After two weeks of talks and more than two decades of meetings, representatives from 195 nations gathered in Paris on Saturday to celebrate what they called a “historic turning point” in world history: The first-ever universal agreement intended to slow the onset of climate change.
The Paris Agreement, which aims to encourage a rapid transition of the global economy to one that’s no longer dependent on fossil fuels, was unanimously approved Saturday. The French President François Hollande, appearing on stage with U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and other key officials, declared the unprecedented agreement a “major leap for mankind.”
The agreement commits its signatories to a wonky goal: A “balance between anthropogenic emissions by sources and removals by sinks of greenhouse gases” before the end of the century. In practice, that means an economy with net zero emissions as soon as possible, paving the way for a massive uptake in renewable energy and the careful preservation of the world’s forests. It also includes a global temperature target of “well below” a rise of 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels and instructs them to “pursue efforts” to keep the increase to just 1.5 degrees, a major victory for the small island countries that formed the moral heart of the negotiations.
Negotiators worked throughout the two weeks—plus an extra day—on delivering a bold compromise, arriving with legally binding language on financial and technical support to developing countries and a novel “ratchet” mechanism that commits all nations to return to the negotiating table and increase their ambition every five years.
Shipping and air travel, which account for about 8 percent of global emissions, were excluded from the agreement due to the quirk of their international nature, though even those sources are scheduled to be part of separate agreements next year.
It’s by no means a perfect deal, but the final wording of the agreement reflects major achievements in science and diplomacy that have been in the works for decades. Small island countries, in particular, played a critical role at bridging differences between the major developed countries, like the U.S. and Europe, and major developing countries, like India and China. This is an agreement that’s designed to last a century, and will shape the trajectory of both threatened ecosystems and the global economy for the foreseeable future.
Still, it’s abundantly clear that the Paris agreement won’t be an instant game-changer. Rapidly developing nations like India, Nigeria, and Ethiopia still collectively have hundreds of millions without access to any electricity at all—and emissions there will continue to temporarily grow as part of this deal, and rightfully so.
One major criteria of success that had been laid out for the agreement was a recognition of the systemic risk that climate change poses to the world economy. In a brief statement, Richard Branson described what he called the “Paris effect”—claiming that the agreement will send a signal that the “economy of the future is driven by clean energy.”
Another sign of the agreement’s significance is that environmental groups, typically critical of the international process, quickly celebrated the deal: A notable 350.org statement declared “the end of the era of fossil fuels.” Greenpeace executive director Kumi Naidoo said the agreement puts coal and oil companies “on the wrong side of history,” though some activists were hoping for more. A massive protest featuring “mournful” fog horns and thousands of red tulips intended as a “memorial to the victims of climate change” was permitted at the last minute by French authorities still nervous about last month’s terrorist attacks, and drew more than 10,000 demonstrators near the Arc de Triomphe.
Most representatives within the Paris conference center, though, were ecstatic. John Kerry and his counterpart from India, rivals all week, laughed as they waited for the final session to start. Heads of state waxed poetic using the language of clichés. Diplomats lined up to take selfies with Al Gore.
The agreement will become international law once at least 55 countries comprising at least 55 percent of global emissions ratify it, which is virtually guaranteed considering the enthusiasm for the deal by the European Union, the U.S., China, and India, the world’s biggest emitters, and by the large G77 + China negotiating bloc, which represents most of the world’s developing countries.
Even if global emissions were to peak within the next five years, consistent with the 1.5 degree goal, global temperatures will continue to rise and related climate change impacts will escalate over the coming decades because of an inherent decades-long lag in the climate system. To underscore that point, a typhoon was gaining strength on a path toward the Philippines just as the Paris conference was ending.
The agreement also notes, however, that the best available current science is clear that the world is not on track to meet these new emissions goals. The latest science also suggests that meeting the 1.5 degree target would be extremely difficult to achieve without a heavy reliance on so-called “negative emissions” technologies that remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere—a technology that already exists, though is nowhere near ready to scale to necessary levels.
Naidoo called meeting the 1.5 degree goal the “great task of this century”, and the additional pressure from the Paris agreement combined with already quickly dropping prices for renewable energy make its achievement, however slim, more probable. As part of the run-up to the Paris negotiations, 185 countries committed to voluntary plans, already significantly bending the curve of projected global emissions.
The Paris agreement ensures that the 1.5 degree target, and the effort it would take to get there, will be at the center of discussions over climate change ambition for years to come—which is much better than the alternative: soul-crushing despair. To provide clarity, it commissions a fresh scientific synthesis, to be completed in 2018, to determine the scale and scope of emissions reductions necessary to hit that bold goal, as well as the climate impacts that may result if it is not achieved.
It all amounts to much more than close watchers of the process had hoped from the meeting. As 2015 winds down, latest temperature reports show it is all but guaranteed to become the hottest year in recorded history. But, a fresh analysis also shows that global greenhouse gas emissions also decreased, the first time that’s ever happened during a year in which the overall economy grew. That’s huge, and with the added push from the Paris agreement, it seems like the worst-case scenario for climate change may remain the stuff of science fiction, not fact.