Five Things to Know About the Newly Minted Global-Climate Accord

The agreement reached in Paris on Saturday is ambitious, but will it produce a safer planet?

AP Photo/Ng Han Guan
Ben Geman and Jason Plautz
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Ben Geman Jason Plautz
Dec. 12, 2015, 1:53 p.m.

Nearly 200 coun­tries ce­men­ted a ma­jor in­ter­na­tion­al ac­cord to fight glob­al warm­ing Sat­urday, cap­ping years of frac­tious ne­go­ti­ations that dragged on even as evid­ence of the dangers of run­away green­house-gas pol­lu­tion moun­ted.

French for­eign min­is­ter Laurent Fabi­us, the host of the United Na­tions cli­mate talks in Par­is, quoted the late Nel­son Man­dela: “It al­ways seems im­possible un­til it is done,” he told the con­fer­ence be­fore un­veil­ing the agree­ment.

The break­through teth­ers non-bind­ing na­tion­al pledges to lim­it car­bon-di­ox­ide emis­sions with more form­al agree­ments that en­able mon­it­or­ing and veri­fic­a­tion of coun­tries’ ac­tions to en­sure trust. Na­tions will also sub­mit new plans every five years, a key pro­vi­sion that ac­know­ledges that ex­ist­ing na­tion­al pledges are nowhere near tough enough to pre­vent highly dan­ger­ous levels of glob­al warm­ing.

The ac­cord sets a goal of a glob­al peak in green­house-gas emis­sions “as soon as pos­sible” and hold­ing the rise in glob­al tem­per­at­ures to “well be­low” 2 de­grees Celsi­us above pre-in­dus­tri­al times, a bench­mark for avoid­ing many of most dan­ger­ous con­sequences of cli­mate change.

But it also calls for “pur­su­ing ef­forts” to lim­it the rise to 1.5 de­grees, a re­cog­ni­tion that the high­er ceil­ing will still en­able highly dam­aging changes (though in prac­tic­al terms the lower tar­get doesn’t have much in­flu­ence).

Else­where, the pact has pro­vi­sions aimed at mo­bil­iz­ing fin­ance to help de­vel­op­ing na­tions battle cli­mate change, and bol­ster­ing work to help coun­tries im­prove their abil­ity to ad­apt to in­ev­it­able changes.

Here are five im­port­ant things about the “Par­is Agree­ment” and its af­ter­math:

It’s Not Truly Over.

The new pact leaves many im­port­ant de­cisions for the fu­ture.

That’s not a bad thing, per se. Hav­ing coun­tries re­vise their car­bon-cut­ting pledges on a five-year basis, as State De­part­ment cli­mate en­voy Todd Stern has poin­ted out, provides chances to ratchet up am­bi­tion as low-car­bon tech­no­lo­gies (and hope­fully pro-cli­mate polit­ic­al will) ad­vance.

But even the im­me­di­ate post-Par­is peri­od will be im­port­ant in de­term­in­ing how suc­cess­ful the pact is. Let’s turn it over to Mi­chael Levi, a cli­mate policy ana­lyst with the Coun­cil on For­eign Re­la­tions, who shared some thoughts he’s put­ting in­to a blog post. Levi warns against judging the pact too quickly, not­ing:

“Its first test will be in the com­ing days and weeks as lead­ers and ma­jor me­dia around the world talk about the deal. What lead­ers say will sig­nal how much they see the Par­is deal as settled and how they in­ter­pret the lan­guage that treats de­veloped and de­vel­op­ing coun­tries dif­fer­ently. How the me­dia de­scribe the Agree­ment will shape how the broad­er pub­lic views it, and hence how much of a pen­alty lead­ers might face for later back­track­ing or spin­ning what the deal says.”

Levi also notes that big de­cisions loom one year from now, when ne­go­ti­at­ors flesh out pro­vi­sions in the Par­is agree­ment on trans­par­ency and re­view na­tions’ pledges, and then the “biggest test” looms in five years when coun­tries are slated to of­fer new car­bon-re­duc­tion plans.

Cap­it­ol Hill Re­pub­lic­ans Want a Bite, But (Prob­ably) Won’t Get It

Re­pub­lic­ans are itch­ing for a chance to scuttle the deal, ar­guing that it’s go­ing to lock the U.S. in­to an eco­nomy-killing emis­sions re­duc­tion scheme. As an in­ter­na­tion­al agree­ment, Sen­ate Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Mitch Mc­Con­nell and oth­ers have ar­gued that the Sen­ate should give the deal its con­sent 1997 Kyoto Pro­tocol, which was re­jec­ted by the Sen­ate.

That’s why the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion pushed for a hy­brid deal, in which coun­tries set vol­un­tary emis­sion-re­duc­tion plans, and the U.N. ratchets up trans­par­ency and re­port­ing mech­an­isms to keep every­one on track. True to form, the fi­nal U.N. agree­ment doesn’t man­date any emis­sions tar­gets, but does lay out a sys­tem for coun­tries to sub­mit new pledges (called Na­tion­ally De­term­ined Con­tri­bu­tions) every five years, start­ing in 2020. The ac­cord also sets up meet­ings every five years start­ing in 2023 to take stock of where coun­tries are and calls on the U.N. to de­vise a sys­tem for coun­tries to re­port pro­gress, re­ly­ing on the ex­ist­ing cli­mate-change con­ven­tion that the U.S. rat­i­fied in 1992.

