption.

Many activist groups are celebrating that world leaders have at long last acknowledged that they must take action rather than ignoring climate change indefinitely. And also that unlike previous COPs, in Paris everyone agreed to do something to lower their emissions, with a goal of limiting warming to 1.5-2°C over pre-industrial times. That leaders agreed to anything seems somewhat miraculous given the contentiousness surrounding climate summits over the last two decades.

Activists, scientists, and analysts are also acutely aware that the commitments made in Paris will not be enough to stop the catastrophic changes scientists predict, which we have already had a taste of with a mere 1° of warming: record-breaking storms, droughts, and ice melt. While there is much to celebrate, there is also some serious work to be done, by everyone, everywhere, fast.

The Good News

The outcomes of Paris were far more ambitious than anyone had dared to hope, with negotiations toward the end resulting in an agreed-upon goal to hold global temperature rise to “well below” 2°C and to “pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 °C,” the level thought necessary to protect those most vulnerable to sea-level rise and severe drought. Activists celebrated that unlike the fruitless Copenhagen talks just 6 years ago, there was consensus that all nations must begin decarbonizing their economies and that richer nations (who after all, are responsible for most of the carbon pollution) should help poorer ones shift to clean energy.

At the close of the summit, world leaders hailed the talks as an environmental triumph. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry called the Paris Agreement “a tremendous victory for… all of the planet, and for future generations… empowering us to chart a new path for our planet: a smart and responsible path, a sustainable path.” UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon proclaimed the talks “a monumental success for the planet and its people.”

While the agreement indeed marks a profound shift in the rhetoric about climate change, it’s important to note that the document itself recognizes its own shortcomings and emphasizes “the urgent need to address the significant gap between the aggregate effect of Parties’ mitigation pledges” and the temperature goals laid out in the agreement. While the goal is 1.5°C or 2°C, what each nation has pledged takes us to a warming of 2.7° or more, which science tells us is likely to spur abrupt and catastrophic climate change. However, 2.7°C is still progress from the 5°C trajectory a do-nothing approach keeps us on.

What the COP21 agreement actually does:

  • Sets agreed-upon temperature and emissions goals, including what might be interpreted as a net-zero emissions goal for 2050.
  • Includes “ratcheting” mechanisms that will pressure participating nations to make ever-more ambitious pledges at recurring summits every 5 years.
  • Initiates a “transparency framework” (still in the works) meant to allow nations to see what other nations are doing to meet their pledges. These measures will be “non-intrusive” and “non-punitive.”
  • Encourages wealthier nations to help poorer countries finance renewable sources of energy rather than fossil fuels, though it does not specify how much, by whom, or when.
  • Notes “the role of conservation, sustainable management of forests,” giving force to efforts to protect these vital carbon sinks.
  • Acknowledges “the importance of averting, minimizing and addressing loss and damage associated with the adverse effects of climate change.” (Though it does not go so far as saying that those responsible for polluting are liable to pay for other countries’ losses.)

Realistic Appraisal

As heartening as it is that world leaders finally acknowledge the urgent need for action on climate, the agreement does not spell out a clear plan for reaching its targets, nor does it provide mechanisms to ensure that participating nations actually do anything. Language is aspirational and vague (“inviting,” “requesting,” ”as soon as possible,” e.g.). We’re still on track for far overshooting the 2°C degree mark unless governments all over the planet voluntarily take drastic action immediately.

What the COP21 agreement does not do

  • Though the agreement is technically legally binding when ratified, there are no consequences if a nation fails to meet its pledges, or even make an effort. Without any real ramifications for not meeting commitments, we’re relying on everyone recognizing that emissions must be curbed because it’s in everyone’s best interest. (How’s that been working so far?) On the flip side, it’s likely no one would have signed if there were actually consequences. At least countries that ratify the agreement will be on record as having made pledges the rest of the world can hold them accountable to honor.
  • Though the preamble mentions funding from richer nations to help poorer ones develop clean energy economies, there’s no legally-binding and specific amount to be given, nor a clear timeline for giving it.
  • While the agreement encourages nations “to achieve a balance between anthropogenic emissions by sources and removals by sinks of greenhouse gases in the second half of this century,” several critics have pointed out that the technology to remove sufficient carbon does not yet exist. The metrics implied by the document simply don’t add up, and forest-preservation projects cannot “balance” anything but greatly reduced emissions.

However, given that most of the transitions needed will be made at national levels, most analysts agree that the document makes sense and is about the best we could have hoped for. What actually happens from a global emissions perspective is now up to countries, states, municipalities, and businesses.

Now What?

Countries are expected to sign the agreement beginning in April. The next conference will take place in Morocco in November 2016, where further details, such as transparency measures, will be hashed out. Michael A. Levi,
David M. Rubenstein Senior Fellow for Energy and the Environment, notes that time must pass before we really know whether the Paris Agreement makes a lasting impact on emissions.

Regardless, as founder Bill McKibben has pointed out, with the Paris Agreement, “We’ve got a 1.5 degree target, and a 3.5 degree plan.” Though McKibben is far from sanguine about the effective good of the agreement, he notes that “With every major world leader now on the record saying they at least theoretically support bold action to make the transition to renewable energy, we’ve got a new tool to work with.”

Activists in groups such as Avaaz, representing millions of people urging leaders to pursue bold climate policy, made their presence felt in and around the summit, lobbying and staging rallies and vigils. Around the world hundreds of thousands marched as leaders arrived in Paris. Inside the conference, leaders took notice of the messages sent from around the world that it was time to stop stalling. Environmental groups around the world plan to continue pressuring leaders to meet the goals set out in Paris. and other groups plan to continue “blocking pipelines, fighting new coal mines, urging divestment from fossil fuels — trying, in short, to keep weakening the mighty industry that still stands in the way of real progress.”

In the U.S., we’re entering an election year. Now, more than ever, we need to pressure our would-be leaders to commit to decarbonizing our economies. Just weeks before COP21, the U.S. Senate resolved to block the Clean Air Plan, one of the single biggest American actions to curb emissions. (Obama used two of his rare vetoes to block these resolutions, though 24 states are challenging the Plan in court.) No regulations exist requiring natural gas industries to address methane leaks that needlessly contribute emissions up to 84 times more potent than carbon.

Though we will absolutely need bold policy changes to save us from the worst effects of climate change, we also must recognize our own responsibilities, and not leave everything to political leaders. Every single one of us needs to figure out how to shrink our own footprint, whether it’s driving more efficient cars or driving a lot less, eating less carbon-intensive food, conserving energy or investing in renewables, or all of the above.

Additionally, the Paris Pledge for Action encourages non-state actors (businesses, cities, organizations) to pledge their support for the goals of the Paris Agreement and implement their own climate-protection measures. Over a thousand businesses, organizations, and municipalities have signed already, sending “a political signal that demonstrates the breadth of support and scale of momentum for a transition to a low-emission and climate resilient economy.”

Could you work with your business, city, or organization to adopt climate-friendly practices and policies? We’ve been chipping away at these solutions and making progress without widespread support, but support is growing daily. What role will you play in creating a livable planet for future generations?

Further Reading

Carbon Brief’s coverage of COP21
It’s not too late