In a show of solidarity few environmental advocates would have predicted confidently a decade ago, 195 nations, facing the realization that global warming poses a potentially cataclysmic threat to the world, agreed on Saturday, Dec.12, to a timetable and national commitments for the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, the main cause of climate change.
When France’s foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, announced on Saturday evening in a refitted airport at Le Bourget, near Paris, that agreement had finally been reached after negotiations lasting nearly two weeks (with an extra day of overtime), the throng gathered in a converted hangar erupted in a thunderous, emotional outpouring of relief and celebration.
At the heart of the accord is the goal of reducing global temperature increases in this century to “well below” 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit), with the aim of falling to 1.5 degrees below pre-industrial levels. Since much of the warming and pollution has been caused by the burning of fossil fuels, especially coal, there have been hopes among delegates in the negotiations, known as COP21, that this day will mark the beginning of a new era of expanded alternative energy sources to replace carbon fuels. France has produced a draft roadmap for such a shift. In addition, the agreement calls for creating ecological carbon “sinks” to absorb some emissions from the atmosphere.
The achievements of the agreement in Paris are significant by any measure. The office of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, which has guided the process of addressing global warming, relied on the expertise of countless scientists over recent years to make the objective case in many countries for a realistic assessment of threats, despite denials that were, and are, often more political or ill-informed than credible. The ability to draw all these countries into an accord of this magnitude is a remarkable achievement for governments from rich and poor countries, including some small nations doomed to disappear without international action — some of whose leaders came to Paris to express their anguish and desperation.
The agreement is also a monumental achievement for the United Nations.
The UN did not write the accord; governments did. But the Framework Convention on Climate Change, adopted in 1992, and the periodic conferences to advance it, culminating in this 21st session, were held under UN auspices, proving to many that there is no more valuable venue for tackling universal problems on this scale. Much praise has also gone to Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who came into office in 2007 pledging to make climate change his signature issue.
When he addressed the delegations in Paris on Dec. 12, as the agreement was about to be announced, Ban, whose 10-year term ends Dec. 31, 2016, could have been speaking for himself as much as for the international audience.
“The end is in sight,” he said. “Let us now finish the job.” Looking back, he added: “Over the past nine years, I have traveled to the climate frontlines, I have talked to world leaders, and I have engaged the private sector, civil society and vulnerable groups. I have worked to raise awareness of the dangers of a warming world and the immense opportunities of a clean energy, climate resilient future. Your leaders have listened.”
The Paris agreement, which will be open for formal signing by countries next spring, has been called “binding” in some quarters, but that is only relative to the commitments that nations have made, based on their own circumstances and abilities. The only universal requirement considered binding is that national commitments are indeed met, the sooner the better, and that these will be reviewed internationally every five years. Get going now, was the message.
To help developing countries meet their goals as stated in their plans, known as Intended Nationally Determined Contributions, richer nations have pledged $100 billion a year in climate finance until 2020, when funding will be reviewed. The goal for the first year is more than halfway met, government officials said last week.
The issue of responsibility for past emissions by industrial countries, especially the United States and European nations, did not become the serious obstacle to agreement that many people following the conference expected. The three countries that had been expected to possibly oppose the pact in its current form — China, India and Saudi Arabia, for differing reasons — agreed in the end to join the international consensus. When the document was put to the delegates for final approval, no objections were raised from the floor.
Not all environmental groups were entirely pleased with the final result. Earthjustice, a New York-based environmental law organization, which worked with Pacific island nations on climate issues, noted in a generally laudatory welcoming statement that the goals in the agreement were not a guarantee of universal success.
“The combined climate action pledges submitted by 186 nations would still leave the world on a path to over 3 degrees global average temperature rise by the end of the century, far from meeting the agreement’s stated goal, and disastrous for islands and coastal communities and the American heartland alike,” the statement said.
“Avoiding this level of warming depends on steady, rapid increases of each nation’s climate action pledges. While the agreement commits countries to come back to the table every five years to review progress and make new pledges, it does not mandate nations to increase their pledges. And so our work is just beginning.”
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Barbara Crossette is the senior consulting editor and writer for PassBlue and the United Nations correspondent for The Nation. She is also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. She has also contributed to the Oxford Handbook on the United Nations.
Previously, Crossette was the UN bureau chief for The New York Times from 1994 to 2001 and previously its chief correspondent in Southeast Asia and South Asia. She is the author of “So Close to Heaven: The Vanishing Buddhist Kingdoms of the Himalayas,” “The Great Hill Stations of Asia” and a Foreign Policy Association study, “India Changes Course,” in the Foreign Policy Association’s “Great Decisions 2015.”
Crossette won the George Polk award for her coverage in India of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and the 2010 Shorenstein Prize for her writing on Asia.