Fol­low the Money

One of the key con­flicts loom­ing over cli­mate ne­go­ti­ations has been how much help rich, de­veloped coun­tries such as the U.S. should of­fer to the de­vel­op­ing world to help re­duce emis­sions and harden de­fenses against ef­fects of cli­mate change that can’t be avoided.

The new agree­ment does “strongly urge” rich coun­tries to go above and bey­ond an agree­ment to mo­bil­ize $100 bil­lion a year by 2020, set­ting that fig­ure as a “floor.” But that prom­ise shows up out­side of the leg­ally bind­ing por­tion of the ac­cord, and con­gres­sion­al Re­pub­lic­ans have vowed to block any U.S. fund­ing to the mul­ti­lat­er­al Green Cli­mate Fund or oth­er in­ter­na­tion­al cli­mate spend­ing.

The Par­is con­fer­ence also saw heavy buy-in from the private sec­tor. Bill Gates opened the con­fer­ence by an­noun­cing a joint ef­fort by 28 rich in­vestors to help bring prom­ising low-car­bon en­ergy tech­no­lo­gies from the lab in­to real-world de­ploy­ment. It’s linked to a new pledge by the U.S. and 19 oth­er coun­tries to double fund­ing for clean-en­ergy re­search and de­vel­op­ment.

The deal also form­ally ac­know­ledges for the first time that vul­ner­able coun­tries de­serve com­pens­a­tion for the con­sequences of cli­mate change. But the “loss and dam­age” clause does not set up a sys­tem in which de­veloped coun­tries would be held leg­ally li­able, open­ing them up for poor na­tions to seek com­pens­a­tion (Grist breaks down the de­bate here).

A Leg­acy for Barack Obama and John Kerry

Pres­id­ent Obama has made cli­mate change a big pri­or­ity dur­ing his second term, with a suite of ini­ti­at­ives. At home, his En­vir­on­ment­al Pro­tec­tion Agency has fi­nal­ized sweep­ing rules to cut car­bon pol­lu­tion from power plants. In­ter­na­tion­ally, he struck ma­jor deals with China. And he was all in on get­ting a deal done in Par­is. He was in per­son­al con­tact by phone in re­cent days with the heads of China and In­dia (the world’s biggest and third-biggest car­bon emit­ters), as well as the heads of Brazil and France, in an ef­fort to get a deal across the fin­ish line.

The White House, in a fact sheet tout­ing “U.S. lead­er­ship,” lauded the pact for cre­at­ing a “long-term, dur­able glob­al frame­work to re­duce glob­al green­house gas emis­sions.

“For the first time, all coun­tries com­mit to put­ting for­ward suc­cess­ive and am­bi­tious, na­tion­ally de­term­ined cli­mate tar­gets and re­port­ing on their pro­gress to­wards them us­ing a rig­or­ous, stand­ard­ized pro­cess of re­view,” the White House said.

It’s a ca­reer-cap­ping mo­ment for Sec­ret­ary of State John Kerry, a former sen­at­or who has been an out­spoken ad­voc­ate of bat­tling cli­mate change for dec­ades. Kerry ex­per­i­enced bit­ter fail­ure five years ago when a sweep­ing cli­mate-change bill that he coau­thored col­lapsed in the Sen­ate, end­ing any hopes of mov­ing a ma­jor glob­al-warm­ing bill through Con­gress. A half-dec­ade later, he’s found more suc­cess on the glob­al stage.

Am­muni­tion for 2016 and Bey­ond

For years, green act­iv­ists have pined for cli­mate change to have something more than a cameo in na­tion­al elec­tions. The ar­rival of the Par­is deal as the 2016 pres­id­en­tial race heats up will do more to in­ject glob­al warm­ing in­to the cam­paign con­ver­sa­tion.

Hil­lary Clin­ton, the Demo­crat­ic front-run­ner, called the agree­ment a “his­tor­ic step for­ward in meet­ing one of the greatest chal­lenges of the 21st cen­tury.” But she warned: “The next dec­ade of ac­tion is crit­ic­al—be­cause if we do not press for­ward with driv­ing clean en­ergy growth and cut­ting car­bon pol­lu­tion across the eco­nomy, we will not be able to avoid cata­stroph­ic con­sequences.”

Bernie Sanders, by con­trast, was crit­ic­al of the deal. “While this is a step for­ward, it goes nowhere near far enough. The plan­et is in crisis. We need bold ac­tion in the very near fu­ture and this does not provide that,” said Sanders, who re­cently rolled out his cli­mate plat­form.

Mean­while, look for Re­pub­lic­an can­did­ates, many of whom say cli­mate change is either bunk or ex­ag­ger­ated, to take aim at the pact from the oth­er dir­ec­tion.

It’s not just cam­paign rhet­or­ic either. The out­come of the U.S. elec­tion could have any num­ber of re­per­cus­sions for the Par­is deal. Re­mem­ber that a cent­ral pil­lar con­sists of pledges made by each na­tion to curb emis­sions. GOP White House can­did­ates have pledged to roll back Obama’s reg­u­la­tions—policies that help un­der­pin the U.S. pledge to cut its emis­sions by 26 to 28 per­cent be­low 2005 levels by 2025. So a GOP win could shake faith in the will­ing­ness of the U.S. (the world’s largest his­tor­ic­al car­bon pol­luter and cur­rently No. 2 be­hind China) to fol­low through.

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