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Story Publication logo December 20, 2015

Paris Climate Agreement: Between the Lines


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Northern Europe can teach important lessons about how to help slow, and to prepare for, global...

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Image by Javier Vieras, Wikicommons. Paris, 2013.

When French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius closed the historic COP21 climate conference in Paris on December 12, indicating approval of a historic global agreement on climate change, he did so with a sharp blow from his custom green gavel.

His long-awaited, yet somehow sudden, action marked the unanimous acceptance by delegates from 195 nations of what has quickly become known as the "Paris Agreement." They had worked it out over nearly two weeks of intense negotiations.

The audience of dignitaries and climate change celebrities responded with a long, thunderous standing ovation. The jubilation in Paris sparked excitement around the world.

Even before the champagne corks started popping, thousands of journalists, government representatives, business lobbyists, and members of non-governmental organizations – watching from cavernous halls near the plenary meeting and from afar, on computers, tablets, and cell phones – began tweeting, facebooking, instagramming, and simply interpreting and spinning what the agreement means.

Numerous excellent analyses and synopses have been written since then, and those links in this post are just a sampling. A companion piece offers a sampling of comments and analyses from major newspaper editorials and from leading climate scientists, many of whom have researched climate change issues for decades.

Following is a synopsis of major provisions of the Paris Agreement.

Warming Goals

The preeminent ambition of the Paris Agreement involves, "Holding the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2 degrees C (3.6 degrees F) above pre-industrial levels." Signatory countries also agreed to "pursue efforts," to prevent the planet from surpassing a more stringent 1.5 degrees C (2.7 degrees F) benchmark. The document doesn't clarify the distinction between the 2 and 1.5-degree figures, the latter often referred to as the "aspirational goal."

The agreement also contains a secondary target that attempts to operationalize the temperature goal: This provision calls for greenhouse gas emissions to peak "as soon as possible" and for sources and sinks of those gases to come into balance (bringing the net increase in greenhouse gases to zero) by the second half of the century. This report, a summary of a UN-sponsored meeting of climate scientists, discusses serious consequences even if Earth remains below a 1.5 degrees C threshold.

Even holding Earth to a temperature of no more than 2 degrees C above the pre-industrial level will be extraordinarily difficult, according to Joe Romm, a prolific and widely recognized blogger, and author of the book Climate Change: What Everyone Needs to Know. "It would be the greatest achievement of civilization," Romm said, just before the conference concluded. Illustrating the challenge: Researchers at the British Met Office reported in November that Earth's overall temperature already will have climbed by about 1 degrees C above the pre-industrial temperature by the end of this year, leaving scant room for additional warming if the agreement's goals are to be achieved.


Even before the Paris conference began, 184 countries responsible for about 96 percent of the world's greenhouse gas emissions had submitted plans for how they would reduce their net greenhouse gas emissions (i.e., gases released minus gases absorbed by human or natural means) after 2020.

Several research teams have calculated that even if implemented perfectly, the combined effect of these commitments – "Intended Nationally Determined Contributions" or INDCs – would fall far short of changes needed to prevent Earth from warming well over the agreement's 2 degrees C ceiling. A study published in Science in November, for instance, calculated that if all countries accomplished their INDC pledges through 2030 and then continued cutting back at a modest rate, there was still a 40 percent chance that the global average temperature would rise by more than 4 degrees C (7.2 degrees F) by 2100.

Even if countries follow their initial pledges through 2030 by making substantially more strenuous efforts, the likelihood of remaining below 2 degrees C was only 30 percent, according to the analysis. (Climate Action Tracker, a European-based effort, reports how global cutbacks in emissions compare with keeping Earth 2 degrees below the pre-industrial temperature. Its December 8, 2015 report found that current INDCs would permit a mean rise over preindustrial temperature of 2.7 degrees C (4.3 degrees F).

The final agreement reached in Paris includes mechanisms for making INDC pledges increasingly stringent over time. These procedures for ratcheting down emissions, sometimes called the "ambition mechanism," give supporters hope that the 1.5-2.0-degree goal eventually can be achieved. Parties to the agreement are scheduled to meet in 2018 at a "stocktake," to assess how the greenhouse gas reductions are coming along, and every five years after that. And the signatory countries will be required to submit new pledges in 2020 and every five years afterwards. These revised cutback plans would have to be progressively more stringent over time if emerging scientific evidence supports a tightening to support progress toward meeting agreement goals.

