At 7:26 PM on Saturday night Paris time, a historic climate agreement was reached at the Le Bourget conference center, where negotiations have been taking place over the last two weeks at the 21st meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC)—otherwise known as COP 21.
There was drama right up to the last minute, as a drafting error by the UNFCCC Secretariat staff that would have made the Agreement’s emission reduction commitments legally binding—thus requiring ratification of the Agreement by the United States Senate—almost derailed the negotiations. But a technical correction was read from the podium, and France’s Foreign Minister and COP 21 President Laurent Fabius quickly gaveled through the agreement. Following its adoption, there were a series of powerful statements by Minister Fabius, French President Francois Hollande, United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, and UNFCCC Executive Secretary Christiana Figueres.
The Paris Agreement represents a triumph of multilateral diplomacy, and a powerful indication that 23 years after adoption of the Framework Convention in Rio de Janeiro, the nations of the world are coming together to respond to the greatest challenge humanity has ever faced. Having been involved in the climate negotiation process since it started in early 1991, last night’s decision was tremendously gratifying on a personal level; for almost an hour after the gavel came down, I found myself exchanging hugs and hearty handshakes with dozens of colleagues—fellow non-governmental group advocates, negotiators, and even the odd minister or two.
It was a very emotional moment.
Renewed Hope and More Work Ahead
While there is much more work ahead of us, the Paris Agreement gives the world renewed hope that we can come to grips with the mounting climate change crisis and leave our children and grandchildren with a habitable planet. The Agreement sets an even more aggressive temperature limitation goal than the 2 degrees Celsius goal set at COP 16 in Cancun five years ago: “holding the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2 degrees C above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 degrees C above pre-industrial levels.” Getting the 1.5 degrees C reference in the Agreement represents a major victory for small island states and other countries who have been correctly making the case that a 2 degrees C limit is by no means “safe,” and for some island states, in fact poses an existential threat. Of course, we are nowhere near on track to constrain temperature increases to below 2 degrees C, much less to avoid exceeding 1.5 degrees C, and achieving such a goal will be quite challenging.
The Agreement outlines what must be done to meet this aggressive temperature goal, saying countries must “aim to reach global peaking of global warming emissions as soon as possible, recognizing that peaking will take longer for developing country Parties, and to undertake rapid reductions thereafter in accordance with best available science, so as to achieve a balance between anthropogenic emissions by sources and removals by sinks of greenhouse gases in the second half of this century.” As the latest UNEP Emissions Gap report makes clear, such an objective likely requires achieving net zero emissions of the principal greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide, by 2070 or so to have a likely chance of keeping temperature increases below 2 degrees C, and even earlier — around 2050 — for a 1.5 degree C goal.
Either of these scenarios will clearly require much more ambitious action than is represented by the post-2020 emissions limitation proposals (referred to as Intended Nationally Determined Contributions, or INDCs) put forward by 189 countries thus far, as noted in paragraph 17 of the Paris decision. The COP requested that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change prepare a special report on these issues by 2018, to inform a “facilitative dialogue” amongst countries at COP 24 at the end of that year. The aim of that dialogue is to “take stock of the collective efforts of Parties in relation to progress towards the long-term goal…and to inform the preparation of nationally determined contributions.” The decision also requests all countries to formally submit their contributions by 2020, to be recorded in a registry maintained by the UNFCCC Secretariat.
The IPCC special report, 2018 facilitative dialogue, and 2020 INDC submission deadline will combine to create a global moment at the end of this decade where countries will be expected to update their current proposed actions, in light of the science as well as technology and economic trends. The cost of energy efficiency and renewable energy technologies has been coming down at a breathtaking pace; to give just one example, when I met with a team of senior negotiators from India at COP 21 last week, they told me that the price of super-efficient LED light bulbs in their country had been reduced from the equivalent of $5 each to a little over $1 each in just the last 17 months. As these trends continue over the next several years, all countries should be in a position to significantly increase the ambition of their post-2020 emissions proposals, thus helping close the “ambition gap” — the difference between the collective level of emissions expected between now if countries implement the proposals they have put forward, and the much higher level of reductions needed to get on a pathway to hold temperatures below 2 degrees/1.5 degrees C.
Clear and Powerful Message to Fossil Fuel Industry
The Paris Agreement sends a clear and powerful message to the fossil fuel industry: after decades of deception and denial, their efforts to block action on climate change are no longer working. Growing public concern about climate impacts, and the availability of cost-effective efficiency and renewable energy solutions are giving leaders the political will to stand up to fossil fuel polluters and to put us on a path to create the global clean energy economy needed to avoid the worst impacts of climate change.
But even if we succeed in holding the increase in global temperature well below 2 degrees Celsius, the impacts of climate change will continue to increase over the next several decades, as a result of global warming emissions over the last two centuries. Vulnerable countries require scaled-up assistance to cope with these impacts, which they had almost no responsibility for creating. While some progress was made on this front in Paris, much more remains to be done, and ramping up developed country public finance for both adaptation activities and responses to loss and damage — the costs of dealing with both sudden disasters like typhoons and floods, and slow-onset impacts like sea-level rise and droughts — must be a priority going forward. These issues need to be a major focus of the next Conference of the Parties meeting, to be held next November in Marrakech, Morocco.
Finally, let me express my thanks to the tremendous UCS team that worked so hard here in Paris —staff members Ashley Siefert, Doug Boucher, Jason Funk, Kathy Mulvey, Ken Kimmell, Peter Frumhoff, and Rachel Cleetus, as well as to our board chair, Anne Kapuscinski and our special delegation member, Texas Tech climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe. Thanks also to so many other UCS staff who weren’t here in Paris, but whose skillful analysis, advocacy, outreach, and public communications work helped contribute to this historic outcome in Paris. While we are by no means finished, I am convinced that years from now, Paris will be seen as the tipping point when the transition away from fossil fuels really picked up pace and the dawn of the age of renewables became inevitable. I am so grateful to be part of this amazing team of smart, savvy, and dedicated people.