The headlines from the CO21 Climate Summit tell an inspiring story. Agence France-Presse reported an outbreak of “euphoria” as the international climate accord was sealed. Reuters hailed a global “turn from fossil fuels.” The Guardian headlined “a major leap for mankind.” As the euphoria of delegates at the UN climate talks in Paris fades, it is time to get down to the business of saving the planet and ask what it means for me.
This time, they were. They managed to seal a pact that sets a surprisingly ambitious target for limiting global warming, reflects the vast differences between countries in terms of their different historical and current responsibilities for causing climate change, and recognizes poorer countries’ need to eradicate poverty even as they embark on a more sustainable development path.
Unfortunately, however, the main text of the agreement is long on rhetoric and short on action.
Here are the key questions about the COP21 climate agreement.
What have we achieved?
The world’s first comprehensive climate change agreement which will see action to curb rising temperatures by all countries.
Why we needed a new deal?
If we continue to pump greenhouse gases into the atmosphere on current trajectories, we are facing a world with temperatures of more than 4C above pre-industrial levels by 2100 – hotter globally than at any time in human history.
Rising temperatures will lead to sea level rises, more intense storms and flooding, more extreme droughts, water shortages and heatwaves – as well as massive loss of wildlife and reduction in crop yields, potentially sparking conflict, mass migration and public health concerns.
The higher temperatures rise, the worse the situation will be – so we need to curb the emissions that cause global warming.
Why are we only doing something now?
This deal has effectively been 20 years in the making. A first treaty, the Kyoto Protocol – which was adopted in 1997, only covered the emissions of developed countries – and the US never ratified it.
It runs out in 2020 and the Paris Agreement will be its successor.
Why has it taken so much time?
World leaders tried to secure a deal in Copenhagen, Denmark, in 2009, at talks which was a failure. A weak agreement came out of acrimonious talks which scarred the UN climate process and everybody involved.
But in Durban, South Africa, two years later, the EU teamed up with some of the world’s poorest countries to get nations to agree to work towards a new deal to be secured in Paris this year.
Why was it different this time?
The world is not just out of recession like in 2009, the costs of technology such as solar panels have fallen while deployment has grown exponentially and countries are keen to tackle the problem for other reasons, such as to cut air pollution in China.
The science is even clearer, with the UN’s global climate science body called IPCCC warning last year that global warming was “unequivocal”.
Countries also started negotiating a lot earlier, with 187 countries covering more than 95% of the world’s emissions putting forward national climate plans for action they will take up to 2030, before or in a few cases during the conference.
Why do we need an agreement too?
The climate plans by countries are not enough, as the emissions curbs in the commitments still put the world on track for a 3C rise in global temperatures by 2100.
So the deal includes a kind of “review and ratchet” system for countries to update and increase their levels of climate action every five years, based on a global assessment of how far nations are off meeting the long term goal to tackle climate change.
Countries are being requested to submit updates, by 2020, to their existing plans out to 2030 after an initial stocktaking exercise in 2018.
So has the planet been saved?
Only history will tell how successful this deal will be.
Tackling climate change will involve a vast, global, transition away from fossil fuels to clean energy, as well as curbing deforestation and emissions from agriculture – with experts warning of the need to reduce emissions to net zero later in the century to stabilize the climate.
The COP21 Paris climate agreement is truly a watershed moment in the world’s fight against climate change. It creates a legally binding framework for progress, and that’s fundamentally new.
But grand ambitions also must be met with concrete action.