Loss and Damage

It's long been recognized that, without financial support from wealthy nations, developing countries could not accomplish all they must in order to achieve ambitious goals for mitigation: Only with financial aid and technical assistance could they avoid following the high-carbon paths the U.S., European, and other rich countries took to industrialization.

In recent years, poor and vulnerable nations have also demanded compensation for damages for which no adaption is possible, and for the huge economic losses they will suffer from sea-level rise, drought, more destructive storms, and other adverse impacts of climate change. (This article discusses the difficulties of attributing such damage to climate change.)

Before and during the Paris meeting, a coalition of 44 small and low-lying island nations called vociferously for a specific provision in the agreement providing for, and raising the profile of, compensation for such losses and damage. They argued that unless such wording stood apart from other financial provisions, payments from developed nations would be lumped into a single fund, and categories of payments most preferred by wealthy donors, such as for mitigation and adaption, would receive priority. Island nations have also long argued that industrialized countries should be legally liable for damage caused by climate change, a position strenuously rejected by the U.S. and other developed countries.

The final agreement accepted the demand that loss and damage provisions be featured prominently. But legal liability of developed countries for damage was rejected, giving wealthy donors control over how much money they choose to pay out.


The agreement contains provisions for monitoring compliance with each nation's commitments, a key U.S. negotiating demand. But negotiators did not specify how such oversight will be achieved.

"They kicked the can down the road," said Michael Oppenheimer, an atmospheric physicist at Princeton University. For starters, he said in a phone interview, there is no way to accurately compare commitments countries have made. "They would have to use the same baseline, same units, same time period." Establishing protocols for monitoring compliance will be among the extensive follow-up work required in the aftermath of the Paris meeting. This study discusses the challenges of reviewing mitigation plans.

The Paris Agreement does call for an "expert-based" committee to hash-out monitoring and compliance issues. The committee will meet concurrently with future Conference of Parties (COP) gatherings, beginning in 2016 in Marakesh. Among issues they might address will be technical measures to prevent countries from either cheating or failing to diligently police greenhouse gas emissions within their own borders. Less developed countries will receive technical and financial support for monitoring programs.

Common and Differentiated Responsibilities

The Paris Agreement departed dramatically from all previous climate agreements by requiring that all nations prepare their own plans for slowing growth of, or cutting back, their net greenhouse gas emissions.

The U.S. and other developed countries achieved industrialization through large-scale burning of fossil fuels. Those emissions have played the biggest role in causing the planetary warming that has occurred in the last 150 years. Recognizing that equity and fairness required that these countries should bear the greatest responsibility for avoiding future warming, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), adopted in 1992 at The Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, distinguished between burdens borne by developing countries and those shouldered by developed countries.

The "differentiated responsibilities" set out in the UNFCCC had provided the basis for the two-tier system adopted in the later Kyoto Protocol: Only developed countries were required to make greenhouse-gas cutbacks.

Even back then, however, the dichotomy between developed and developing seemed overly simplistic. By the time the Kyoto Protocol came into force in 2005, most of the growth in greenhouse gas emissions was coming from large developing countries, in particular China, Brazil, and India. China overtook the U.S. as the largest emitter of carbon dioxide in 2007. Excusing the world's largest source of carbon pollution from regulation gave opponents of Kyoto Protocol powerful ammunition, helping to doom the treaty.

Under the Paris Agreement all nations must specify goals for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. That responsibility is universal but, in contrast to the Kyoto Protocol, the specific commitment is voluntary. Each country decides the depth and vigor of its efforts. Developing countries continue to receive certain concessions, such as financial support for adaption; mitigation; monitoring; and loss and damage.

Adaptation and Mitigation Financing

The Paris Agreement affirms a commitment made by developed countries at the 2009 Copenhagen climate conference to make available $100 billion dollars annually for adaptation and mitigation in developing countries by 2020. The new agreement "strongly urges" developed countries to scale-up contributions as soon as possible, with a goal of reaching the 2020 goal quickly. At a COP meeting in 2025 parties are to discuss further raising the annual contribution.

This past October, the OECD reported that its members, comprising most of the world's wealthy countries, had already made substantial progress toward the 2020 commitment. OECD countries had contributed $52 billion in 2013 and $62 billion in 2014, according to the report. However many academic, government and NGO observers have raised doubts about how much money actually was paid for adaptation and mitigation projects, whether the donations were new or simply relabeled, and whether the expenditures were effective. One report by the Indian Ministry of Finance concluded that developed countries had contributed only about $2.2 billion for adaptation and mitigation. Such early wrangling calls into question whether future funding will be sufficient to meet countries' bona fide needs.



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Environment and Climate Change

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